Turn the Page
Since Ronald Reagan, America has lived under a regime of conservative ideas that Democrats have sometimes been able to resist, but not to overcome or replace. That aging regime is ready to fall, but Bastilles never storm themselves. The Democrats' 2018 campaign needs to be negative, but not personal: Bad as he is, Trump is just one example of the larger problem.
I keep hearing two theories about how Democrats can retake Congress in 2018 and start retaking the country. The first is to run against Donald Trump, who is an embarrassment to the nation, is historically unpopular, and may turn out to have committed impeachable offenses. The second is to run on a clear, positive agenda that can win back the working-class voters who have wandered away from the party of FDR and into the hands of the current huckster-in-chief.
Each approach has its virtues, and either would probably produce some gains in 2018, as mid-term elections usually do for the party out of power. But neither is quite right. Neither reflects the way that major change happens in America.
Beyond anti-Trump. The pure anti-Trump message is the easiest one to see through. The reason it's not enough to run against Trump is that Trump isn't the whole problem, not by a long shot. Yes, he's corrupt. And yes, it's dangerous for the country to have a president who understands so little about what presidents do. But think about the worst of what's going on right now: trying to pay for a major tax cut for the rich by kicking millions of the working poor off Medicaid, undoing what little President Obama accomplished on climate change, and (though this isn't getting nearly as much attention) sinking ever deeper into the quagmire conflicts of Syria and Afghanistan.
Just about any Republican president would be up to more-or-less the same stuff. A generic Republican president — picture President Pence, if you need a specific face — would also be favoring employers over their workers, letting big corporations manipulate the marketplace, looking for ways to make it harder to vote, insisting that God created exactly two totally distinct genders (and that only opposite-gender couples can form a real family), favoring Christianity over all other religions, and portraying the inner city as a war zone that needs an occupying force of militarized police (collateral damage be damned).
"Trump is bad" is not an argument against any of that stuff. If you're an anti-Trump Republican, "Trump is bad" becomes an argument for keeping Speaker Ryan in place as adult supervision.
We saw in Tuesday's disappointing special election in Georgia that Trump's unpopularity isn't necessarily contagious. In a historically Republican suburban district that nonetheless nearly went for Hillary Clinton in 2016, Jon Ossoff was a fresh young face with none of Hillary's baggage. And yet, running against Karen Handel rather than Donald Trump, he couldn't do quite was well as Clinton did (partly because Handel managed to reverse the demon-association playbook on him and run against Nancy Pelosi).
Major change doesn't happen in America because the voters dislike one guy, even if that guy is the president. The root problem is the conservative worldview, the one that has been ascendant since Ronald Reagan. It won't stop being ascendant just because Trump doesn't know what he's doing and can't control himself.
Beyond our-policies-are-prettier-than-your-policies. But that raises an interesting question: How does major change happen? If you look at American history, a new national direction is never the result of a beauty contest.
If voters still more-or-less approve of the governing worldview, they never abandon it just because somebody else's new ideas sound better. If they believe that the basic philosophy of the recent past still has promise for addressing the nation's problems, they may occasionally choose a new face or opt for a pause while the country consolidates recent advances , but they won't respond to calls for fundamental change. 
Big change, the kind we associate with names like Lincoln and FDR, happens because the public decisively rejects the ideas that have come before. Only then does a new way of looking at government have a chance to catch on. 
It's important to understand what decisively reject really means. It doesn't just mean that public stops buying the arguments in favor of those ideas. It means that the public loses patience with the very attempt to justify them. When a set of ideas has been decisively rejected, you don't have argue against them any more; simply pointing out that these are the old, rejected ideas is enough.
FDR. So in 1932, the Great Depression was raging and Herbert Hoover was unpopular. Franklin Roosevelt probably could have won just on that. But if you look at Roosevelt's speech accepting his nomination, he doesn't mention Hoover's name, or refer to him individually at all. He talks instead about "Republican leaders", once mentions "the present administration in Washington" and twice more refers to "Washington" as short-hand. The case he makes is not against Hoover personally, but against the larger Republican worldview that had shaped the country since 1921, and whose roots went further back into the late 19th century.
