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Jon Ossoff’s Georgia special election loss shows Democrats could use a substantive agenda

Jon Ossoff’s narrow loss in the Georgia House special election seat will come as a crushing emotional blow to Democrats even though it hardly dooms their hopes to take back Congress next year.

To gain a majority, Democrats need to find a way to win races in districts like this one — traditional Republican bastions endangered by Donald Trump’s weakness with college graduates — but they don’t need to sweep them all by any means. Ossoff was the best recruit Democrats had available in the district, but a guy with no elective experience whose house lies just outside the district boundaries is hardly an ideal candidate.

To win in 2018, Democrats will have to find opportunities to do better, but it’s certainly an achievable goal. The fact that the district was competitive is a sign that the GOP majority is at risk; the question is simply what can Democrats do to put themselves over the top?

One thing they might want to try is developing a substantive policy agenda to run on. They came close this time, and they’ll just need to put forth an attractive package for voters in the 2018 midterms.

Ossoff lost over nonsense

Ossoff, like so many losing Democratic candidates over the years, was brought down fundamentally by arguments grounded in identity politics.

Karen Handel didn’t argue that the Republican Party’s health care bill is a good idea (it’s very unpopular) or that tax cuts for millionaires should be the country’s top economic priority (another policy that polls dismally). Instead, her campaign and its allies buried Ossoff under a pile of what basically amounts to nonsense — stuff about Kathy Griffin, stuff about Samuel L. Jackson, stuff about his home being just over the district line, stuff about him having raised money from out of state — lumped together under the broad heading that he’s an “outsider.”

Much of this was unfair or ridiculous. And the stuff that wasn’t unfair — like the location of his home — is honestly pretty silly. None of this has anything to do with the lives of actual people living in the suburbs of Atlanta or anywhere else.

Ossoff’s team was aware, of course, that the district is not accustomed to voting for Democrats and that he was vulnerable to this kind of attack. They attempted to counter this move by positioning Ossoff as blandly as possible — just a kind of nice guy who doesn’t like Donald Trump — and dissociating him from any hard-edged ideas or themes. It’s a strategy that makes a certain amount of sense, but it also makes it hard to mobilize potential supporters. And by lowering the concrete stakes in the election, it also makes it easier for trivial and pseudo-issues to end up dominating in the end.

The establishment’s map, the populists’ message

An important subtext of both the special election in Georgia and the earlier House special election in Montana was a continuation of the primary season argument between Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders.

In the wake of Clinton’s defeat, Sanders’s camp tended to argue that tactically, Democrats needed to do more to “win back” white working-class voters who’d defected from the party. Naturally, they felt the way to accomplish that was by adopting new more left-wing stances on economic issues. Clinton’s camp tended to argue that tactically, Democrats needed to continue the strategy of targeting the kinds of places where Trump underperformed — districts with large minority populations and/or highly educated white populations. Naturally, they felt the way to accomplish that was by adopting a Clinton-esque message focused on pragmatism and downplaying ideology.

Ossoff falling short — while coming closer than Rob Quist — and Jeremy Corbyn’s surprisingly strong showing in the recent UK election suggest a possible synthesis of these views.

Corbyn’s electoral map, in the end, turns out to look a lot like Hillary Clinton’s. He did well in the most diverse and most educated parts of the United Kingdom and worst among older voters. Whites with college degrees, in short, weren’t secretly dreaming of socialism. At the same time, running on a bold progressive policy agenda didn’t stop him from picking up support in exactly the kind of upscale precincts that the Democratic establishment has been trying to target. And it did succeed in doing what post-Obama Democrats have failed to do — engage young voters and encourage them to come to the polls.

But perhaps most of all, running on a bold policy agenda helped focus voters’ minds on policy rather than on the (extremely long) list of controversial Corbyn statements and associations from past years. Pundits had long expected Corbyn to get crushed at the polls, and had Theresa May succeeded in running an election focused on the Falklands War, the Irish Republican Army, and unilateral nuclear disarmament, she would have won. But instead, the UK ended up with a campaign about promises to nationalize utilities, eliminate university tuition, and raise taxes.

Ossoff’s effort to stay bland and inoffensive let hazy personal and culture war issues dominate the campaign — and even in a relatively weak Trump district, that was still a winning formula for Republicans.

What do Democrats want to do?

A chief of staff on Capitol Hill observed to me Tuesday morning that absolutely every faction in the Democratic Party — from Third Way to the Berniecrats — thinks Democrats “need a positive economic vision,” and not just to talk about Trump. The DCCC’s analysts agree.

“But when the rubber hit the road,” the chief of staff said, “we didn't produce a positive alternative on health care.”

Not exactly because Democrats don’t have any ideas of how to make the American health care system better. But because in some respects they have too many ideas — ranging from small tweaks to improve the functioning of the Affordable Care Act to the idea of radically transforming the entire health care system by having taxpayers foot the bill for everyone’s insurance. The easiest way to maintain party unity was to stick with what Democrats could agree on — that financing an enormous tax cut for the rich with stark cuts to Medicaid and deregulation of the insurance industry was a terrible idea.

Still, it should be sobering to Democrats that a CBS News poll released Tuesday morning filled with devastatingly bad approval numbers for the Trump administration found that only 31 percent of voters thought a Democratic takeover of Congress would make their lives better.

If your opponents are unpopular enough, it’s certainly possible to win elections this way. But especially for the party that has a more difficult time inspiring its supporters to turn out to vote, that’s an ominous sign. Right now on health care and many other issues, Democrats suffer from a cacophony of white papers and a paucity of unity around any kind of vision or story they want to paint of what is wrong with America today and what is the better country they want to build for the future. And until they do, they’re going to struggle to mobilize supporters in the way they need to win tough races.