Donald Trump’s emergence in American politics reinforces two lessons that everyone who pays even the slightest bit of attention should have learned a long time ago. First, that partisanship evolves over time as politicians seek out new constituencies. Second, that top-down attempts to get voters in line are not likely to work.
The Democratic Party that nominated Hillary Clinton is not the Democratic Party that nominated John Kerry in 2004. At that time, former Vermont governor Howard Dean’s embrace of single-payer health care was unusual and only 40 percent of Democrats supported same-sex marriage. Those things changed.
Nor is the Republican Party that elected Trump the Republican Party that elected George W. Bush that same year. The party establishment learned last year that its ability to point Republican voters toward acceptable candidates and policy positions was severely lacking. Or, really, it learned that lesson slowly, beginning in 2010. The Republican base drove the bus while party leaders tried their best to give a guided tour of where they were headed.
Both of these points may seem self-obvious, but they conflict with another deep-seated tendency in politics: superstition. Campaigns happen only every few years, so politicians and consultants tend to rely on what has worked in the past to guide their strategy. That means that they’re often slow to see how change is happening within their constituencies or their parties.*
Which brings us to Mark Penn.
Penn is a longtime political consultant whose reputation was largely formulated thanks to his role in Hillary Clinton’s disastrous first bid for the Democratic presidential nomination. He began advising Clinton and her husband in the 1990s and helped guide the senator’s efforts through the early part of her 2008 presidential campaign. By the time he stepped down as chief strategist in April 2008, the campaign’s strategy had proven to be a failure, as Clinton was outmaneuvered by Sen. Barack Obama.
On Thursday, an essay by Penn and former Manhattan borough president Andrew Stein ran in the New York Times, titled “Back to the Center, Democrats.” The conceit is precisely what you’d think: Penn and Stein argue that the path to success for the Democratic Party lies in moving away from the liberal policies that have seemingly gripped it since Sen. Bernie Sanders almost Obama’d Clinton last year.
This paragraph is a concise example of the patchwork of errors that run throughout.
Identity politics, class warfare and big government all made comebacks. Candidates inspired by Senator Bernie Sanders, Senator Elizabeth Warren and a host of well-funded groups have embraced sharply leftist ideas. But the results at the voting booth have been anything but positive: Democrats lost over 1,000 legislative seats across the country and control of both houses of Congress during the Obama years. And in special elections for Congress this year, they failed to take back any seats held by Republicans.
Warren was elected in 2012; Sanders ran in 2016. While each was well known among liberals prior, their championing of “sharply leftist ideas” entered the national conversation in the middle and at the end of the Obama years. Yes, the Obama era saw a sharp drop in Democratic officeholders nationally. But it also followed an era in which the Democrats overperformed. In 2006 and 2008, the party added a number of swing seats that they subsequently lost, an asterisk that should be included in the analysis above, as should the fact that the special elections this year all happened on Republican turf, and that, in each case, the Democratic candidate did far better than the party’s House candidate last November.
Penn and Stein outline policies that they insist will bring the Democratic Party back from the wilderness, citing no evidence for their claims beyond “this is different than what the party advocates now.” They are, for the most part, the sort of middle-of-the-road compromise positions that are always bandied about when people talk about the need for centrism; each could as easily appear under the byline of Michael Bloomberg.
Why should the party try this? Because it’s what Bill Clinton did in 1995 before he “won a resounding reelection victory in 1996 and Democrats were back.” That’s the superstition.
The pair even celebrate the crime bill that became a massive drag on Hillary Clinton’s campaign last year. (That’s the evolution of the party.) They write that “the party seems to have forgotten that community policing combined with hiring more police officers worked in the ’90s — and it will work again today. It can’t be the party that failed to stop the rising murder rates in cities like Chicago.” The centrist idea here seems to be: “Adopt Trump’s rhetoric on crime and apply a solution that was used to unclear effect when crime rates were substantially higher nationally.”
Few lines in the essay, though, give the whole thing away more effectively than this one: “Easily lost in today’s divided politics is that only a little more than a quarter of Americans consider themselves liberals, while almost three in four are self-identified moderates or conservatives. Yet moderate viewpoints are being given short shrift in the presidential nominating process.”
What Penn and Stein ignore is that the percentage of Americans describing themselves as liberal has increased to 25 percent of the population, up from about 17 percent when Clinton was reelected, according to Gallup. The reason for that? Democrats are increasingly embracing the term, predating Warren, Sanders and Obama.
The party has evolved and is evolving.
But unevenly. Penn and Stein lament the return of “identity politics” as impeding the Democratic Party, but there’s an irony to their doing so. It’s white Democrats who have more readily embraced the “liberal” label, while black Democrats are still more likely to identify as moderate. (It also bears mentioning that Penn advised Clinton in 2008 to attack Obama as having a “lack of American roots” and that his multicultural background would be an asset only in, say, 2050.)
Figuring out a new path forward for the Democratic Party is all the rage right now, driven by Republican giddiness at the Democrats’ losses and by hostility from those who feel as though the party should have more fervently embraced more liberal policies (and candidates) during the 2016 election cycle. Everyone knows what’s best for the Democrats, it seems, including Mark Pincus, the guy whose company created the game FarmVille. He and the chairman of LinkedIn, Reid Hoffman, want to create “a new movement and force within the Democratic Party” in which policy ideas are voted on online, according to Recode. (“To start, the group will query supporters on two campaigns: Whether or not they believe engineering degrees should be free to all Americans, and if they oppose lawmakers who don’t call for Trump’s immediate impeachment.”)
What inspired Pincus to seek change?
“Gaming in 2007, believe it or not, was a declining industry, and no one saw it as a big growth area,” Pincus began. “And my insight [was] that the biggest reason it was declining is that it was serving the hardcore gamer, and gaming was getting more complex and expensive.”
The Xbox controller surely hadn’t become easier to use, he said, and the price of purchasing a system certainly had risen dramatically. And as the games themselves grew “more hardcore in focus,” in Pincus’s estimation, “they also drove away the casual gamer and the mid-core gamer.”
Ergo the Democratic Party should do the same thing: Bring back the Democratic middle. Or something.
This effort is called “Win the Future,” or WTF. They are thinking that maybe the lead singer of Third Eye Blind can challenge Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.).
It’s easy to disparage this for a host of obvious reasons. Imagine wealthy people with a minimal understanding of national politics and political organizations thinking they can subvert this thing from the roots! That hasn’t happened since, well, last year.
This ain’t Trump, of course. (If you think the head of LinkedIn has his finger on the pulse of average blue-collar Democrats, well …) We can say one thing, though. Unlike with Penn, it’s at least an idea that recognizes it’s 2017.
* Simultaneously, voters hold politicians to an impossible standard, demanding rhetorical consistency with positions that were often formulated during election cycles years prior. Change is not rewarded. Past statements and votes are used as evidence of what a politician believes in the moment, though all of the circumstances may have changed — or, if a politician updates his position publicly, he is accused of flip-flopping or pandering.