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Fire and Fury is Entertaining, But...

Donald Trump never ceases to entertain. The Wolff book rings true, with its jaw-dropping portrait of chaos and intrigue, warring White House factions and infantile narcissism – it’s simultaneously funny and terrifying.

This is the story of the Trump presidency:  a haunted house where every room is more startlingly macabre than the next. And so we Democrats gape and guffaw, wondering what bizarre thing will happen next, following his tweets and the news coverage just as fervently as any Trump loyalist.

I don’t think that this is particularly healthy or useful, but I’ve given up trying to get people to stop. It’s like the car wreck you can’t look away from. 

Some Democrats argue that their party is doing fine just letting Trump and the GOP self-destruct, that neither Virginia gubernatorial candidate Ralph Northam nor Alabama Senate candidate Doug Jones ran on a particularly bold agenda and they won big races. The argument goes that Trump’s approval numbers are in the toilet; Democrats are coming out strongly to beat him; and a lot of Republicans are discouraged and staying home. When you are ahead, they say, don’t take risks. 

Of course, that was failed Georgia candidate Jon Ossoff’s $40 million-dollar messaging strategy, too. And before that, it was the philosophy of Hillary’s campaign, whose sophisticated analytic models had, they thought, assured them of victory.  

This has been the standard Democratic formula not just in the Trump years, but for the last quarter century or so. Part of the argument I am going to make is that this play-it-safe philosophy hurts us in good Democratic years as well as bad ones. One of the striking things about wave elections, both Republican and Democrat, since the early 1990s, is that Republicans made far bigger gains in their wave elections than we did in ours. For example, in the biggest wave years for Democrats (2006 and 2008), we won an average of 26 U.S. House seats. In the biggest Republican wave years (1994 and 2010), they won an average of 58.5 seats, more than twice as many.

Here’s why:  in wave elections, what is happening is that one side’s base gets discouraged and their voter turnout lessens, and the other side gets pumped up and turns out at higher than usual rates. That is exactly what has been happening for Democrats in this cycle. Our folks are turning out, theirs not so much. But Republican strategy when a wave starts building is to double down on right wing rhetoric and issues, and try to get their base motivated. When a wave is building against Democrats, what they tend to do is to run away from the party label and avoid taking tough stands on issues -- which further depresses the Democratic base.

Remember the Kentucky Senate race in 2014, when Alison Lundergan Grimes refused to answer questions about whether she had voted for Obama? Before that happened she had been running neck and neck in the polls with Mitch McConnell. After that, her support cratered and she ended up losing by more than 15 points. This was the crown jewel of bad Democratic strategy in a very bad year for Democrats.

We can take nothing for granted, but as of this moment, it looks like Democrats could have the wind at their backs in 2018. We have a great chance at making gains this cycle, but to turn a solid year into a wave, you need to have genuine excitement and passion among Democratic leaning voters, and as we learned in 2016, you can’t do that just by bashing Trump and playing it safe. We need a message that inspires and motivates, a message around building the future since the Republicans obviously represent the past. We need an agenda about creating jobs, lifting wages, and fighting back against the big money special interests.

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