OPINION — For those of you who read this column regularly, you’ve heard me often urge Republicans to put their focus on building a broader majority coalition through a more positive political strategy. It’s the best path to electoral victory instead of relying heavily on negative campaigns.
But watching the Democrats over the last few weeks lurch from impeachment to progressive economics to armchair quarterbacking the president’s decision to take out one of the world’s worst actors has left me scratching my head. When it comes to their almost complete reliance on harsh and personal attacks against Donald Trump and the GOP, I find myself asking, “What are they thinking?”
Or has the Democrats’ strategic messaging devolved into nothing more than a kind of reflexive negativity that is beginning to define their party, their leadership and their presidential field? If Trump is for it, they are against it, regardless of the issue. If Trump or Republicans might benefit from a piece of legislation, then there must be something wrong with it. Time to block action even when the real beneficiaries are the American people.
Their take on the economy is a good example. In the Democrats’ alternative world, their idea of economic policy boils down to who and how much they can tax. Financial success in the minds of Elizabeth Warren and Bernie Sanders and the party’s base is now seen as nearly criminal, while Joe Biden and Pete Buttigieg try to straddle the fence with progressive-lite economic policy proposals they hope will be enough to satisfy the base’s seemingly insatiable appetite for punishing the successful. And all of them are making this argument in the face of one of the strongest economies in recent memory.
When asked, in the last debate, about top economists who criticized her tax plan as likely to stifle growth and investment, Warren blithely responded, “Oh. They’re just wrong.”
In the same debate, Biden, in a remarkably Hillary-like comment, said he would be willing to sacrifice perhaps hundreds of thousands of blue-collar jobs, as the moderator put it, to transition to a greener economy.
Buttigieg admits that taxes on the rich and corporations “have to go up.”
And Sanders proudly claims himself an avowed socialist. Enough said.
Contrast this positioning with today’s strong economy, delivering more jobs and higher wages, and Democrats look weaker and more divided than ever. Not even their mutual hatred of Trump can cover what has become a growing rift, if not a dangerous chasm, between the so-called moderate (“Everything is relative”) and progressive wings of the Democratic Party.
Just this week, Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, an enthusiastic Sanders supporter and spokesperson, apparently groaned when asked by New York magazine about her role during a potential Biden administration.
“Oh, God,” she told the publication. “In any other country, Joe Biden and I would not be in the same party, but in America, we are.” But she didn’t stop there.
The freshman New Yorker took a shot at her party’s congressional leadership and then aimed her fire on the Congressional Progressive Caucus, arguing for the ouster of those without the proper liberal credentials. “They let anybody who the cat dragged in call themselves a progressive. There’s no standard,” she charged.
She capped off her critique with a decidedly undemocratic suggestion that maybe the Democratic Party “can be too big of a tent.” Too big a tent? What a perfect gift to Republicans to kick off the new year.
The loudest voice in the Democrats’ progressive wing just laid down a very big marker to potential party candidates, members of Congress and voters. Conform to our progressive ideology as we define it or you’re not really welcome in our party. Of course, one might ask, who died and made AOC the ideological enforcer of the Democratic Party?
Moreover, this inflexible, negative attitude hasn’t just permeated the progressive base. It also seems to be driving center-left candidates into taking more and more extreme positions, whether it’s economic proposals, the Green New Deal or “Medicare for All.”
A recipe for failure
Here’s what AOC and her like-minded progressives don’t seem to understand: That kind of rigid thinking doesn’t build winning coalitions. It’s what loses elections. A fact Republicans ought to remember as well.
It’s also worth mentioning that comments like these from AOC and her earlier shots at Biden come in the midst of a primary season that is both chaotic and unpredictable. No one has emerged as the likely nominee, and we’re a month away from the Iowa caucuses.
The Democrats may well end their primary process without a clear nominee, and we could see a brokered convention with more than one ballot. If second-ballot superdelegates — establishment Democrats, for the most part — deny the progressive wing its choice for the second time in four years, what is now a divide within the party could become a veritable abyss. Party leaders should be worrying about what AOC would have to say if that possible scenario plays out.
In the ashes of a brokered convention, what needs to be a Democratic lovefest in November could easily become fear and loathing in Milwaukee in July. Wallowing in negativity and spouting anti-everything rhetoric isn’t helping Democrats get ahead. Polling numbers show a stagnant primary race; a failing impeachment; and, this week, a confusing response to the president’s decision to rid the world of another important and deadly terrorist. Moreover, the Democrats’ constant attacks on this solid economy seem to ignore reality for the very voters they need to invite into the tent — independents and moderates.
With a strategy of “all negative, all the time,” Democrats are giving Republicans the opportunity to build a broader, winning coalition — but only if the GOP offers voters a positive alternative to believe in.
David Winston is the president of The Winston Group and a longtime adviser to congressional Republicans. He previously served as the director of planning for Speaker Newt Gingrich. He advises Fortune 100 companies, foundations, and nonprofit organizations on strategic planning and public policy issues, and is an election analyst for CBS News.