Republicans know the debate all too well: Is the problem a bad candidate or an entrenched, outmoded approach to politics? Republicans wrestled with this after the 2012 election. Now it’s the Democrats’ turn.
We begin with a cautionary (or consoling) note: In 2016, Democrats ran a very, very flawed candidate who nevertheless won the popular vote and (so far) 228 electoral votes. Now the splash of cold water on their faces: They’ve lost the House and Senate, 33 governorships (maybe “just” 32 if North Carolina’s Democratic razor-thin victory holds up) and 69 of 99 state legislative chambers. That sounds like a more endemic problem.
What did Democrats, or President Obama specifically, do wrong or miss?
Maybe nothing. It’s very hard for one party to win three presidential races in a row. A few thousand votes here or there, and Hillary Clinton would be president-elect. In a change election, the party that holds the White House is always in trouble.
Well, maybe something. Obama’s agenda had to be advanced by executive action (Iran deal, deferred deportation) and partisan margins (Obamacare). He thought he had moved the party and the country left. He hadn’t, and when he tried to do so unilaterally, without popular consensus and bipartisan support, there was a backlash. It didn’t help when he frequently accused opponents of ill will or set up straw men rather than acknowledging his opponents’ real arguments. He preached to the choir but never persuaded half of the country of the merits of his agenda. He harped on extended coverage achieved under Obamacare but never took seriously the affordability complaints.
Priorities. After the initial stimulus and health-care legislation passed, the president devoted much of his attention and political capital to issues such as climate change (at the expense of projects such as the Keystone XL pipeline and the coal industry), LBGT rights, the Iran deal and DREAMers. What’s in there for the part of the country that went whole-hog for Donald Trump? Not much.
There was no rural recovery initiative, massive worker-retraining surge or full-throated domestic energy initiative. Obama was unable to raise the minimum wage or expand the earned-income tax credit. In shrinking the military substantially, Obama sent thousands of our military men and women, disproportionately from red America, back to the private sector — and afforded them rotten medical care from Veterans Affairs. When the opioid abuse issue came to the forefront, it was Congress that led the way. A regulatory war on the coal industry pleased environmentalists on the coasts but hurt the economic prospects of those in the middle of the country. Interestingly, GOP governors (in Wisconsin, Michigan, Ohio and even Illinois) were laser-focused on many of these issues. They got credit and were rewarded with votes in both rural and urban areas.
Cultural touchstones. The Democratic Party since the New Deal has always had to manage conflicting interests of its constituent groups (labor, minorities, rural poor, educated elites). The balancing act gets harder as America gets polarized and gaps in social class become chasms. Bill Clinton, because he grew up among them, never lost a cultural familiarity with small-town and rural Americans. The rest of the party? Not so much. As lawyers and college-educated professionals fill the ranks of the political class, they increasingly identify with secular, socially liberal, environmentally conscious elites. That leaves “Trump’s America” feeling alienated, looked down upon and nostalgic for a sort of Disneyland Main Street America. So not only is the Democratic Party not doing much for them, but also too many Democratic pols don’t seem to know or like them much anymore.
Weak foreign policy. The United States is on defense around the world after a series of calamitous decisions and a good deal of reticence about advancing American interests. (Ironically, Trump would make things worse by deferring to Russia, but this is about raw emotion and not coherent policy.) Trump’s voters see the United States losing influence in the Middle East, in Europe and Asia. (Again, ironically, our standing in Asia would get worse if the Trans-Pacific Partnership, a Trump bugaboo, gets killed.) Obama tells us we are overly sensitive about terrorism because we see so much of it on TV. For people who feel as though they have gotten short shrift, who see their immediate communities in decline, the sight of the United States in decline internationally is doubly galling.
How do Democrats address their woes? We tend to think that deferring even more heavily to urban elites, going to the far-left on social, cultural and national security issues, will only worsen the problem. (Do Democrats really want to be running Walter Mondale and Michael Dukakis types again?) Just as the right in the GOP thought doubling down on staunch conservatism after 2008 and 2012 was the way to go (at least Sen. Ted Cruz of Texas did), the Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) wing of the Democratic Party will try to sharpen its ideological outlook and go to the far-left. That might work to a degree in the Democratic primary system. Ultimately, however, Americans demonstrate a steadfast aversion to ideological zealots, whether they are Cruz or Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.).
It is a shame that Vice President Joe Biden didn’t run for president. He adeptly bridges — as Bill Clinton did — the gap between Midwest factory worker and liberal millennial, between California environmentalist and coal-country retiree. The party will need to find leaders who can reach across the class and regional divides; maybe it did in recruiting Sen. Tim Kaine (D-Va.) — a religious Catholic, a progressive, a father of a Marine — to run for vice president. (It’s noteworthy that Kaine represents a state with both upscale northern D.C. suburbs and southwestern coal-country towns.)
Democrats should also recognize that neither party operates in isolation. Trump will invariably disappoint his base, his sky-high expectations won’t be met and economic ups and downs will test his slogan-driven politics. Providing an alternative agenda when the other side implodes is essential to a political comeback.
Obama demolished the notion that a candidate for president had to have years and years of federal government experience; Trump demolished the notion that one needs any at all. That may free up the Democratic Party to find all sorts of people from the heartland, people who can connect without condescending, satisfy the Bernie Sanders flock and not scare off socially conservative moderates in swing states. If Warren Buffett were younger or Mark Cuban were interested, Democrats could go for the billionaire-outsider. Or maybe a Silicon Valley entrepreneur. If not, a more traditional pol from a state that is not the sole province of urban progressives (e.g. Kaine, Sen. Amy Klobuchar of Minnesota) might be the best bet.
A newer face, a native of “flyover country” and an agenda based on working-class families (of whatever race) might lead the party back to health. Given what occurred this time, no potential presidential candidate is too inexperienced. Next time, however, there should be no ethical baggage or sense of entitlement.