The best lack all
conviction, while the worst
Are full of passionate intensity. --Yeats, The Second Coming
Trump turned the midterm elections into a national campaign for his distorted vision of America, and his message was echoed by GOP candidates across the nation. Although many Democratic candidates had a variety of messages tailored to their states and electoral districts, there was no coordinated national Democratic reply to Trump's dishonest and hate-filled agenda. Instead, we got everything from Sen. McCaskill (D-MO) claiming she was "not one of those crazy Democrats" to Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez predicting the demise of capitalism.
Trump did what he's been doing for the past two years--dominating media attention with tweets full of lies, misinformation and insults that get treated as newsworthy and repeatedly analyzed by pundits. Rebuttals and condemnations by CNN and MSNBC only amplified his voice. The Democrats had two years to figure out how to push back against Trump's totally predictable demagoguery. They failed miserably.
The Democratic Party's popular base continues to be greater than the GOP's. Despite their disunity and incompetent leadership, Democrats actually won 4.2 million more votes than the GOP in House races, and 12.5 million more votes in Senate races. That got them a respectable majority in the House--a typical outcome in midterms when the opposite party controls the presidency.
In short, the election outcome was national politics-as-usual even though a morally vile and utterly incompetent President made the election a referendum on himself. An existential threat to our political system called for an emergency response by the Democrats. That's what was so terribly wrong--it's why many Democrats felt deflated the day after the election. Now they're seeking comfort in the dribble of additional wins in undecided races, as if enough of those could make things right.
There were two issues that should have made for a Democratic tsunami: the person of Trump and the future of healthcare.
By waging a national campaign about himself, Trump gave the Democrats a perfect opportunity to launch an all-out attack on him. They should have denounced not only his policies but also his total unfitness for office and his lack of basic decency. Against someone like Trump a personal attack is called for, and it wouldn't require sinking to Trump's level of schoolyard bullying and cheap insults.
For instance, Democratic campaign committees could have run ads quoting from Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney's speech in March, 2016:
Dishonesty is Donald Trump's
hallmark.... Donald Trump is a phony,
Think of Donald Trump's personal qualities. The bullying, the greed, the showing off, the misogyny, the absurd third-grade theatrics.... After all, this is an individual who mocked a disabled reporter.... Now, imagine your children and your grandchildren acting the way he does. Would you welcome that?
Mr. Trump is directing our anger for less-than-noble purposes. He creates scapegoats of Muslims and Mexican immigrants. He calls for the use of torture. He calls for killing the innocent children and family members of terrorists. He cheers assaults on protesters. He applauds the prospect of twisting the Constitution to limit First Amendment freedom of the press.
In every Senate and House race the Democratic candidates should have advertised Romney's words and repeatedly asked their opponents (including Romney in Utah) how they can support such a man. That would have been an appropriate response to Trump's national self-referendum. It would be just as relevant in 2020. If a president is dislikable, that isn't normally an explicit campaign issue. But Trump's chaotic and deranged behavior is a threat to national security and to our relationships with allies and adversaries alike.
According to Kaiser Health News, health care was the top issue for voters going into the 2018 midterms. It had the highest percentage of voters labeling it as "very important," compared to 64% for the economy and jobs. Thirty percent said it was the "most important," compared to just 21% for economy and jobs. A recent Gallup poll got similar results. Furthermore, the American public trusts the Democratic Party much more than the GOP on health care.
The Republican record on health care under Trump consists of repeated legislative failures to end Obamacare (the Affordable Care Act) and many executive-branch actions that have reduced its funding and enrollment. The U.S. Census Bureau reports that the number of uninsured in 2017 was 28.5 million (4 million more than the population of Australia).