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This year the Dead Zone in the Gulf of Mexico is expected to grow larger than ever. Oceanologists predict the lifeless expanse of water below the Mississippi River Delta will swell to an area bigger than the state of Vermont, an aquatic ecosystem despoiled by industrial fertilizers, pesticides, herbicides, oil leaks and the lethal effects of a warming climate. But the desolate waters of the Gulf pale next to the electoral dead zone now confronting the Democratic Party, which seems to occupy about two-thirds of the geographical area of the Republic—a political landscape deadened by the Party’s remorseless commitment to neoliberal economics, imperial wars and open hostility toward the working class base which once served as its backbone.
The latest political zombie offered up as a vessel to freight the electoral asperations of the Democrats was a pious former congressional staffer called Jon Ossoff, whose name sounds like one of those creepy Svengali-like characters from a Tod Browning horror film of the 1930s. But the candidate wasn’t as scary as all that. In fact, Ossoff scared no one, which was both his campaign theme and his problem. One of his problems, anyway. Ossoff presented himself as an anodyne candidate, a nowhere man, a quiescent emissary for a return to civility in politics. He was the white Rodney King, who plaintively asked why we couldn’t all just get along. Of course, who really wants civility in politics, when you’re working two jobs, can’t pay the power bill, have a kid with asthma and just had your Ford Focus repossessed.
Ossoff proved much more popular outside the sixth congressional district of Georgia, than within it, which is only fitting for a candidate who didn’t even bother to reside in the district he was running to represent. Ossoff was an interloper, a carpetbagger, who refused to promote even the trickle-down benefits of a second Reconstruction for a South that has been ravaged by a 30-year-long exodus of good-paying jobs.
In an age crying out for a new kind of politics, Ossoff campaigned directly from the Clinton playbook (Hillary version), apparently hoodwinked into believing that absent Russian interventionism this stale platform was a winning strategy. His main opponent was Trump, not even Trumpism, which might offend some of the Republican voters he was targeting. In what became a kind of daily ritual on the campaign trail, Ossoff repeatedly scrubbed himself clean of any taint of populism or progressive inclinations. Ossoff denounced single-payer health care, kept himself at arm’s length from Bernie Sanders and never uttered even a minor critique of American imperialism. Think of him as a prettified Tim Kaine.
Ossoff dutifully punched one item after another on the checklist of neoliberalism. He wanted to end waste in government. He wanted to trim burdensome regulations stifling the old entrepreneurial spirit. He wanted to reduce the deficit and hectored struggling black families to demonstrate “personal responsibility” if they wanted to get their federal benefits. He pledged his loyalty to Israel, decried nasty dictators from Putin to Assad and vowed to eradicate the scourge of Islamic terrorism from the face of the earth. He sedulously avoided any mention of radioactive subjects such as hunger, homelessness, drone warfare, the death penalty or police shootings. The fate of entitlement programs from Social Security to Medicaid was much too thorny for Ossoff to deal with on the campaign trail. Prosecuting Wall Street criminals somehow escaped his attention. He remained opaque on the subject of raising the minimum wage to $15 an hour. Bernie Sanders himself questioned whether Ossoff could be considered a “progressive,” but that warning sign didn’t stop progressives across the country from flooding his campaign coffers with cash. By the end of the campaign, Ossoff had raised more than $24 million, six times the amount raised by his Republican opponent Karen Handel.
After Ossoff’s ignoble defeat, Margaret Kimberly, the fiery columnist for Black Agenda Report, quipped, “What did they expect? It was a reactionary district in Georgia.” Good point. But these are precisely the kinds of districts that the Clinton Democrats (who have yet to melt into a steaming pile of ectoplasm like most vanquished zombies) see as fertile terrain. The Georgia Sixth occupies the northern suburbs of Atlanta. It’s been solidly in Republican hands since the late 1970s, when Georgia’s segregationist Democrats had largely completed their migration into the Republican Party. For many years, the Georgia Sixth was the domain of the white-haired gnome Newt Gingrich. Later it passed into the hands of Dr. Tom Price, the errand boy of Big Pharma who views his obligations under the Hippocratic Oath with the same animosity that his ancestors once reserved for the Emancipation Proclamation. Price was reelected last November by a 23 percent margin over his Democratic challenger.
