If you’re confused about the Democratic Party’s reaction to its 2016 presidential election loss and disappointing Congressional and gubernatorial results, join the crowd. Democrats seem to be propagating two clashing memes in the wake of Donald Trump’s triumph in particular. And although no one should expect the party to be speaking with one voice, or even a reasonably coherent voice, so soon after that outsider candidate’s upset victory, it’s hard to imagine Democrats rebounding quickly until this contradiction is resolved – and until they deal effectively with the internal weaknesses of each narrative.
On the one hand, any number of prominent Democrats and their friends have been crowing about their nominee, Hillary Clinton’s, victory in the popular vote, and grousing about the Electoral College.
On the other, it seems that an equal number are lamenting the party’s setbacks among white working class voters and consequent losses of big midwestern industrial states they’d looked at as strongholds. And still other Democrats seemed to be making both points – including President Obama at a press conference in Peru on Sunday.
Logically, the first viewpoint reflects a belief that Democrats were mainly victimized by a fundamentally unfair political system and that in a more perfect (and attainable?) world, would be celebrating “four more years.” The second of course suggests that the party needs major surgery to reclaim its political mojo.
Whoever wins the contest these claims seems to be setting up will surely control the Democrats’ main strategic moves for the upcoming 2018 off-year elections and, if they resonate with the voters, the next presidential contest. At the same time, both schools of thought suffer from serious, and possibly fatal, flaws.
The most obvious are being displayed by the “stand-patters.” It’s bad enough to bitch and moan about the Electoral College. After all, that’s the system created by the Constitution, and the rules it sets and imperatives it creates for campaigns are hardly a secret. Is this manner of choosing presidents perfect? Not by a long shot. But Americans are far from agreeing that the flaws outweigh the virtues, so it’s difficult to see what purpose these complaints serve for the foreseeable future other than jeopardizing some of President-elect Trump’s legitimacy, or the idea that he enjoys a mandate (which in fact seems to be their main purpose).
More fundamentally, however, let’s not forget what just happened on November 8 at the presidential level. The Democrats faced a GOP rival who gave tens of millions of his countrymen the willies about winning control over the use of nuclear weapons; who had never held political office; whose command of numerous critical issues seemed shaky at best; who arguably confessed to the crime of sexual assault on a video recording made public; who offended legions of women, Hispanic-, African- and Muslim-Americans, not to mention the loyal supporters of major Republican rivals ranging from Texas Senator Ted Cruz to his Florida counterpart Marco Rubio, not to mention former GOP presidential nominees John McCain and Mitt Romney, and not to mention an unusually popular incumbent president; and who faced myriad legal questions about his business operations. And did I mention that the Mainstream Media made a habit of calling him and his most extreme supporters crypto or overt fascists?
And this same Republican won some 47 percent of the popular vote – in addition to displaying state-level supremacy in every major region of the country. Can you imagine how well a Trump-ian candidate who avoided even one of those former certain deal-breakers would have done? Who wasn’t handicapped by doubts about his minimal suitability and qualifications for the presidency? The landslide could have been Reagan-esque. As Clinton herself asked in late September, “Why aren’t I 50 points ahead?”
Of course, the former Secretary of State labored under her own difficulties – mainly due to her creation, along with her husband, former President Bill Clinton of what was in effect a foreign bribe solicitation machine in the form of their Foundation and Global Initiative; to her reckless mishandling of classified information; and to her lying about both sets of misdeeds. But compared to Mr. Trump she was normal and, even more important, safe – qualities American voters typically prize almost to excess. And Democrats both at the top of the ballot and many levels down still found their ambitions, their programs, and their experience rejected in state after state.
So as far as I see it, the case for a thorough Democratic overhaul looks by far the stronger. But those critical of the party’s current approach will face major obstacles, too. For example, there’s strong agreement among the overhaulers about the party’s failings in blue-collar precincts. According to Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders, who challenged Clinton powerfully from the Left during the Democratic primaries:
“I think that there needs to be a profound change in the way the Democratic Party does business. It is not good enough to have a liberal elite. I come from the white working class, and I am deeply humiliated that the Democratic Party cannot talk to where I came from.”
In the words of Minnesota Congressman Keith Ellison, a leading candidate for party chairman:
“The truth is that we have got to make America work for working people again.
“We have to have a shared prosperity. We have to make that our job number one….people want a better economic playing field for working Americans. And they’re voting for it. Our job is to make sure that people know that the Democratic party is the party that is going to deliver that for them.”
But what these statements make clearest is that the obstacle confronting such Democrats as they attempt this reorientation is one of the most formidable that politics can create: credibility. That is, which party do they think occupied the White House for the last eight years? And why was it so oblivious to the struggles of the middle class and the working class and the working poor? As Sanders himself sees it, the Democrats had become
“more concerned about raising money from wealthy individuals than they have been about bringing working people into the party and taking on the billionaire class, taking on Wall Street, the drug companies or the insurance companies.”
As implicitly admitted by Ellison, shared prosperity was not the Democrats’ top priority during the Obama years. The Democratic party had not delivered for them. So why would any thinking American automatically take seriously the notion that the party will turn over a new leaf, especially coming as it does on the “death bed” of a recent election defeat?
No one should count the Democrats out, even for the next two years, much less for the next four or longer. As made clear by the last few elections – featuring Obama presidential victories alternating with Republican off-year waves – the voters’ mood is too volatile. Events are too unpredictable – especially abroad. And you don’t have to be a cynic to understand that major issues tend to look much more complicated from the Oval Office or the halls of Congress than they do on the campaign trail.
But as made clear by Hillary Clinton’s overwhelmingly negative campaign against Trump, you can’t beat something in politics with nothing. And until they come up with a reasonably unified message, Democrats aren’t going to be able to offer much of an alternative to Mr. Trump.