Democrats won the White House, whether President Donald Trump wants to face that non-alternative fact or not.
But, as the celebratory confetti and honking car horns settled down, new disputes broke out in the famously factional party over how and why they lost just about everywhere else.
They expected to flip the Senate back from Republican control. But they didn’t.
They expected to gain seats in the House as they did in the 2018 midterms, but instead they lost seats — in some of the same purple districts that they won two years ago.
They seriously hoped a “blue wave” would flip some state legislatures, but, no, not one.
More embarrassing in this year of racial reckoning, the share of Black, Hispanic and women voters won by the Democratic ticket of Joe Biden and Kamala Harris actually went down compared with four years ago.
The losses left Democrats pinning their hopes on two long-shot runoffs for Senate seats in Georgia to save them from the sort of gridlock that Presidents Barack Obama and Trump faced with a divided Congress.
In short, the message from voters to Democrats seemed to be, “No, we may not like Trump but we’re not crazy about you guys either.”
What went wrong? Bad messaging caught much of the blame in a heated conference call between House Democrats two days after Election Day.
“We need to not ever use the word ‘socialist’ or ‘socialism’ ever again,” said a furious first-term Rep. Abigail Spanberger of Virginia, in an audio leaked to The Washington Post. Not that the former CIA officer was ever a socialist, but that didn’t stop her adversaries from trying to rebrand her as one.
That’s politics, hardball-style. The most problematic slogan for Dems these days may be “defund the police.” Biden, Spanberger and other Democrats who heatedly oppose that slogan have been tarred with it anyway.
As I have written — and undoubtedly will again — that slogan is a massive self-inflicted wound for the left, a misrepresentation of sensible efforts already underway in some municipalities to fund mental health and other social services so police can focus more attention on actual crime-fighting.
But if you want to have a productive, nuanced discussion of such tender topics, don’t try to do it in a hot election year.
“ ‘Defund the police’ is killing our party, and we’ve got to stop it,” said South Carolina Rep. Jim Clyburn, credited as kingmaker to Joe Biden’s campaign when it was about to die in the primaries, in a CBS News interview last week.
Clyburn recalled how he and the late Georgia Rep. John Lewis, a fellow veteran of the 1960s civil rights movement, compared “defund the police” to “burn, baby, burn,” the street chant that “destroyed our movement back in the ’60s.”
To those who say the slogan doesn’t literally mean to defund police, Clyburn said, “Well, in this business, you’ve gotta say what you mean, and you gotta mean what you say, and if you have to explain what you mean, you are losing the argument.”
That’s especially true in the Twitter age, when it is dangerously easy to distort arguments and smear reputations into a “big lie,” a damaging whopper so huge that it ties up your adversary in the endless chore of trying to knock it down.
The “big lie” can paint a popular program like Medicare as “socialism,” which Ronald Reagan and other conservatives said as they tried to stop its enactment in the 1960s.
Today Trump uses “law and order” to refocus attention to rioters and away from legitimate issues of police conduct that can contribute to the bad police-community relations that fuel riots.
But progressives such as Sen. Bernie Sanders help the enemies of “Medicare for All,” in my view, by insisting on replacing private insurance — unlike Biden, who has called for the sensible compromise of offering a “public option” to let us, the insured, decide for ourselves.
The health care debate that helped Democrats retake the House majority in 2018 showed how a worthy idea can gain growing public support if it survives the pounding from opponents who don’t offer a better alternative.
But watch your back, Dems. Through the media, including social media, voters are flooded so much with what a Trump aide famously labeled “alternative facts” that your intended audience may never hear anything else.
Clarence Page writes for the Chicago Tribune.
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