President Donald Trump waves as he leaves after speaking during a rally in Cedar Rapids, Iowa, on June 21, 2017.
Daniel Acker—Bloomberg/Getty Images
By Allan Lichtman
January 26, 2018
IDEAS
Lichtman, a professor of history at American University, is the author of The Case For Impeachment.

Once again Democrats seem poised to snatch defeat from the jaws of victory. Across the U.S. in an off-year election season, Democratic candidates reaped the benefits of voter revulsion over the incompetence and excesses of Donald Trump. Democrats won the governorships of New Jersey and Virginia, and gained at least 15 seats in the 100-member Virginia House of Delegates. The party won a U.S. Senate seat in deep-red Alabama, albeit against a flawed Republican. Democrats won a state senate seat by a ten-point blowout in a Wisconsin district that Trump had carried by 17 points in 2016. But Democrats are making the mistake of counting on anti-Trumpism to carry the party to victory in the 2018 midterm elections and the presidential contest of 2020.

The party desperately needs to develop a positive, uplifting message that doesn’t hinge on Trump-bashing and does capture grassroots attention. The Democrats must convincingly address people’s concerns about securing affordable health care, educating their children, living in safe communities and finding well-paying jobs in ways that aren’t rooted in fear. Without a compelling message, the victories of these off-year elections could become a faded memory.

A December 4 Gallup Poll that measured party identification, including leaning independents, reported what seemed like good news for Democrats. Forty-four percent of respondents identified as Democrats, compared to 37 percent who identified as Republicans, giving Democrats a solid 7 percentage-point advantage over their party rivals. But a deeper probe of those results reveals the problem facing the Democratic Party. People’s affiliation with the Democratic Party has stagnated at 44 percent during the tenure of the most unpopular first-year president in polling history. The party gained over Republicans in the view of the American people only because Republican identification has declined by 5 percentage points, dropping from 42 percent to 37 percent. GOP defectors are now identifying as true independents, not as Democrats. A CNN/SSRC poll taken in mid-January 2018, just before the shutdown, found that the Democratic lead in party preference for U.S. House elections among registered voters had fallen to just 5 percent, compared to 18 points in December.

An earlier poll, from ABC News/Washington Post in July, may explain why Democratic affiliation has not expanded under President Trump: uncertainty about what the Democratic Party offers the American people. Only 37 percent of respondents in the poll believed that the Democratic Party “stood for something.” A 52 percent majority believed that the party “just stands against Trump.”

As many pundits noted in the wake of Doug Jones’s victory in Alabama, African-American women turned out in extraordinary numbers to prevent the election of Republican Roy Moore, despite being disenfranchised by Republican efforts at voter suppression and feeling that they have been left adrift by the Democratic Party. “Mr. Jones’s victory should wake up the Democratic Party,” which black voters believe “takes them for granted,” wrote Kashana Cauley in the New York Times. “Democrats cannot win without black voters and they must not take our votes for granted. The days of symbolic talk and empty gestures are over. Deliver or pay the price,” wrote Eddie Glaude for TIME.

There is still time for a Democratic turnabout, but the party needs to act now — right now. In response to the bitterly unpopular Republican tax proposals, the Democrats have relied mainly on negative messaging. An alternative tax reform plan, devised by Democratic Senators Tammy Baldwin of Wisconsin and Cory Booker of New Jersey, that would preserve the Affordable Care Act and benefit the middle class instead of the rich has barely seen the light of day beyond progressive publications and websites.

Even Republicans have conceded that their tax plans are crafted to benefit their wealthy donors, not middle-class Americans. “My donors are basically saying, ‘Get it done or don’t ever call me again,’” Republican Representative Chris Collins of New York told The Hill when Republicans were putting their tax plan together in November. Republican Senator Lindsay Graham of South Carolina agreed, telling reporters that the “financial contributions will stop” if the party fails to deliver corporate tax cuts.

It’s time to bring on the offense rather than the defense. The Democrats should devise and present appealing alternatives to Republican ideas, not just on the issues listed above, but also on climate change and the environment — where, as an Atlantic headline blared, “Democrats Are Shockingly Unprepared” — voting and civil rights, urban and rural poverty, addiction, infrastructure, and immigration, another area in which Democrats have lost their way.

Democrats don’t have to worry about getting their plans through a Republican Congress. So, they are free to design their own dream programs. But as the tax reform example demonstrates, policy papers alone will not suffice. Democrats must package and present their ideas effectively to the broad public, like Republicans did with their “Contract With America,” that preceded historic GOP gains in the midterm elections of 1994.

The Democratic turnabout can only be achieved with new leadership. The old guard of Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer and House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, who botched the shutdown debate, lack the vision to revitalize the party. The Democratic Party has a strong bench of new leaders in national office. Senators like Baldwin and Booker, Kamala Harris of California, Amy Klobuchar of Minnesota and Kirsten Gillibrand of New York are well-positioned to bring forth the dream blueprints that the Democrats need so badly. So too are Representatives like Adam Schiff and Ted Lieu of California, Stephanie Murphy of Florida, and Seth Moulton and Joe Kennedy III of Massachusetts, who will deliver the official Democratic response to the State of the Union address.

The possibility of a presidential candidacy by Oprah Winfrey understandably has excited many grassroots Democrats. Winfrey has extraordinary name recognition, a fortune nearly equal to Donald Trump’s, media savvy and a positive public image. Donald Trump’s victory already proved that a candidate need not have experience in government to win a presidential contest. But 2020 is far, far away.

Jimmy Carter, Bill Clinton and Barack Obama all were background players before they burst onto the political scene to capture the public’s imagination. Contrarily, conventional but well-known Democratic Party leaders like Walter Mondale, Michael Dukakis, John Kerry and Hillary Clinton have failed to capture the Oval Office.

The future of the Democratic party is now. The grassroots understand this simple fact. It is time for the politicians to get back to them, and catch up.

Contact us at editors@time.com.

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