Can Democrats Ever Get to the Fourth Stage?

By Mark Shields

July 27, 2019 4 min read

It is time to remind ourselves of the Four Stages of Political Defeat and whether the losing side — in this case, the Democrats who suffered an unexpected and stinging rebuke in 2016 — will be able to recover and compete.

Because political parties are composed of human beings, when a party loses a big election, there is an understandable human reluctance for the party and its members to accept their public rejection. Other semi-plausible explanations must be found for why they lost.

The First Stage: Blame Our Own Candidate for the Defeat. Conveniently forget the fact that we, the party members, nominated our losing standard-bearer. We blame him or her for the loss. After the 2012 setback to then-President Barack Obama, Republicans were quick to fault Mitt Romney, the seemingly unflawed candidate who apparently had never had either a pimple or a cavity, and whose shirts and suits remained somehow always unwrinkled, for lacking the common touch. In just the same way, Democrats criticize Hillary Clinton for being elitist, insulated in her bloodless, technocratic campaign and lacking the common touch — a knock Democrats had earlier delivered to losing nominees John Kerry and Al Gore, one Democrat even quipping that Gore was so boring his Secret Service code name was Al Gore.

Stage Two: Blame the Customer. This is the most dangerous place on the political compass for any political party. It's the voters' fault. Those same voters who had been — when they voted for our Guy — so conscientious, patriotic, thoughtful and caring have tragically turned into selfish, uninformed, lazy, even prejudiced dullards. Ignore that among Iowa's 99 counties, 31 of them had twice voted for Democrat Barack Obama and switched in 2016 to vote for Republican Donald Trump. Losers' excuse: racism. Sorry, that dog won't hunt.

We only have two major parties in the U.S. If you're going to criticize half the voters on the other side of being ethical eunuchs and moral defectives, you're probably not going to be politically competitive.

Stage Three: Find the Winner's Gimmick. It was easy for Republicans who lost four times to Franklin Delano Roosevelt to blame it on Roosevelt's obvious mastery of radio, just as Democrats rationalized their two national pastings at the hands of Ronald Reagan with the Gipper's command of television. After 2016, some losing Democrats chose to explain that Trump's mastery of Twitter and social media was the real reason they had lost, and that the party would bounce back when its side became equally proficient. Stage Three fails to fully satisfy and gives way almost always to Stage Four.

Stage Four: Get Me a Winner! Remember 1952? Republicans had lost five consecutive presidential elections to FDR and Harry Truman. So Republicans, depleted by internal strife between isolationists and internationalists, and between conservatives and moderates, nominated the American Hero, Dwight D. Eisenhower, who until one year before the election had belonged to neither a political party nor an organized religion. But Ike was a winner, just as Bill Clinton would be for Democrats — 40 years later — after that party had lost five of the previous six White House contests.

Are Democratic voters honest and grown-up enough to stop blaming the voters or waiting for the newest, shiniest app from Silicon Valley to provide the key to victory? Will Democrats look 'em all over, get through Defeat Stages One, Two and Three and then settle on a presidential nominee who can actually win on Nov. 3, 2020, and who can both lead and unite the nation beginning on Jan. 20, 2021? That is the test.

To find out more about Mark Shields and read his past columns, visit the Creators Syndicate webpage at

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