In 1994, seeking to wrest control of the House from Democrats, Republicans ran on the “Contract With America,” a conservative agenda, or at least a set of talking points, to rally their base. In 2018, Democrats head into the midterms running on the contract with Stormy Daniels.
It’s not their choice. In fact, the party is percolating with debates on the ways and means to achieve full employment, higher wages, universal health care, financial regulation and a reversal of the decades-long concentration of wealth and power in an American over-class.
How aggressive the party will be in pursuing those goals remains to be seen. But discussions are under way, and one of the odd offshoots of a manifestly unfit president is that the window of possibility organically expands. Once you’ve experienced the reality of President Donald Trump, the idea of a universal basic income, let alone universal health care, is far from the most outlandish thing to come along.
The Democratic grassroots are shaking with energy. In a series of special elections across the country, in a range of districts, Democrats have consistently outperformed results in previous elections. Money is flowing to Democrats challenging Republican incumbents, and a new cadre of activists is taking charge of local elections. Most election analysts give the party even odds, maybe better, of taking back the House. Control of the Senate could even be contested.
None of this matters, or registers, in public discourse, which is dominated by the various scandals, falsehoods, missteps, cover-ups, firings, hirings, incoherence, pathos, threats and random crude exertions of the Trump administration. The Free Beacon features an article by Matthew Continetti headlined “The Media is Killing the Democratic Party.” Continetti cites (slightly) rising approval ratings for Trump and a declining preference for congressional Democrats in recent polls to reach the conclusion that the Stormy Daniels scandal is sucking the life out of the Democrats’ message.
Good for Continetti for dispensing with the conservative trope that the news media spends its time scheming to elect Democrats. But given the scale of corruption and chaos that Trump generates — they are the yin and yang of his world — and the threat that this combination poses to the presidency and the nation, the media can hardly look away.
Trump has overwhelmed the news industry, exhausting capacity and journalists alike. Environmental Protection Agency Administrator Scott Pruitt has been the subject of more legitimate corruption stories in the past couple months than eight years of President Barack Obama’s full Cabinet combined. Pruitt’s ethics scandals demand so much attention that reports on his toxic influence on U.S. environmental policy are overlooked.
Like everyone else, Democrats in Washington are mostly watching from the bleachers. Republicans appear to have stopped legislating for the year. They have divided their duties between the Senate, a processing center devoted to the speedy installation of white male conservatives on the federal judiciary, and the House, which is in charge of bolstering the shaky executive in the White House.
Democratic leaders can shout, they can plot, but they can’t command much attention — regardless of their message. Captives of Trump’s chaos, they wait to see if he falls and, if he does, what kind of safety net congressional Republicans provide him.
Political messages, fundraising and field organizing still matter in individual states and districts. (Democrats who resort to casual talk of impeachment are unlikely to be Democrats in tight races.) And the grassroots energy that has powered Democrats in special elections is unlikely to dissipate by the fall.
But it’s unclear what national message Democrats could muster, or how it would resonate amid the all-encompassing sleaze. That, and whatever conclusions that the special counsel draws about it, will be the context in which every campaign is waged.
Trump gave voters every reason to believe he would be as dishonest and incompetent as he has in fact turned out to be. Yet 63 million signed on to a four-year deal anyway. The terms of that deal are up for renegotiation in November. What Democrats say in the meantime matters. But maybe not much.
Wilkinson writes editorials on politics and U.S. domestic policy for Bloomberg Opinion. He was executive editor of the Week. He was previously a writer for Rolling Stone, a communications consultant and a political media strategist.