By spring, Bush’s plan was deader than disco—and stayed dead despite his efforts to revive it, which ran right through the 2006 midterms. That November, Democrats retook both chambers of Congress in a wave election that startled pretty much everyone.
This is not to suggest Bush’s Social Security bellyflop prompted the Democrats’ electoral sweep (though denying the president a key policy win did aid the cause). Broadly, 2006 was a referendum on Bush 43’s job approval, which had taken a major hit thanks to his shabby handling of Hurricane Katrina and, more importantly, his Iraq war folly. Democrats beat those drums hard. They also spotlighted a string of nasty scandals plaguing congressional Republicans during that period. (Anyone recall Mark Foley’s penchant for teenage House pages?)
And so Democrats carried the day, despite having put forth nothing remotely approaching a grand governing message, or even a cohesive brand identity. As Time magazine noted at the time:
Democrats won't be taking over control of Congress with a blueprint for how to capture the biggest prize, the presidency in 2008. The reason is simple: apart from the fact that they faced an unpopular President and an unpopular ruling party both blamed for a very unpopular war, the Democrats already can't agree on why they won.
As it so often the case in such cycles, they did not need to.
“You always have to tell voters what you’re for,” said Drew Hammill, deputy chief of staff to Pelosi. That said, he acknowledged that it is a question of priorities. “The mid-term is typically a referendum on the president. When you’re in the opposition, you want to take his numbers down before you start talking about anything positive.”
Pelosi has long used a “Tylenol versus Advil” analogy to explain the imperatives of negative branding, said Hammill. “She points out that, when you look at a Tylenol or Advil commercial, they are always attacking each other. There is usually a specific mention of the other brand.” Once you’ve decimated the competition, said Hammill, “then you talk about what is good about yourself.”
So, sure, Democrats will want to work a little on that whole identity crisis. (Not that Republicans dealt with theirs last cycle.) “The entirety of the Democratic vision for 2018 and 2020 cannot be simply, We are not Donald Trump,” insisted the Senate aide.
But, for now at least, the party shouldn’t expend too much time or energy fretting about the big picture. Nothing mobilizes voters like an inspirational enemy, and in Trump, Democrats have found themselves a world-class one.
In midterm politics, as in pain relief, rule No. 1 is to destroy the other guy’s credibility. You can sort the rest out later.