As part of an effort to understand the state of the Democratic Party — both inside and outside Washington — in the wake of Donald Trump's victory, I am embarking on an occasional series of conversations with people who will be part of what comes next for the party. I began this project by talking to Guy Cecil, a leading Democratic strategist. The second installment is a chat with Jason Kander, a former Missouri secretary of state, who nearly unseated Sen. Roy Blunt (R) in November. Our conversation was conducted via email and is reproduced below. Have a suggestion for a Democrat I should talk to for this series? Email me at firstname.lastname@example.org.
FIX: First of all, thanks for doing this.
You were one of the few “feel good” stories for Democrats in the 2016 election. You ran WAY ahead of Hillary Clinton and almost knocked off Roy Blunt. So, let’s start basic: How did you do it? What was the one big lesson you learned about how to appeal to voters as a Democrat running in a GOP-leaning state? And how much did the Democratic brand nationally hurt your chances?
I’ve got a bunch more questions but let’s start there.
Kander: I've run statewide in Missouri twice and always substantially outperformed the top of the ticket — once in a win and once in a very close loss. For me, the lesson has always been to make sure voters know what you really believe and make sure you communicate with every voter. They'll forgive you for holding an opinion they don't agree with as long as they know you're genuine and you include them in your vision. Doing things right in politics is no different than doing things right in life: Tell the truth, be yourself.
FIX: Okay! But “be yourself” isn’t a national party platform, right? Are there policies that you think the Democratic Party can — and should — affirmatively unite behind? Or is that a thing of the past, and each candidate needs to run his/her own campaign?
Also, the “tell the truth, be yourself” thing — at least the “be yourself” part — sounds a lot like how Donald Trump ran for the presidency, right?
Kander: I'm a Democrat because I want every American to have a fair shot at the American Dream. That's what ties it all together for me, and in my experience, that means recognizing that no one is dealing with life one “issue” at a time. I've stood in rooms in urban, rural and suburban parts of my state and asked a room of middle class voters to raise their hands if the college debt of someone in their family is affecting their financial situation. Without exception, at least three quarters of the room will raise their hand. Parents, grandparents, uncles and aunts, all affected by it. And then when you talk to the kids, you learn fast that minimum wage isn't enough to get by and go to school. And if you're in a small town, it affects the whole town, because those kids rarely come home after finishing school if the only chance they have to pay down their debt is going to come from the salary they can earn in a major urban area. So, since you asked about platform, I just believe it's about recognizing that progressive solutions are solutions for every American regardless of how much they make, what color they are, or where they live. So while some people think taking our argument to everyone means moderating or acting like Republicans, I don't agree. I think it's about unapologetically making the argument that lifting up people you don't know lifts you up, too. That's what I mean by being yourself.
FIX: I hear all of that. But, that is in a sort of ideal political world that doesn’t currently exist.
In the real political world, it appears as though two factions have emerged post-election:
1. The Bernie Sanders/Elizabeth Warren/Howard Dean wing: This part of the party views compromise with Trump as capitulation and that the only right answer to his presidency is outright resistance.
2. The Charles E. Schumer wing: More pragmatic in its approach to Trump. Let’s work with him where we can. Trust but verify. This wing is also far less populist and less convinced that Wall Street is a huge part of the problem facing the country.
Some of these differences are purely tonal. But, some are not. Trade — and things like TPP — is one good example of a place where the two sides of the party just don’t agree.
It seems to me that what’s been papered over by Trump’s aggressiveness in the early days of his presidency is that the Democratic Party is in dire electoral straits. Out of the Senate and House majorities. At a historically low ebb in governors' mansions. In deep trouble at the state legislative level.
This is not a healthy party. And it’s one without a) a clear leader at the moment or b) a set of unifying policy proposals.
Tell me where — and why — I’m wrong.
Kander: From my point of view here in the middle of the country, no one is thinking about a political party right now. I went to the march in Kansas City, and people were coming up to me telling me they'd never done anything resembling politics or activism in their life but they were ready to start. Fifty-four percent of the country voted for someone else for president and yet the president is governing like he has a mandate. Feels like a movement to me and, honestly, how many successful movements have started in Washington or have been nicely ordered and managed by a political party?
I just think this is a lot bigger than one political party or the question of who are the one or two leaders. I think we all have this responsibility to step forward. As for your questions about the party having “wings,” it seems like a less relevant conversation at the moment. The Democratic Party didn't win the election, and it doesn't make a lot of sense to fight over who gets what piece of the silver medal. The only thing that makes sense is for everybody to jump in the fight.
And, frankly, with someone as divisive as President Trump on the other side, it doesn't really matter who the leader of the opposition is at the moment. The 54 percent of the country, including the Democrats, who voted for someone else are uniting behind the fact that the president is trying to divide the country and undo the progress of the past eight years. Almost all of us agree with that as the core issue we're dealing with right now, so we actually aren't very divided. Obviously we have work to do to unite the party, but President Trump is going to take care of a lot of that for us. And currently he's bringing together more than the Democratic Party, he's uniting the majority of the country against his policies.
I understand your points, and I have no doubt that there are people asking those questions in Washington, but here on the ground where folks are focused on organizing, that's not what I'm hearing from people.
FIX: That’s a super interesting perspective. And it leads me to a question that people ask me all the time: Is it time for another party in this country?
My answer is always: Probably not. Because the logistics and costs of building a new party are massive. And that more people say they are “independent” than actually are when the rubber meets the road. But, if ever there was a time in which people were sick of the two parties and all of the polarization, now is the moment.
I assume that since you’ve run as a Democrat your whole political career, you disagree with the idea of a necessary third party?
Kander: Well, it doesn't feel necessary to me. I'm proud to be a Democrat, and I feel pretty strongly that the country would be better off with Democrats in charge.
FIX: All right. Last question: Most people feel totally disenfranchised from politics and believe neither party represents them. Why are they wrong?'
Kander: Culturally, Americans just aren't turning to existing institutions for leadership like we have in the past, and I'm not sure that's a bad thing.
Take us millennials for example. We are, as a group, pretty progressive across the country, and many of us really came of age politically during President Obama's unifying campaign in 2008. It inspired us, but it inspired us to believe that “we are the ones we've been waiting for.” So is it any surprise that we're not really looking to an existing institution to drive a movement? I believe it's time for a new generation of leadership, so it doesn't surprise me at all.
In the next few years, millennials are going to be the biggest generation represented in the workplace and, very possibly, in the electorate. Part of the reason folks my age are less likely to identify themselves as a Democrat or as a Republican is because they've been watching this system break down and not work for most of their lives. So, like President Obama, we are definitely progressive, but we think that “forward” is a direction that makes a lot more sense than “left” or “right.” Because that left vs. right conversation just feels like our parents' conversation. Today, it's really more of a question of going forward or going back. And we don't want to go back. We want to go forward. In my mind, and in the mind of a lot of millennials, that's why we're progressive.