Democratic candidate Jon Ossoff's loss in the Georgia special election was a disappointment felt in left-leaning circles around the nation.
However, it was not necessarily surprising. The young congressional hopeful took an admirable gamble by running in a long-held Republican district and got close enough to require a runoff, but he kept his politics painfully in the middle.
Right now, America does not run down the middle.
The United States has been divided for decades, but the election of President Donald Trump has ushered in perhaps one of the most viscerally polarized eras the nation has seen in years. Since Trump's rise to power, extremism has found a stronger voice as racist ideologues are emboldened by a president who seems to speak every ignorant thing that crosses his mind.
Yet Democrats like Ossoff keep playing the same political game while the other side has utterly changed the rules.
Trump, one of the biggest game-changers the world has seen in years, was a topic largely avoided by Ossoff and his Republican rival, Karen Handel, during their campaigns. Handel styled her opposition in the traditional sense of Republican versus Democrat, a safe tactic considering the right-leaning area. Ossoff kept to the topic of wasteful spending and his attacks peaked at Handel's part in stopping breast cancer screening funding for Planned Parenthood while she was a top official at the Susan G. Komen Foundation, fitting perfectly into the role of a traditional liberal Democrat.
It makes sense that Handel wouldn't want to dwell on a Republican administration riddled with flaws, but Ossoff had a golden opportunity to attack those flaws head on. Instead, he kept to political norms and channeled Hillary Clinton when he should have been taking notes from Sen. Bernie Sanders.
Sanders is a truly unique political figure in that he strives to be transparent while demanding that the American government become a tool to advocate for all Americans. He pokes holes in the system, and people from both sides of the political aisle find themselves listening to him. His run for the U.S. presidency became so much more than a campaign — it launched a progressive movement because, like Trump, Sanders didn't play by Washington's rules.
The Democratic elite didn't like Sanders' message, but the American people did.
In his first campaign, Ossoff catered more to the establishment instead of the average American, refusing to endorse raising taxes on the wealthy and even saying that he would work with Trump on issues that were important to his constituents. He stuck to a bland series of talking points that Handel could easily spin as "typically liberal" in a conservative district.
What Ossoff should have done is laid out Trump's many failures and dissected them one by one while putting forth inclusive and progressive solutions, but instead he laid the greatest weapon against the Republicans in Washington to the side. Ossoff didn't turn politics on its head; he let it swallow him whole.
If the Democratic Party is to win back America, they will need to decide what it is exactly they stand for and hold firmly to it. They must disengage from the heavy money and the capitalist-driven politics of Washington, D.C., and look toward America's rural roads and urban streets.
The Democrats have long been a party that has campaigned as champions of minorities and historically-abused populations, and they must absolutely continue to represent those groups fiercely and without compromise. Negotiation should be reserved for trade routes, not fundamental human rights.
However, Democrats must also broaden their scope to include the struggling Americans whom Republicans have mastered lying to, the voters Clinton overlooked in her run for presidency. Democrats must extend a hand to these communities, and they must do so in a way that places them in stark contrast with Republicans. They must be honest and patient while using the GOP lies against them, not for the sake of merely exposing their political rivals for a chance at a vote, but because they genuinely want reform.
In his first campaign, Ossoff was just another cautious Democrat trying to reassert power for a failing party. He should have taken a cue from the Sanders handbook and sought to achieve change by operating outside of the box as a strong anti-Trump populist rather than a liberal politician alone in a sea of red.
Like the Democrats in 2016, Ossoff had the potential to drastically alter America's political landscape, but he played it safe. Yet when the world is on fire, you don't play it safe.