There are two ways of viewing the Government's duty in matters affecting economic and social life. The first sees to it that a favored few are helped and hopes that some of their prosperity will leak through, sift through, to labor, to the farmer, to the small business man. That theory belongs to the party of Toryism, and I had hoped that most of the Tories left this country in 1776.
Once elected, he didn't reach out to the Republican Party, he destroyed it for a generation. They represented the "malefactors of great wealth" who had driven the nation into the Depression in the first place, and their worldview prevented the government from helping ordinary people.
For twelve years this Nation was afflicted with hear-nothing, see-nothing, do-nothing Government. The Nation looked to Government but the Government looked away. Nine mocking years with the golden calf and three long years of the scourge! Nine crazy years at the ticker and three long years in the breadlines! Nine mad years of mirage and three long years of despair! Powerful influences strive today to restore that kind of government with its doctrine that that Government is best which is most indifferent. …
We know now that Government by organized money is just as dangerous as Government by organized mob. Never before in all our history have these forces been so united against one candidate as they stand today. They are unanimous in their hate for me — and I welcome their hatred.
What Reagan did to Great Society liberalism. The last major paradigm shift in American politics was the transition from Carter to Reagan. It was Reagan who established the defining principles of the Republican Party we know today: low taxes (especially on the wealthy), strong defense, alliance with the Religious Right (under the label "family values"), and less regulation of business. 
In 1980, as in 1932, the sitting president was unpopular: Inflation and unemployment were both high. (Traditional economics had said that was impossible, creating a national uneasiness that maybe nobody knew what to do.) Americans had been held hostage in Iran for a year, and Carter could neither negotiate their release nor rescue them militarily. Japan was winning the battle of international trade.
Like Roosevelt, Reagan did not just run against Jimmy Carter, but against the liberal orthodoxy of the previous decades. In his First Inaugural Address he laid out the story that conservatives are still telling: The boundless energy and creativity of American business will produce abundance for all if only government would get out of the way.
In this present crisis, government is not the solution to our problem; government is the problem. … If we look to the answer as to why for so many years we achieved so much, prospered as no other people on Earth, it was because here in this land we unleashed the energy and individual genius of man to a greater extent than has ever been done before. Freedom and the dignity of the individual have been more available and assured here than in any other place on Earth. The price for this freedom at times has been high, but we have never been unwilling to pay that price. It is no coincidence that our present troubles parallel and are proportionate to the intervention and intrusion in our lives that result from unnecessary and excessive growth of government.
After Reagan, Democrats couldn't just be liberals. Suddenly they were tax-and-spend liberals, big-government liberals, or some other discredited species. The first and best argument against a new government program was simply that it was a new government program: Of course it wouldn't achieve its objectives, would cost more than the wildest estimates, and would entrench yet another bloated bureaucracy. Conservatives didn't have to make that argument; after Reagan, it made itself.
You could still hear the Reaganite echoes when ObamaCare was labeled "a government takeover of healthcare". No evidence was needed to show that such a "takeover" would be bad. That went without saying.
Where Obama failed. In 2008, President Bush was unpopular. But more than that, his failures were deeply bound up in the failure of Reagan-era conservatism: Bush's tax cuts built a deficit without unleashing growth. When government regulators got out of the way, Wall Street bankers turned mortgages that should never have been approved into a multi-trillion-dollar tower of worthless securities (whose AAA ratings fooled the market just long enough to crash the economy, make the banking system insolvent, and endanger the retirement savings of middle-class Americans). Our strong-but-fabulously-expensive military proved to be good at breaking countries, but not so good at putting them back together or preventing the resulting failed states from exporting terrorism.
