Democrats Continue to Learn All the Wrong Lessons from Recent Successes

By any measure, Democrats had a successful Election Night last week. They picked up legislative seats in competitive states like Colorado, they expanded their supermajority in the New Jersey state legislature, and most importantly, they held off a last-minute challenge in the Virginia governor’s race. But Democrats are at risk of drinking their own Kool-Aid, believing that these scant wins are a certain harbinger of a coming wave election. Such hubris could spell their demise in the crucial 2018 midterms.

The Virginia gubernatorial race feels instructive. In a state that has been trending blue Democrats nevertheless ran a moderate candidate who took pains to distance himself from anti-pipeline environmentalists and the left’s corrosive positions on sanctuary cities. Those and myriad other policy positions earned him scorn from the progressive elite, but they also made him a difficult target for his Republican opponent.

“Northam was not the candidate Republicans hoped to see emerge from his Democratic Party primary contest against liberal darling Tom Perriello,” Ed Rogers writes for the Washington Post. “Unlike the new-era Bernie-ites who have no sense of how government works (Georgia’s Jon Ossoff comes immediately to mind, Northam is an experienced, sensible and mostly thoughtful candidate.”

In other words, he’s not the kind of candidate that Democrats are likely to nominate very much of in the near future. Rare is the candidate in today’s Democratic Party that can claim to have voted for George W. Bush, oppose sanctuary cities, prioritize sustainable government spending, and refuse to play up identity politics. But that was Northam. And right now he’s looking unique. Doug Sosnik, a political strategist and former senior advisor to President Bill Clinton, explains in The Washington Post:

There’s been lots of talk about a supposed civil war brewing within the Democratic Party, as its centrist and progressive wings vie for power. But at least as a matter of presidential politics, this talk isn’t premature — it’s too late. The war may not have been won but the eventual victor is clear: By the end of the 2020 presidential primaries, an increasingly liberal grass-roots activist base is likely to have gained full control of the party. …

It is difficult to overstate the depth and breadth of the move to the left on social and economic policies among Democrats since Bill Clinton’s presidency. The Pew Values Survey released last month found that the percentage of Democrats and Democratic leaners who express liberal or mostly liberal political values exploded from 30 percent in 1994 to 73 percent in 2017.

One of the dynamics fueling this trend, as Sosnik goes on to explain, is that liberals are increasingly “self-selecting” where they live and with whom they choose to live near. In other words, liberals are clustering in urban coastal enclaves, leaving much of the country increasingly conservative. But as liberals surround themselves with more liberals they are apt to choose increasingly progressive political leaders, thus pushing the party further from the mainstream and away from the values of the rest of the country.

After all, there is a reason that the Democrats’ standard bearer is a self-identified “democratic socialist” from Vermont, who coincidentally refused to endorse Northam. Sadly, Democrats will inevitably learn all the wrong lessons from their recent successes. Rather than recognize the need to select moderate candidates who can compete in states’ rural regions, they’ll surely feel confident that Americans have finally bought into their #resistance. But David Leonhardt, writing for the New York Times, throws a cold glass of water on that hubris:

The reality is, the Democratic victories occurred almost entirely in areas that had voted for Hillary Clinton last year. In Trump country, Democrats continued to struggle.

Outside of highly educated suburbs and racially diverse cities, Democrats still do not have an effective response to Trumpism. And they need one. To build a national coalition — one with the power to pass policies that can help the middle class, protect civil rights and combat climate change — Democrats have to do better in whiter, more rural areas.

Virginia — the focus of attention last week and a blue-leaning state — highlights both the good and the bad. The Democratic margins in suburbs and cities were smashing, thanks to a surge in turnout. Elsewhere, though, the situation was very different.

Ralph Northam, the Democratic governor-elect, didn’t only lose outside of the big metropolitan areas, and badly. He lost by more than the previous Democratic nominee, Gov. Terry McAuliffe, had in 2013. Of Virginia’s 133 counties and cities, Northam fared worse than McAuliffe in 89 of them.

In other words, Democrats may have won the battle, but they’re still losing the war for middle- and working-class voters that fill rural America. Rather than make inroads into these one-time strongholds, their recent successes are just evidence that their relying ever more on their urban cloisters.