I woke up to news this morning that Jon Ossoff’s failure to flip Georgia’s Sixth Congressional District will “come as a crushing emotional blow to Democrats.” Well, not this Democrat. And not just because, as I wrote back in April, “an Ossoff victory would represent a repudiation of Trump, but not our broken politics.”
The 30-year-old political novice announced his campaign with the invitation to “make Trump furious”—an aim impossible to resist, if not exactly difficult to achieve, since “furious” and “smug” seem to be the Trumpster’s only working gears. And though Ossoff’s decision to run an issue-lite, centrist campaign aimed at wooing moderate Republicans and disaffected women might have been a questionable tactic, the army of fired-up Georgia women who answered his call—and who told my colleague Joan Walsh that they intend to stay involved in politics—should remind progressives that local knowledge matters. What works just fine in Manhattan might not fly in Montana, or in Cobb County, Georgia.
Even in local terms though, there were problems with Ossoff, whose failure to actually live in the district he wanted to represent made it easier for the Republicans to attack him as an “outsider.” Still, he would have been a huge improvement over Karen Handel, a perennial Republican candidate whose main previous claim to fame was her effort, as vice president of the Susan G. Komen cancer charity, to defund Planned Parenthood.
My own reservations about Ossoff were about strategy, not tactics. As we were reminded time and again by the media, an Ossoff win would have also been a victory over the left. It would have been trumpeted as vindication of “a decidedly un-Sanders-like vision of the future” and cited as proof that Democrats who “want to win” should follow his model and explicitly rule out raising taxes on the wealthy and firmly oppose “any move” towards single-payer health care. It’s tempting to argue that wasn’t Ossoff’s fault. After all, it was former Clinton aide Brian Fallon, not Ossoff, who came up with the “Panera Bread strategy”—essentially a rationale for appealing to suburban voters in swing districts rather than spending time or money trying to expand the Democratic party’s base among working-class voters, minorities, or millennials—which is really just a new name for the kind of triangulation that put Bill Clinton in the White House. As the career of its current master Rahm Emanuel suggests, that kind of politics can still be effective. But it was never progressive, and not even the backing of Daily Kos or the Working Families Party—who both worked hard, and effectively, on Ossoff’s behalf—can change that.
Nobody forced Ossoff to dismiss single payer, or held a gun to his head and made him use dog-whistle language about “both parties in Washington” wasting taxpayer dollars. Those messages weren’t aimed at Georgia voters; they were aimed at funders, like the supposed pragmatists at the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee who stiffed James Thompson in Kansas and spent a paltry $340,000 on Rob Quist’s race in Montana, but lavished millions on Ossoff’s equally doomed campaign.
So no, I’m not sorry he lost. The Tea Party didn’t take over the Republican Party—and rise to national power—by celebrating the victories of its adversaries. And in the struggle for control—or if you want to be poetic, for “the soul”—of the Democratic Party, we need to be clear not just on what we stand for, but on who stands against us. Corporate Democrats and the whole corrupt culture of consultants who suck the life and drain the principles out of any progressive movement need to be fought, not “friended”—even on Facebook. We don’t all have to agree on everything—our diversity is a source of strength, not just demographically but also in the issues we lift up and the tactics we use. But we have to agree on some core set of issues that includes racial justice, environmental justice, economic justice, access to health care—including safe and legal abortion—as well as access to higher education, the freedom to practice solidarity at work, and the right to love whomever we choose.
That is what liberation means. And as the activist Waleed Shahid points out, it is also smart politics. After all, the opposing strategy was summed up succinctly by one of its chief architects, Chuck Schumer, who last July infamously boasted, “For every blue-collar Democrat we lose in western Pennsylvania, we will pick up two moderate Republicans in the suburbs in Philadelphia, and you can repeat that in Ohio and Illinois and Wisconsin.” We saw how that worked out.
By “repeating the mistakes of 2016 and expecting different results” says Shahid, Democrats risk turning off the vast majority of the party base who failed to turn out last November. Jon Ossoff’s defeat is just the latest evidence that simply being against Donald Trump isn’t enough. To win Democrats need to tell voters what they’re for—and to do that effectively, they need to stop running scared and let progressives, who don’t need focus groups or consultants to know what we’re for, take the lead.