Obama won a landslide victory and brought big majorities in Congress along with him. But he failed to charge Bush's personal unpopularity or the crisis Bush left behind to the massively overdrawn account of the conservative worldview. He did not proclaim the end of the Reagan Era and made no attempt to chase the old orthodoxy's defenders off the public stage, as Roosevelt and Reagan did in their day. If he had succeeded in doing so, there would be a new set of epithets that every conservative candidate or proposal would have to struggle out from under, terms like Iraq invader or bomb-everywhere Republican or sub-prime conservatismor free-the-wolves deregulation or middle-class-destroying cuts. (Those are just off the top of my head; no doubt professionals could do better.) Those labels would be as instantly disqualifying as tax-and-spend liberal was in the 1980s.
Obama's failure to turn the page is why conservative nostrums (that events have disproved again and again) are still popping up in the ObamaCare-repeal debate: Getting government out of healthcare will unleash the creativity of the marketplace to yield better coverage and care for consumers; yet another big tax cut for the rich will create the good-paying jobs that none of the previous tax cuts did; the millions who will be thrown off of Medicaid — mostly working-poor families who are struggling to get by on minimum wage or slightly more — are Takers who are about to get a much-needed lesson in personal responsibility, giving a break to the massively overtaxed and overburdened Makers who support them.
After the horror of Bush's Great Recession, the tax-cut-and-deregulation Great Recession, no one should be able to say such things with a straight face and without shame.
Turn the page. After nearly 40 years, American political discourse still takes place in the rhetorical universe created by Ronald Reagan. Our world is still haunted by the ghosts of Cadillac-driving welfare queens, job-killing regulations, initiative-crushing taxes, and poor people whose will to succeed has been sapped away by their dependence on government. The heroic entrepreneur still fights his eternal battle against the villainous bureaucrat. Private-sector spending on Mar-a-lago memberships and gas-guzzling jet-skis and AK-47s is productive, while public-sector spending on parks and roads and libraries is wasteful. A private-school teacher is a hard-working professional, while a public-school teacher is a blood-sucking parasite.
This rhetoric is aging badly and losing its hold. Republicans at some level know this; that's why their ObamaCare-repeal bills in both houses have had to be jammed through quickly with as little national attention as possible. You don't do that if you believe in what you're doing. If you think you have a compelling argument, you make that argument in the brightest spotlight you can find.
But aging regimes don't fall of their own weight. Somebody has to push them down. The Bastille never storms itself.
The 2018 campaign needs to be negative, but not personal. You can propose Medicare-for-everyone into this environment if you want, and if you can manage to control the narrative well enough to keep everyone calling it that — even after you get outspent 5-1 or 10-1 — you'll probably win. But if instead your proposal gets transmuted into a bureaucracy-bloating, tax-increasing, debt-busting, big-government takeover of the economy, you'll probably lose.
Democrats can't shy away from conservative rhetoric, and we can't hope that it will just slip people's minds if we change the subject by presenting our own solutions. We have to confront it directly: We've been living in a conservative era for nearly 40 years, and that is what has destroyed the middle class.
That central point needs to be backed up with direct rejections of conservative nostrums: You can't cut your way to prosperity. Nobody succeeds in a failing community. Money isn't speech. Fear creates violence, and cruelty will always rebound; more prisons won't make you safe, and more invasions will just cause more terrorism. More freedom for the rich and strong means more servitude for the poor and weak. The free market destroys the middle class. The environment is economic; we are part of Nature, and if we destroy Nature we destroy ourselves. (Again, these are off the top of my head and professionals could do better. The important thing is to express similar ideas in a uniform way, so that voters will know they're hearing the same point from many voices.)
Trump's individual outrages and the specific problems of this or that policy should always be interpreted expansively: Specifics should be presented not because they are important in themselves, but because they anchor the larger critique. Trump isn't an aberration, he's typical. The ObamaCare-repeal bill isn't just a bad policy, it's the logical product of a bad philosophy.
