Democrats Can't Keep Playing Not to Lose

Senate candidates ran timid midterm campaigns, relying on turnout and ignoring the issues they're passionate about. The resulting GOP wave is a warning to Hillary Clinton for 2016.

Jae C. Hong/AP

At a dinner in Iowa in November 2007, in the speech that launched his victory over Hillary Clinton, Barack Obama accused his party of timidity. “Not answering questions because we’re afraid our answers won’t be popular just won’t do it,” he thundered. “Triangulating and poll-driven positions because we’re worried about what Mitt or Rudy might say about us just won’t do it. If we are really serious about winning this election, Democrats, then we can’t live in fear of losing.”

This fall, Democrats ran like they were afraid of losing. Consider the issues that most Democrats think really matter: Climate change, which a United Nations report just warned will have “severe, pervasive and irreversible impacts” across the globe. The expansion of Medicaid, so millions of poor families have health coverage. Our immoral and incoherent immigration system. Our epidemic of gun violence, which produces a mini-Sandy Hook every few weeks. The rigging of America’s political and economic system by the 1 percent.

For the most part, Democratic candidates shied away from these issues because they were too controversial. Instead they stuck to topics that were safe, familiar, and broadly popular: the minimum wage, outsourcing, and the “war on women.” The result, for the most part, was homogenized, inauthentic, forgettable campaigns. Think about the Democrats who ran in contested seats Tuesday night: Grimes, Nunn, Hagan, Pryor, Hagan, Shaheen, Landrieu, Braley, Udall, Begich, Warner. During the entire campaign, did a single one of them have what Joe Klein once called a “Turnip Day moment”—a bold, spontaneous outbreak of genuine conviction? Did a single one unfetter himself or herself from the consultants and take a political risk to support something he or she passionately believed was right?

I’m not claiming that such displays would have changed the outcome. Given President Obama’s unpopularity, Democratic victories, especially in red states, may have been impossible.

But there is a crucial lesson here for 2016. In recent years, some Democrats have convinced themselves they can turn out African Americans, Latinos, single women, the poor, and the young merely by employing fancy computer systems and exploiting Republican extremism. But technologically, Republicans are catching up, and they’re getting shrewder about blunting, or at least masking, the harshness of their views.

We saw the consequences on Tuesday. According to exit polls, voters under 30 constituted only 13 percent of the electorate, down from 19 percent in 2012. In Florida, the Latino share of the electorate dropped from 17 to 13 percent. In North Carolina, the African-American share dropped from 23 to 21 percent.

If Hillary Clinton wants to reverse those numbers, she’s going to have to inspire people—people who, more than their Republican counterparts, are inclined toward disconnection and despair. And her gender alone won’t be enough. She lost to Obama in 2008 in part because she could not overcome her penchant for ultra-cautious, hyper-sanitized, consultant-speak. Yet on the stump this year, she was as deadening as the candidates she campaigned for. As Molly Ball put it in September, “Everywhere Hillary Clinton goes, a thousand cameras follow. Then she opens her mouth, and nothing happens.”

The midterms should be a warning that that won’t be good enough. In general, young people don’t have the same passion for Hillary that they had for Obama. Neither do African Americans. Neither do many liberals. If she’s going to rouse them to the polls in the same remarkable numbers that Obama did, she’s going to have to take the risk of actually saying something. She’s going to have to find a big issue that she truly cares about and speak about it with reckless conviction.

The Republican against whom Hillary runs in 2016 will campaign like George W. Bush in 2000. Rhetorically, at least, he will ooze compassion. He will sand off all his party’s hard edges. He will probably put a woman or minority on the ticket. He will campaign on non-threatening change, and simply by being a Republican, he will win older white voters by a vast margin.

To reassemble the Obama coalition against such a candidate, Hillary Clinton will have to become a different candidate than she was this fall. To win, she’s going to have to show there are subjects she cares about deeply enough to be willing to lose.