Fear and loathing can be great fun, but the Democrats are learning to their chagrin that resistance, estrangement and alienation can only take a party so far.
They’ve spent three quarters of the year luxuriating in Trump Derangement Syndrome, regaling each other with tales of how much they despise the man who beat them last year, playing the game of “show me yours and I’ll show you mine.” Every Democrat thinks his hatred of the president is bigger, brighter and better than anybody else’s.
But now it’s time, like it or not, to start thinking about suiting up for the midterm congressional elections, and how to build a little momentum for the long slog toward Nov. 8, 2020.
The early measurement everybody watches is money — “the mother’s milk of politics.” Even milk just this side of sour is acceptable, and so far this year the Republicans are scarfing up most of it.
‘Tis a puzzlement. “Halfway through year one of the Trump presidency,” says Michael Whitney in Politico, the Capitol Hill political daily, “the Democratic base is energized, voters are showing up at rallies, crowding town-hall forums, self-organizing into local groups and scaring Republican incumbents. If Democrats turn out to vote in the 2018 midterms at the same levels they have in 2017 special elections, the party will pick up 80 seats in the House.”
Enthusiasm is infectious, as the saying goes, and there’s still more than a year to go to get the millions infected, but an 80-seat pick-up is four times more than the most optimistic projections of the wiseheads of the consulting and chattering class. The Democrats need a net gain of 24 seats to put Nancy Pelosi back in charge of the House, and that seems plausible if not necessarily likely.
Over the first six months of this year the Republican National Committee collected $75 million, against $38 million for the Democrats, and most of the Republican loot was collected in small gifts, which are usually taken as signs of enthusiasm for the year ahead. This in turn is supposed to encourage the big donors, who are then more easily parted from their big checks. But so far — and here’s the really troubling Democratic news — the donors are exhausted and there’s not much ink left in their pens.
“Donors small and large are so over the party,” Jane Kleeb, the party chairman in Nebraska, told Politico at the autumn meeting of state chairmen in Las Vegas. “Everybody thinks that some magic three-page document and some magic tagline is going to turn everything around for us.”
The national party has a new leadership team in place, which may be an improvement over Debbie Wasserman Schultz who spent most of her energies trying to clear a path for Hillary Clinton, to the anger and rage of Bernard Sanders’ friends. But they’re green — and not in a good way — with no experience in running national political campaigns. The party elders, and some of them are elderly indeed, are keeping their distance. Even Barack Obama, still the largest cheese, has limited his fundraising for the national committee.
Tom Perez, the new national chairman, and his deputy, Keith Ellison, inherited a devastated party in the wake of Donald Trump’s unexpected victory. Calling the party “stunned” was for once a legitimate use of a cliche. Mr. Perez, the secretary of Labor in the Obama administration, had no experience as a fund-raiser, and the parties, Democrat and Republican, look to their chairmen as bag men, not philosophers. Mr. Perez is struggling up a steep learning curve, falling behind expectations for getting the party reorganized.
The president is responsible for some of that and for some of the fundraising woes. The noisy Democratic “resistance” has sapped so much of the big-donor money that the traditional repositories of fighting reserves are getting only a trickle of the juice. “When everybody with a printer and a letterhead can pose as a Trump-killer,” says one party advocate, “there’s not a lot of money left lying around for the party.”
“We’re all aware the money is not flowing in the way we hoped it would,” Alice Germond, a former secretary of the committee, says. The abundance of “resistance” groups with their begging bowls is something new “and it has been pretty overwhelming.”
The donors, like the rest of the party, were flummoxed by lurid expectations of success in several early special elections in Kansas, Montana and particularly in Georgia, and then the Republican won all of them. The collapse of Jon Ossoff in the Atlanta suburbs in June particularly depressed the big mules.
Big money is rarely a sucker for lost causes, and the big donors this year want more than wishes, promises and dreams. Those are always available, and cheap at the price.
• Wesley Pruden is editor in chief emeritus of The Times.
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