On Wednesday, former Secretary of State John Kerry savaged President Trump, arguing that he is undermining U.S. leadership in the world with catastrophic consequences for human rights, global stability, and American power—and that he risks a needless war by withdrawing from the Iran deal. “If your house is burning down, do you say to the fire department, ‘Don’t put the fire out, because it may burn down again in 15 years?’” he asked. “That’s where we were with Iran. We put out the fire. And Trump has lit the fire again.”

Still, when turning to electoral politics, Kerry proceeded to urge his fellow Democrats to stop focusing on Trump, or on defeating him in 2020, in favor of an overwhelming focus on what he regards as easily the number one political priority. “I don’t think 2020 matters today,” he said. “There’s one thing that matters today: winning control of the United States Congress in 2018.”

To do so, he told an audience at the Aspen Ideas Festival, co-hosted by the Aspen Institute and The Atlantic, “we’ve got to stop the day-to-day bloviating over our dislike of the daily tweets and all the problems that we see and start connecting to Americans, so that it’s not just buzz words out there about the international order, or the post World War II global structures, which are critical—but if we don’t define to people how those make a difference to their lives, it’s not going to matter … We have to reconnect to the average life daily struggle of Americans who are finding that globalization or Congress doesn’t work for them.”  

In his telling, the GOP’s 1994 takeover of the House transformed Congress.

“That was the beginning of a change in the Senate,” he said. In his recollection, senators from different parties would convene socially, discuss the issues of the day, and find themselves cooperating to get things done on the Senate floor.

“What began to happen is a vilification,” he said, “a party orthodoxy—an ideological orthodoxy is a better way to put it—began to set in that said, ‘Don’t work with those guys, they’re the enemy, we have to have power and control.’ The orthodoxy worked by promising people in the base, we’re going to lower your taxes, we’re going to have less regulation, we’re going to get rid of Roe v. Wade, we’re going to have smaller government. But it didn’t happen. Then you had the Tea Party come along because people were pissed off, and then they didn’t deliver. Then the Freedom Caucus came along, and that didn’t work either.”

He sees Donald Trump as “a hostile takeover of the Republican Party that came about because people were so angry and fed up on both sides of the aisle.” And “the test for all of us,” he said, “is whether we can put together the kind of door-to-door, grassroots, energized political effort that brings real solutions to real problems that affect people’s lives and bring Americans back together again.”

Andrea Mitchell, his interviewer, asked, “What should the message be?”

“I had a professor at Yale University who told me that all politics is a response to felt needs,” he said. “Over my long years in public life I have discovered what that really means. If you don’t respond adequately to those felt needs, you get kicked out, ultimately, or there’s a revolution that you don’t like. It’s pretty simple stuff, folks, and the U.S. Congress is not being responsive to felt needs.”

He continued:

Everybody has an interest in doing better on the border, doing better on immigration, having a solution. Everybody needs to make sure our education system is working, health care is working. Instead of just grafting off these polarized positions we have to go out and fight for a genuine agenda.

And I’ll tell you, when I first came back from Vietnam, I didn’t protest the war immediately, I got involved in Earth Day. 20 million Americans got out of their homes and then targeted the 12 worst folks in Congress, we defeated seven of the 12, and with that Richard Nixon gave us the EPA. We had a Clean Air Act, a Safe Drinking Water Act, Coastal Zone Management. Run the list. It happened because we made those needs the lead issues, and that’s exactly my judgment of the secret to gaining back our country.

That may be good advice. I wouldn’t dismiss any of it. But I remain rather unclear on how exactly Kerry would have Democrats attempt to win the 2018 midterms.

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