Party unity. A handful of Democrats will feel left out by this message, because they hope to appeal not just to people who have been voting Republican, but to people who still believe in the Reaganite worldview. That seems like a fool's errand to me.
But the vast majority of candidates, progressive and centrist alike, should be able to work with this national message. The positive proposals they present can be tailored to their own philosophies and their own districts. (Bernie Sanders, for example, knew better than to run on gun control in Vermont. Similarly, a rural district in Kansas, full of towns where there's one convenience store and one gas station, both struggling, is not the place to run on a $15 minimum wage. Higher, yes; $15 no.) Some will vaguely want to increase access to healthcare while others will post a detailed 50-page plan on their web sites. As candidates succeed or fail with these specifics, other candidates will or won't imitate them.
Some candidates will want to appear with Sanders or Elizabeth Warren, while others will invite Joe Biden or Cory Booker. But very few candidates will find themselves forced to run against the national message, or to choose between the national party and the voters they hope to represent.
Old and new. It's hard now to remember how fresh Reaganite conservatism sounded in 1980. Whether you agreed with it or not, it started new discussions and opened new possibilities for experimentation. But what was once young and supple has become old and rigid. Discussions shut down now, because powerful organizations have staked out positions that brook no debate: There can be no new taxes. Nothing can be done about gun violence. We can't talk to Iran. Defense spending can only go up.
That's what old regimes look like. They're brittle and have no room to maneuver when new problems appear. New voters come of age looking for insight, and hear only dogma. It may be hard to say exactly what should come next, but it's easy to see when it's time for an old worldview to go.
 The new faces I have in mind are Dwight Eisenhower and Bill Clinton, both of whom represented their party's acknowledgement that the game had changed, and did not reverse the country's course. Eisenhower let New Deal programs like Social Security stand, and Clinton yielded to a key point of Reaganism by announcing that "The era of big government is over." A "New Democrat", as Clinton sometimes called himself, was a Democrat who had learned the lessons of the Reagan Era.
 This a political analogy to the process Thomas Kuhn described in The Structure of Scientific Revolutions: As long as researchers believe that the old paradigm is still fruitful and can still lead to new solutions to important problems, new paradigms don't get a fair hearing.
The political scientist most connected with this idea is Stephen Skowronek, who introduced the concept of "political time". Basically, he breaks American history down into a series of multi-decade eras, each dominated by its own widely accepted view of what government is about. Each president grapples with problems within that era's political orthodoxy, which he either promotes or resists. As the era proceeds, the ruling ideology becomes more rigid and unwieldy, until it collapses under an attack by a repudiating leader, who then "resets the political clock" and begins a new era.
 Lincoln is a particularly good example here, because the change he is remembered for — ending slavery — isn't what he campaigned on. Point 4 of the 1860 Republican platform explicitly denies any intention to roll back slavery in the existing slave states, and rejects military force as a means to do so:
That the maintenance inviolate of the rights of the states, and especially the right of each state to order and control its own domestic institutions according to its own judgment exclusively, is essential to that balance of powers on which the perfection and endurance of our political fabric depends; and we denounce the lawless invasion by armed force of the soil of any state or territory, no matter under what pretext, as among the gravest of crimes.
What the election of 1860 represented was not an endorsement of abolitionism, much less of a future where free blacks could vote and be assured the due process of law. Instead, it represented a rejection (on both sides) of the political climate that had endured since the Missouri Compromise of 1820: The country could no longer lurch from crisis to crisis as moderates like Henry Clay or Daniel Webster or Stephen Douglas worked out complicated deals to maintain the North/South balance of power.
So the America that came out of the Civil War was fundamentally different than the America of 1859, but not because Lincoln designed a new set of policies and sold them to the electorate.
 These ideas are so entrenched inside the GOP that even when Marco Rubio campaigned on the need for "new ideas", he simply repeated Reaganite orthodoxy.