She is kidding, right? Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand (D-N.Y.) says the Democrats’ big mistake was not to run hard enough on the “war on women.” For conservatives, that ranks up there with “The Democrats’ stimulus was not big enough” and “President Obama doesn’t do enough TV.”
The Huffington Post quotes her as saying “I resent the notion that women shouldn’t be talked to directly about issues we care about. It’s a shame that the range of issues that affect women have been successfully rebranded into this one tight phrase to dust off the shoulder.” Well, I think it was the Democrats who did the branding, but nevertheless this is fascinating on several levels.
First, if the party comes to its senses and realizes Hillary Clinton is a bad politician with a troublesome record who has been around too long, why not Gillibrand for president? At 47 years old, she is younger than Clinton (67) and Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) (65). She arguably has a more winsome personality than either. She has no direct tie to the Obama administration and therefore need not defend his blunders. She “evolved” from her conservative days in the House and, among other liberal causes, became a key player in repealing Don’t Ask Don’t Tell and investigating assaults against women in the military. She is well-off, but not in the league of Clintonian wealth. In many ways she would be a much more formidable opponent for Republicans than Clinton.
Republicans nevertheless should hope she is serious about doubling down on “the war on women” and is taken seriously by other Democrats. Having finally reached some equilibrium on the gender divide, Republicans would love to talk about energy, health care, education, taxes and the like while Democrats run a Mark Udall-like campaign obsessed with abortion and contraception. For this very reason, I think Gillibrand is playing to the base rather than giving her best political advice. (The need to play to the base despite common sense is among the problems Democrats face these days.)
And that brings us to the most intriguing question: Are Democrats lost without appeals to gender and race? Their policy cupboard is so bare these days that at times it seems this (along with appeals to tax the rich even more) is all they talk about.
As they obsess on these issues, they have lost white voters, liberal journalist Thomas Edsall reminds us: “The opposition of whites to the Democratic Party is visible not only in voting behavior, but in general opposition to key Democratic policy initiatives, most tellingly in hostility toward the Affordable Care Act.” He continues:
Republicans are not satisfied with winning 62 percent of the white vote. To counter the demographic growth of Democratic constituencies whose votes threaten Republican success in high-turnout presidential elections, Republicans have begun a concerted effort to rupture the partisan loyalty of the remaining white Democratic voters. Their main target is socially liberal, fiscally conservative suburbanites, the weakest reeds in the Democratic coalition. These middle-income white voters do not share the acute economic needs of so-called downscale Democratic voters and they are less reliant on government services.
The Republican strategy to win over these more culturally tolerant, but still financially pressed, white voters is to continue to focus on material concerns – on anxiety about rising tax burdens, for example — while downplaying the preoccupation of many of the most visible Republicans with social, moral and cultural repression.
In this sense Obama is more a symptom than the cause of Democrats woes. A party that depends on stirring up a sense of victimhood and on the other side behaving badly is on shaky ground. That used to be the GOP; now it’s the Democrats. In 2016, that would put a heavy burden on a stale candidate not known for her light touch or creative policies. (“One question presents itself: how transformative a political leader is Hillary Clinton?” Edsall writes. “Can she avoid entrapment by divisive issues of key importance to competing wings of the center-left coalition: L.G.B.T. rights; marijuana legalization; climate change; gun control; racial profiling; fracking; pension rights for public employee unions; citizenship for undocumented immigrants; and the ever pressing social welfare needs of the country’s poor?”)
Maybe Gillibrand can be their Cory Gardner. Clinton certainly can’t be.