As protests erupted across the nation in 2017 in response to the GOP’s health care repeal bill, the calculation House Democrats made quite early was that they could win on health care. And within that framework more specifically, they chose to focus on two aspects of the health care fight: pre-existing conditions coverage, which had near universal support; and what they called an “age-tax,” because the GOP bill would have allowed insurers to charge older Americans higher premiums. They focused on these two issues over focusing on Planned Parenthood and Medicaid because their internal polling said the former issues would be more politically potent.
This is what I think of as a smart use of polling. Health care was already in the Democratic wheelhouse—it was a natural for them and they rightly have an interest in protecting and building upon the Affordable Care Act they enacted at great political cost in 2010. So yes, find the most resonant talking points that allow you to achieve that goal and emphasize them, even if they’re not your instinctual arguments.
As Pelosi explained the day after the election: “We made our own environment because we knew how important health care was.” It’s no accident that Republicans across the nation spent their final weeks trying to explain and/or rewrite history on their votes to repeal the Affordable Care Act.
Anyone who reads my work regularly knows that I do my fair share of criticizing Democrats when I think they’re missing the boat. But here, they deserve a ton of praise in my estimation. Not only did they decide on a game plan and then stick to their play book, they refused to be baited into playing Trump’s game. As everyone is well aware, that took a Herculean effort, as Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee Ben Ray Luján of New Mexico admitted.
“Every time he would say something or tweet something, it would come back: ‘We need to come right back at him! Define him!’” Luján said. But the answer was always “no.” Instead, leadership responded, “We need to continue to have a conversation with the American people about kitchen-table issues.”
I have been thinking a lot about what type of Democratic candidate and strategy could provide the winning formula for 2020. Even before the midterms I had begun to think the Democratic nominee would need to be someone who was so focused and so grounded in their own message that they wouldn’t get knocked off course by Trump. Now I am more convinced of that than ever. If you compare all the candidates Trump took down in 2016—Republican and Democratic alike—they all took him head-on to some extent. Every one of them allowed themselves, or in some cases made the strategic decision, to get drawn into this game and they all lost because of it.
Forget for a second about someone fitting into a certain set of criteria. Let’s take it as a given that whoever becomes the Democratic nominee will be sufficiently left of center and most certainly better than Trump. I have become convinced that in 2020, in particular, the nominee’s race, gender, sexual orientation, and list of policy positions is less important than how rooted they are in their worldview, their vision for America, and their understanding of how they themselves are indeed integral to helping the country achieve that vision.
In short, we need someone who demonstrates the poise of Pelosi and her Democrats in the midst of Trump’s maelstrom. This cycle, House Democrats simply let Trump be Trump and played their own game. It’s less Michelle Obama’s “When they go low, we go high,” and more, “Whatever. You do you, we’re playing our own damn game.” That was a winner for Democrats this cycle and it sets the path for 2020. To me, it seems far more important than nominating someone who can “hit back.” That has proven to be a losing proposition with Trump every time.
We do need more of an overarching message than simply we want to expand health care, create good-paying jobs, and clean up corruption. Those were fine points for the midterms and they worked. But the real brilliance of the House Democrats’ campaign came in their refusal to be distracted by Trump. Now we need to watch and wait for the person who can fold those type of policy points into a larger narrative that Americans both want to believe and invest in.