Jon Ossoff's centrist campaign came up short. (Photo by Joe Raedle/Getty Images)

Ossoff’s Loss Is Further Proof: Democrats’ Path to Power Is Through Moving Left, Not Center

The results in Georgia show that the Trump resistance can show up to the polls, but centrism isn’t a strategy to win.

BY Theo Anderson

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There is a clearly marked and well-known path to new life for the Democratic Party: embrace and run on a bold, progressive agenda.

Republicans love to point to their success at the ballot box as proof of their vitality. A party that controls a majority of statehouses and the U.S. Congress, along with the Supreme Court and the presidency, must have the most popular ideas. Right?

So the theory goes. And there was more evidence for it on Tuesday, as Republican Karen Handel beat Democrat Jon Ossoff in the special election for Georgia’s 6th District.

For a party that’s so successful, though, the GOP sure doesn’t have much confidence in its policies. Hunkered down in a closed-off D.C. office building, Republican senators are now working out the finer points of their plan to repeal and replace Obamacare, keeping the details secret because “we’re not stupid,” as one staffer said. They can hide, but they can’t run. They know, as we all know, the reckoning that awaits when the truth—about the plan’s cuts to Medicaid programs and big tax cuts for the wealthy—is revealed.

It’s the same story on nearly any issue you can name: the GOP agenda is toxic. As I’ve noted before, a national consensus has emerged around a remarkably left-leaning set of policies. Even the once-radical idea of single-payer healthcare is now mainstream, as is the idea of roughly doubling the federal minimum wage. At least 58 percent of Americans also support abortion rights, unions, action on climate change, more investment in renewable energy, higher taxes on the wealthy, free child care, legalized marijuana and stricter limits on campaign spending.

There is a reason, in other words, that Bernie Sanders is the most popular politician in America. These are the kind of policies he consistently talks about and is pushing for. There’s a reason that Donald Trump, when he wasn’t being racist on the campaign trail, talked a good populist game on economics, promising universal health care and a trillion dollars worth of spending on infrastructure. These are very popular ideas.

But they aren’t Republican ideas. Nor is it clear that the party actually has any ideas. Handel’s campaign in Georgia was no exception. Its theme boiled down to a slightly more polished version of, “You ain’t from round these parts, are ya?” As an ad by Handel’s campaign put it, not very subtly, “He’s just not one of us.” It wasn’t exactly clear what that meant since Ossoff was in fact born in Atlanta and graduated from a high school there, before earning degrees from Georgetown and the London School of Economics.

But it was clear enough. One of Handel’s lines of attack tried to paint Ossoff as sympathizing with Islamic terrorists since his film production company has done business with Al Jazeera. (PolitiFact rated the ad “mostly false” because of its unfair characterization of Al Jazeera.) Other areas where Ossoff isn’t “one of us” were taxes, abortion and Obamacare, all of which Handel opposes and wants to cut or abolish. That’s a playbook right out of 2004. It still works, clearly, at least in some districts.

But would it have worked against a more robust and full-throated progressive campaign, versus the bland and vague center-left approach taken by Ossoff, who couldn’t bring himself to support single-payer healthcare or higher taxes on the rich, but did produce campaign ads stressing the need to reduce the deficit? We’ll never know for certain the answer to that question. But here are few things we do know.

We know that the most consequential midterm election in many decades will happen in November 2018. Democrats and many progressives invested a lot in the Ossoff race, with the hope of sending a message to Trump and the GOP and building momentum for 2018. The result is disappointing, but the only thing Democrats can do is learn from it.

We know, too, that Handel closed ground on Ossoff in the final week of the race by attacking him for campaign donations he took in from people outside of Georgia. The strategy was totally hypocritical—Handel raked in millions from PACs outside the state—but it caught Ossoff flat-footed. The charge stuck in part because he had already been painted as an outsider. But there’s a broader takeaway.

Democratic politicians need to work for reforms that eliminate corporate PAC money in politics. Until that happens, they need to make the sources of their opponents’ funding a central issue. That assumes, of course, that Democrats aren’t taking such funds themselves—a huge assumption.

As long as Democrats’ rely on corporate support and backing from super-rich donors, they will open themselves up to this very same line of attack from their opponents, as hypocritical as it may be. Which means that organizations like Brand New Congress, which is running candidates who agree not to accept donations from corporate PACs, are on to something.

As noted, we know the popularity of left-leaning policies—and the unpopularity of the GOP’s agenda—when voters actually hear about them.  

Finally, we know that parties don’t always grow or decline in a linear fashion. So much happens under the radar, and an organization can be simultaneously thriving and dying. Consider the case of Blockbuster Video, which ruled the rental market in the mid-2000s but was forced into bankruptcy by 2010, never able to adapt to the new era of streaming video.

Recent days have provided evidence that the GOP is much like Blockbuster circa the mid-2000s—thriving yet dying, winning elections but incapable of adapting to popular opinions, wholly unable to come up with new ideas or even make public policy in public. This is not the playbook for an ascendant party, but one stuck in its ways that cannot chart a path forward.  

And the Democrats? They can hardly be described as thriving. Yet there is a clearly marked and well-known path to new life for the party: embrace and run on a bold, progressive agenda. Recruit candidates who will be trustworthy messengers, refusing to tack to the center or rely on corporate support. The election results in Georgia showed why that path is the right one. Now it’s up to the Democratic Party to take it.

Theo Anderson, an In These Times writing fellow, has contributed to the magazine since 2010. He has a Ph.D. in modern U.S. history from Yale and writes on the intellectual and religious history of conservatism and progressivism in the United States. Follow him on Twitter @Theoanderson7 and contact him at [email protected]

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