• Sheri Rivlin Allan Rivlin

The Democrats Big New Idea: Get Stuff Done

Updated: Feb 25, 2019


After a long hard contest and days of counting ballots, Democrat Kyrsten Sinema has been declared the winner in the Arizona Senate race for the seat being vacated by Republican Jeff Flake. "Arizona rejected what has been far too common in our country - name calling, petty, personal attacks and doing and saying what it takes to get elected," Sinema said in her acceptance speech. "But Arizona proved that there is a better way forward."

The Democrats have needed a big new idea to stand up to the divisiveness of President Donald Trump and unite voters across the nation. The good news is they now have one, and it just won the 2018 election. It’s about electing governors and state legislators, and sending representatives to Washington to get stuff done for the voters back home. It’s about listening to voters and putting their priorities first, putting forward common sense solutions to their problems, and passing laws and making needed investments to move a positive vision of their communities forward.

In 2018, as in many elections past, America was voting for change in Washington, and these days “Washington” means partisan sniping, name calling and charges of illegitimacy. The new idea is the opposite of proving Donald Trump is a liar, or unintelligent, or uncouth (even if all these things are true). American politics has reached peak hyper-partisanship. The big new idea wants nothing to do with political ideology. It can be stated in three simple words: Get Stuff Done.


These were the watchwords for Senator Amy Klobuchar who won more than 60 percent of the vote in Minnesota. In her acceptance speech after winning a third term, Klobuchar said, "Minnesotans voted our dreams and not our fears. We voted for common sense and not blistering words. We voted for getting things done.”

From coast to coast, and especially in the suburbs of big cities and small towns across America, Democrats won statewide races and flipped more than the necessary number of congressional districts by eschewing confrontation in favor of cooperation across party lines on common sense measures to improve the lives of their constituents. Rather than debating Trump on the issues and exposing his many falsehoods and exaggerations, many Democratic candidates, especially but not exclusively women candidates, chose to set a contrast in tone by staying focused on their agendas to create better jobs and economic growth, and to protect health care and the environment. They were reflecting the disdain local voters, especially but not exclusively women voters, have for the Washington circus, and their frustration that major problems are going unaddressed in the partisan shouting match.

Pockets of Hope and Despair

Across America there are communities facing very serious problems. In the lead up to the election and the days following, many news analysts questioned why President Trump chose to downplay the good economic statistics and instead focus attention on the “caravan” of asylum seekers walking hundreds of miles south of the US southern border. The answer is simple, the economy is not that good for the voters he was hoping to energize.

The national statistics have been showing a growing economy and falling jobless rate since the start of the Obama recovery with the pace of job growth slowing only slightly since the start of the Trump Administration. But the national statistics mask the truth in broad areas of the economy outside of the largest cities. “A lot of us pundits said Donald Trump should run a positive campaign bragging about all the economic growth,” writes David Brooks in the New York Times. “But Trump ran another American carnage campaign. That’s because American life still feels like carnage to many.”

It takes less than an hour by SUV or 4x4 truck to drive out of the fast growing cities to find a very different reality. The recovery that began under Obama and continues under Trump never really extended far outside the big cities. In the nation’s mid-sized cities and smaller towns the factories are still closed, shops are still vacant on Main Street and in the shopping malls, and while there are minimum wage jobs available at the fast food chains, jobs that pay enough to support a middle class lifestyle are still rare.

Huge numbers of prime age workers have dropped out of the workforce and younger workers still must leave for the big cities looking for opportunities (if they can afford to live there). The signs of social stress are everywhere in broad geographical areas of the country including deaths due to alcohol, opioids and suicide. After tapping into this economic distress to win in 2016, Trump said he was not talking about the economy in the 2018 election because it was a boring topic, but the truth is a campaign centering on good economic statistics would ring hollow for many non-college educated voters living far from the growing urban centers, just ask Hillary Clinton.

All Economics Is Local

There are four states in the middle of America where Governor’s races gave voters a chance to reject the Republican experiment in extreme tax cutting leading to sharply constrained state budgets for roads, education and other services -- and Democrats won three out of four. The next Governor of Michigan, Gretchen Whitmer, beat soon to be former Governor Bill Schuette with a promise of clean drinking water (following the water contamination crisis in Flint) and a broad infrastructure platform captured by her call to “fix the damn roads.”

Roads were also a top issue for Tony Evers who beat Scott Walker in a close race to become the next Governor of Wisconsin. Walker is a polarizing figure, and a top target for Democratic partisans especially public employee unions, but Evers kept the focus on reaching for common ground. “There’s no Republican that wants to be to be 44th in the country as it relates to the quality of our transportation system, nor Democrat either” Evers told the Juneau County Star-Times. “It’s just a matter of getting people together and looking at all the options and solving it.”

