Aron Nimzowitsch, among the chess greats of his day, didn’t take well to losing badly. Knowing that he was about to be beaten by an inferior opponent in a 1925 tournament, he jumped on the table and yelled, “Against this idiot I have to lose?”
Democrats must know the feeling.
There are many ways to interpret — and overinterpret — Democrat Jon Ossoff’s not-so-narrow loss on Tuesday to Republican Karen Handel in the race for Georgia’s Sixth Congressional District. It’s been in Republican hands nearly 40 years. Tom Price, who vacated the seat to become secretary of Health and Human Services, won last November by more than 20 points. The district is nearly 70 percent white and relatively affluent. This was always going to be an uphill climb for any Democrat, even one as fresh and ideologically moderate as Ossoff.
Then again, this election was supposed to be for Democrats approximately what Scott Brown’s 2010 Senate victory in Massachusetts was for Republicans: the first ripple of a midterm wave, in a state dominated by the other party, prompted by an overreaching incumbent president bent on radical health care reform.
But it wasn’t to be, despite a huge Democratic voter-turnout effort. Nor did it make any difference that Ossoff had a $23.6 million war chest, and Democrats have a 6.7 percentage point lead in the generic congressional ballot, and Donald Trump is relatively unpopular in the district and even more unpopular nationwide.
Whatever else might be said about the race, Democrats didn’t lose for lack of political talent, campaign financing and organization or enthusiasm among their base. They lost because of their brand.
What is that? Democrats may think the brand is all about diversity, inclusion and fairness. But for millions of Americans, the brand is also about contempt — intellectual contempt of the kind Nimzowitsch exuded for his opponent (the grandmaster Fritz Sämisch, who, in fairness, was no slouch); moral contempt of the sort Hillary Clinton felt for Trump (never more evident than last year when Hillary Clinton wondered, “Why aren’t I fifty points ahead?”).
That contempt may be justified. But in politics, contempt had better not be visible. Voters notice.
That seems to have been what happened in the Sixth District the moment Democrats decided to turn the race into a referendum on Trump. “Republicans saw Ossoff’s campaign omnipresence as a political siege and call for resistance,” notes Billy Michael Honor, a Presbyterian minister and resident of the district and self-described progressive, in an astute column at The Huffington Post. “The end result being the Republican base outperforming an energized Democratic Party voter turnout campaign.”
Whatever their misgivings about Trump, those Republicans weren’t about to give Nancy Pelosi the satisfaction of a national victory. Contemporary liberalism now expresses itself chiefly in the language of self-affirmation and moral censure: of being the party of the higher-minded; of affixing the suffix “phobe” to millions of people who don’t appreciate being described as bigots.
It’s intolerable. It’s why so many well-educated Republicans who find nothing to admire in the president’s dyspeptic boorishness find even less to like in his opponents’ snickering censoriousness. It’s why a political strategy by Democrats that seeks to turn every local race into a referendum on Trump is likely to fail.