Many Democrats hope the massive demonstrations against Donald Trump will evolve into a Democratic tea party. Sloppy rollouts of incoherent policy dressed in malevolence can rile people up.
But Democrats must first understand what made the tea party powerful. Its great success came not from the members’ anger but from the ability to turn that anger into a show of force on Election Day.
Tea party people vote. They vote in midterm congressional elections. They vote for state reps and for mayors and for judges. They show up.
Democratic constituencies famously disappear in off-presidential years. That said, the party did take control of Congress in the 2006 midterms. To get there in 2018, though, it must first replace the party’s somnolent leadership.
Given the Democrats’ generally dismal performance in the recent congressional races, it was surprising how easily Nancy Pelosi retained her post as House minority leader. She had a competent challenger in Tim Ryan, who was just re-elected in an industrial Ohio district that Trump handily won.
For evidence of the national party’s failure, look no further than Texas’ 7th Congressional District. Hillary Clinton won the 7th, which covers wealthy parts of Houston and its suburbs and has been trending Democratic. But the Democratic candidate for Congress, James Cargas, lost after receiving virtually no support from national Democrats.
Cargas had only $62,000 to spend on his campaign against incumbent John Culberson’s $1.9 million. He still managed to pull in 44 percent of the vote. Imagine if the national party had actually tried.
Some state Democratic organizations have all but flatlined.
In the pivotal state of Wisconsin, the party “couldn’t be bothered to recruit a candidate to take on conservative state Supreme Court Justice Annette Ziegler,” writes editorial page editor David D. Haynes in the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel. And in one of the state’s most Democratic counties, it failed to find people to challenge Republican Gov. Scott Walker’s circuit court appointees.
Though Democrats’ gloom may lighten at panoramic shots of throngs protesting Trump’s latest outrage, the party must recognize that crowds, in and of themselves, don’t necessarily translate into votes. Trump had crowds but lost the popular count to Clinton by millions of votes — and so, for that matter, did Bernie Sanders.
If these marches lead to grass-roots organizing, that could be a swell thing for Democrats. But as mere spectacle, protests can grow old. They attract vendors of narrow ethnic, gender and other identity interests uninterested in big-tent politics. They occasionally provide a stage for anti-social behavior. And they inconvenience motorists, businesses and locals in their path.
The good news for Democrats is that they have new blood clamoring to run for office. Interest is especially high in the 22 districts that voted for Clinton but elected Republicans to Congress. Many are in former Republican Sun Belt strongholds in Arizona, Texas, Florida and Southern California.
With the public growing increasingly restive over Trump’s disruptive antics, it’s possible that Republicans will fix the Trump problem themselves. It is not the mission here to discuss what Republicans could do about Trump, but there are various tools at their disposal.
So it’s early for Democrats to count on Republicans’ letting Trump continue his reckless joy ride to a disastrous conclusion. For the good of the country, none of us should want that ending.
But whether the politics are normal or abnormal, it’s a truism that you can’t win it if you’re not in it. In too many places, Democrats are perilously close to becoming a PINO, party in name only. Opportunity knocks, but you can’t open the door if you don’t get out of bed.
Email Froma Harrop at firstname.lastname@example.org.