Laura Kelly beat Kris Kobach to become the next governor of Kansas in perhaps the most strategically significant race in the nation because it caps a rejection of former Governor Sam Brownback’s “Red State Experiment.” Kansas passed a huge tax cut in 2012 that caused years of budget shortfalls, and deep cuts to education and road spending. By 2017 even Republicans had had enough of red ink and education spending cuts and the Republican controlled Kansas Legislature reversed course. In 2018 Kansas elected a Democratic Governor for the first time since Kathleen Sebelius won reelection in 2006.

Kelly ran on improving education and credits both political parties for giving her the win. "This wasn't one side beating the other” Kelly said accepting the win. “It was Democrats and Republicans and Independents all coming together to put the state back on track." With the gubernatorial victories in Michigan, Wisconsin, and Kansas, voters have rejected all of the extreme tax cutting, anti-government employees, anti-teachers union governors in the midwest except Kim Reynolds who managed to hold onto the governor’s mansion in Iowa in another close race.

New Faces In the House

The big news of the election was the Democrats winning 30 or more seats to retake control of the US House of Representatives. A lot of the media attention was earned by some of the most progressive new Democrats who won 2018 elections including Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez in Brooklyn New York, Rashida Tlaib in Detroit Michigan, Deb Haaland in Albuquerque and central New Mexico, and Ilhan Omar in Minneapolis Minnesota. But all of these wins were in districts already represented by Democrats.

At 29, the next Representative from Iowa’s 1st Congressional District, Abby Finkenauer is less than a year older than Ocasio-Cortez. The two agree on many, if not most, issues but Finkenauer’s tone is decidedly non-confrontational. She focused on education, immigration reform and economic development of the agricultural and manufacturing heavy region. Her campaign also stressed finding ways to work with President Trump to pass legislation.

"I'd start where quite frankly the President and I agree, or at least he said he cared about," Finkenauer told KCRG-TV during the campaign, "which was investing in infrastructure. He talked about fixing health care. He talked about a lot of stuff when he was coming to Iowa back in 2016 and that's stuff I care about too."

Progressive issues were front and center in many of the House races where red seats were flipped to blue but the key was knowing the local issues and terrain. Joe Cunningham won the votes of Democrats, Republicans, and independents in a deep red seat in South Carolina that had been represented by former Governor Mark Sanford until he was defeated in the Republican primary by Trump endorsed State Representative Katie Arrington.

Cunningham, an ocean engineer and attorney, came out strongly against offshore drilling in the coastal district and put up an advertisement touting support from Republican office holders. “Our message is resonating with folks here in the district,” Cunningham told The State. “Putting people over politics and putting Lowcountry over party. It sends the message that folks are tired of the divisiveness, the negative rhetoric that’s coming out of D.C., that’s coming from the other side.”

Houston Attorney Lizzie Fletcher campaigned on defending the Affordable Care Act and the Dream Act and support for comprehensive immigration reform to beat 18 year incumbent John Culberson in a district that has been red since George H. W. Bush won it in 1966. But the tone of Fletcher’s campaign was amiable and collaborative. “Nobody thinks that government is always the answer, but they don't think government's always the problem, and what they really want is for our elected representatives in Washington and elsewhere to actually work together to solve problems," Fletcher told CBS News.

These are just a few of our favorite stories from among dozens that fit the pattern. The Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee and others in the Washington Democratic establishment receive no small amount of criticism in most years but in 2018 congressional challengers were given the freedom, and a little guidance to be themselves, be nice and likable, and put their districts’ voters’ concerns first. The House Democratic Policy and Communications Committee (Cheri Bustos D-IL, David Cicilline, D-RI, and Hakeem Jeffries D-NY) passed out a laminated card with just three lines:

  • Lower your health care costs and prescription drug prices

  • Increase your pay through strong economic growth by rebuilding America

  • Clean up corruption to make Washington work for you.

One of the DPCC co-chairs, Cheri Bustos, is now wondering if the new House majority will actually lead to substantive accomplishments. “How are we going to actually get something done?” Bustos asked Lissandra Villa of BuzzFeed. “I don’t just want to pass things in the House and then have no chance of anything in the Senate happening and then we don’t end up at the end of two years actually having any legislation passed.”

In the days immediately following the election, (before he left the country for his reported Paris funk) President Trump signaled his discomfort with the non-confrontational tone of the post election Democrats by opening extreme new confrontations with the Democrats and the press. Trump verbally attacked three African American journalists and withdrew the press credentials from CNN’s Jim Acosta. On the same day, the day after the election, Trump fired Attorney General Jeff Sessions and replaced him with a vocal opponent of the Mueller investigation in a transparent effort to squash the investigation’s final report.

There is no planet where the press and the Democrats could ignore these provocations, but at least it is important to understand the purpose behind them. Trump realizes he is very threatened by Democrats who appear reasonable and focused on getting things done for the American people and especially threatened by the appeal these new Democratic members have with moderate Republican voters. His frantic efforts to provoke confrontation serve as confirmation that the non-confrontational strategy that delivered victory to Democrats in the 2018 election continues to be an effective strategy in its aftermath.


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