Demographically, the Georgia Sixth is populated by voters who are predominately white, suburban, middle-class and educated. In other words, it qualifies as the Democrats’ new field of dreams: cul-de-sac after cul-de-sac of houses which once proudly sprouted Romney signs from their immaculately manicured lawns. And living inside those pastel-colored split-levels and golf course condo units are thousands of housewives, quietly bristling at the misogyny of Donald Trump and his Republican enablers. These are Chuck Schumer’s women, the soft-Republican matrons he predicted would flock to non-threatening, well-groomed Democrats in the age of Trump. These were the thoughtful, silent female majority who would have yielded Florida, Michigan and Pennsylvania to Hillary had not Putin monkey-wrenched the vote. In order to seal the deal, the DNC orchestrated conveys of UberBlack towncars to shuttle Hollywood celebrities around Dekalb and Fulton Counties proclaiming the virtues of Ossoff.
So how did it all go so terribly wrong? How did the new wonder boy of Democratic politics crash-and-burn, when he had the looks, the money and the analytics all working in his favor? The answer is pretty simple. Most of the voters in the Georgia Sixth saw Ossoff as a manufactured candidate, a fraud, in a time when people are craving at least a hint of authenticity. Ossoff may have come by his timid neoliberalism honestly, but he struck many as a political cross-dresser. If you’re going to vote for a conservative, why not vote for the real thing?
The attack ad that really doomed Ossoff wasn’t the grotesque smear that ludicrously tried to link him to the shooting of Rep. Steve Scalise, but a relatively routine spot that predicted he’d become the political automaton of Nancy Pelosi. In a region that understands the relationship between master and slave, this ad rang true. Throughout the entire campaign, Ossoff had shown not the slightest impulse toward independence of thought or character. He was a creature of a party establishment which had long since auctioned off its soul to the same Wall Street predators that had looted the garment factories, fields and ports of the Southland as ruthlessly as General Sherman during his incendiary march to the sea.
There are Pyrrhic victories, where the cost of winning a battle is so great that you lose the war. The Ossoff campaign might be considered a Pyrrhic loss, where so many financial and psychic resources are invested into a relatively minor skirmish that the defeat dooms the course of the larger war, when ultimate victory was well within your grasp. The loss is compounded by the lessons the Democratic elites have drawn from the post-mortem. That Ossof’s campaign was too progressive for the region. That the Democrats need to turn away from populism and return to the corporate-friendly conservativism of the Bill Clinton years, with a little of the old Lester Maddox race-baiting thrown in where needed. Thinking like this all but ensures that the next made-for MSDNC centrist cipher will be even more feeble than Ossoff.
The real engineers of this debacle, Nancy Pelosi, Chuck Schumer and Tom Perez, shield themselves from any culpability. They did their part. They raised truckloads of money off of Ossoff–$24 million, a record for any congressional campaign. The long-held view from the DNC suites is that it’s fine to lose as long as you lose profitably. Those floods of cash keep the electoral-industrial complex fueled, regardless of its win-loss record. The four consecutive defeats in the special elections this spring had their programmatic upside. The tragic stories of those failed campaigns will help generate even more desperately worded fund-raising appeals from the DNC in the weeks and months to come, warning of the fascist schemes of the Trump Monster and his puppet master Vladimir Putin. Even Bernie Sanders has fallen for the scam, investing $100,000 last month from his Our Revolution account into the repositories of a party which views his political agenda (and its adherents) as an anathema. And thus the Democrats—left, right and center–sink deeper and deeper into an hypoxic doldrums of their own design.