Mark Penn served as senior adviser and pollster to Bill and Hillary Clinton from 1995 to 2008. He is president of the Stagwell Group.
Last week's Democratic mini-wave has party members elated, and there is no question that the party is poised for gains in 2018 and perhaps 2020. Capitalizing on this opportunity means first understanding that Nov. 7 showed that moderate candidates offer the best chance for a bigger victory in 2018 and beyond. And to attract these candidates, Democrats need to fix their party.
The Democratic mini-wave showed that in a near-swing state, a moderate Army veteran who voted for George W. Bush and opposes sanctuary cities could win a comfortable victory over a former Republican National Committee chairman and lobbyist who made desperate moves in the final weeks of the campaign. Democrat Ralph Northam took back suburban voters who want to keep a lid on government spending but don't like the social divisions and rancor of recent years. Despite the increased influence of the extremes of the left and right in the media and party apparatuses, we still live in a moderate country that wants its leaders to pursue compromise. Yes, voters may be highly partisan, but in the most recent Harvard CAPS/Harris Poll (which I helped design), 91 percent of Americans said they want the two parties to compromise on their principles to get things done.
There is no question that Democratic voters have been energized in opposition to President Trump, and it is not at all unusual for the country to want to put the brakes on a new president. Both Bill Clinton and Barack Obama lost House majorities two years into their presidencies. The American public has time and time again sent a simple message to its leader: If you govern from too far to the right or the left, we will swap out Congress on you and slow you down. Democrats should thus focus on attracting moderate candidates for Congress and in the next presidential race.
But that can't be their only goal. Based on Donna Brazile's revelations in her new book, something is rotten in D.C., and that would be the structure of the Democratic Party, which needs immediate reform. Here are five ways to set things right:
First, to broaden the pool of primary voters, the party should back more open primaries. It should also back the California-style system that puts all candidates in a single primary and advances the top two. This would give moderates a greater chance to win congressional and other primaries, encouraging them and their supporters to join the Democratic Party.
Second, the party should eliminate caucuses and superdelegates from the presidential nominating process. Both are fundamentally undemocratic holdovers from another era. Caucuses lead to lower turnout (usually dominated by the left), and superdelegates hand unearned additional power to party insiders. In this bargain, the left would gain the elimination of the superdelegates in exchange for giving up its undemocratic advantage in caucuses.
Third, the order of the first five presidential primaries should be picked by lot 12 months ahead of time. Currently, enormous resources get poured into two small states with unique constituencies that have become the gatekeepers of the nominations. It's not by chance that several recent presidential nominees and near-nominees were from Massachusetts — they benefited from the Boston media market spilling over into New Hampshire. Such sectional favoritism needs to be eliminated.
Fourth, Democrats need to adopt a new set of transparency principles to guarantee that until someone wins the nomination, the Democratic National Committee will be neutral. That means no debate times geared to smaller audiences; no communications directors chosen with input from campaigns; no joint fundraising agreements that give any candidates special rights until and unless they win the nomination.
Fifth, the party needs financial reform to prevent boom-and-bust cycles and avoid becoming a victim of clientelism. It could be funded from 2 percent of all money raised across the country by Democratic candidates. Consider it a royalty for using the Democratic name and line. This way, the party could go back to being a party and not a shell for the next group of donors.
Democrats have a real chance to retake at least one chamber of Congress next year. In 2016, Republicans won the popular vote in the House 49 percent to 48 percent. A four-point shift nationally, echoing the overall Virginia results, would likely give Democrats the House, though this is not a sure thing. The difference between victory and defeat in these upcoming elections likely hinges on whether the party can attract and get behind moderate candidates — and whether the party can reform itself.