The Democrats in 2020

I make no secret of the fact that I am no fan of either major political party. But every now and again I like to put on one of their hats and offer my perspective about what they should do to achieve success. This time the Democratic Party is the honoree.

There is much discussion about who will assume leadership of the party, which – let’s be honest – is in shambles across the country. People keep mentioning the old standards, Joe Biden, Elizabeth Warren, Bernie Sanders and Jerry Brown. There are even whispers of a Hillary Clinton reemergence. “Old” is the operative term.

Meanwhile there are occasional boomlets for young leaders who have yet to make a national impact, like Julian Castro, Tulsi Gabbard, Eric Garcetti, and Kirsten Gillibrand. The common belief that the party has a weak bench is wrong. There is no dearth of young talent, but no one has exhibited that special essence that makes a viable national candidate.

However, one aspect of this search seems to have been mostly ignored. By far the largest identifiable segment of the Democratic base is black women. This group is large, influential and reliable. It seems to me that it makes sense either to choose someone from that group or, if no qualified candidates stand out, then at least someone who particularly appeals to it on a gut level. That should be the first criterion.

So, here’s my suggestion: Sen. Kamala Harris. Yes, I know, she is just a first-term senator but I have a one-word response to that criticism: Obama. She is smart, accomplished, and a great public speaker. In California she has demonstrated that she can draw votes from a broad spectrum of voters. I say go for the touchdown, don’t just try to squeak out small gains.

Trying to bridge the broadest range of voter support with a candidate beloved by no one has been tried and it failed. Trump showed the path. Find your core and stick to it with vim and vigor. Don’t worry about fringe supporters. They have nowhere else to go and just the horror of the Republican opponent will drive them to the polls. Going for a geriatric standby is comfortable but that road has a dead end [pun intended]. Moreover, forget about that unicorn, the uncommitted centrist. Most people who claim to be in that group are either self-deluded or outright liars.

One counter argument, largely presented by the Biden wing, is that Democrats must return to their roots and appeal to disgruntled white working-class voters who deserted them in droves in 2016. But think about it. If an elite NY billionaire with funny hair can achieve this rapport, why can’t an attractive young California legislator, even if she is a black woman? In this case, the key is the message, not the messenger.

Democratic Navel Gazing

middleamericaDemocrats are justifiably reassessing their message to middle America. Losing Wisconsin, Michigan and Pennsylvania is a wake-up call. Few believe that Democrats can remain a national political force operating mainly from the North-East, the West Coast and a smattering of great cities scattered across the land. I just watched an interview of two aging Democratic heavyweights, Hilary Rosen and Bill Press, and I was amused at how clueless they are. Like Hillary Clinton’s ill-fated campaign, they profess to look forward while actually thinking mostly of triumphs from the distant past.

Their assessment is that the recent campaign concentrated too much on social issues and character assassination of Trump and too little on bedrock economic issues. That is likely true, but then they proceeded to demonstrate that they are the problem not the solution. For example, Press noted that Democrats have always had the back of working class America, citing the many great programs that they have created and supported over the years. Thus, he mused, the problem must be how they get their message across. He cited as principal examples their promotion of a $15 minimum wage and their fervent support of unions.

But the uncomfortable fact is that many – perhaps most – in the working class don’t much like either of these! They see the minimum wage as just a sop for others, the poor and marginal workers. The only impact they foresee for themselves is job insecurity as businesses have to adjust operations to meet a general upward wage pressure. A rise in wages that results from increased business activity and a tightening labor market is welcome and has few adverse consequences. One that is simply mandated is quite the opposite, except for those who are its direct beneficiary. And that is not the majority of working class America.

As to unions, they currently have a very mixed reputation. Unions once did marvelous things for workers in general and we all have profited from their efforts. But that is long past. Unionization is now low and decreasing. It is strongest in the public sector, but that is a mixed blessing for union promoters as few outsiders think highly of government workers.

A key factor in the low reputation of unions is a growing recognition that many of them basically ran a scam on their members. Their leaders colluded with management, particularly in the public sector, to trade wage increases for lavish fringe benefits, like retirement packages with golden health plans. This was attractive to the short-term perspectives of management because the costs don’t show up as operating expenses. Rather they contribute to out-year costs when, presumably, many managers will be comfortably retired. For the union leaders this also is attractive as the negotiations are far easier and their outcomes, if future benefits are amortized, appear very lucrative. The problem is that these agreements imposed impossible debts that are now coming home to roost. Wages have stagnated and the promised fringe benefits are in jeopardy.

socialismWhy should those who work with their hands back a party that promotes pie-in-the-sky social schemes, transgender bathroom rights, sanctuary cities, a globalized economic policy, immigrant rights, and a long litany of causes that are remote or counterproductive to people who sweat for a living and struggle to raise a family? Joe Biden is right. Democrats need to return to their origins. It’s fine to work for the poor, the disadvantaged and the downtrodden. It shows their heart and good intentions. But their main message must be to those who have jobs and work for a weekly paycheck. Otherwise they will become the party of the marginalized, essentially a Bernie-style Socialist Party. Even a blowhard like Donald Trump can defeat that.

Watch who is selected as the new Democratic National Committee chairperson. Just as picking Debbie Wasserman Schultz signaled a grey, technocratic and backward-looking future, this will show what path they are choosing for the next political contest. If it is Rep. Keith Ellison, as is widely rumored, the party is likely toast for the foreseeable future.

What now for Democrats?

As I have often remarked, I hold no allegiance to either of our two venerable political parties. Indeed, at the risk of insulting my readers, I confess that I consider true-believers of either ideology to be happily deluded at best and sadly demented at worst. Both parties have ideas worth considering and certitudes that are simply nonsense on their face. With this background in mind, here are a few of my thoughts about the situation that the Democrats now face after their recent electoral defeat.

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First, here are few statistics to ponder. It is no surprise that Democrats are despondent.

  • Republicans will shortly control the Presidency and both Houses of Congress.
  • They will likely also dominate the Supreme Court after the Scalia vacancy is filled.
  • Of the 99 state legislatures, 69 are totally controlled by Republicans.
  • In 24 states, Republicans control both the State House and the legislatures.
  • Only 6 states have Democratic Governors and legislatures.
  • There are 34 Republican Governors, providing a full bench for future Presidential candidates.
  • Fully one-third of the House Democratic caucus comes from just 3 states: MA, CA & NY.
  • Of the almost 700 counties that Obama won twice, Trump won 209 of them.
  • Of the counties that never voted for Obama, Hillary won only 6.

Basically, contrary to popular opinion, we are not a divided nation except in the sense of an Athenian democracy, which of course is not our form of government. We could take all Democratic voters and stuff them into California and never again have full Democratic control of our federal government!

I won’t list the comparable situation when Obama took office in 2008, but suffice to say that the years of his leadership have been an unmitigated disaster for his party from the perspective of political power. Not that he didn’t have some policy successes, but evidently the electorate gave him and his party scant credit. The President of course doesn’t directly influence what happens in elections at the state level. But he sets the tone and his successes or failures trickle down to a significant degree.

To be fair, Republicans did everything in their power both to see that he failed and that he was seen as a failure. His successes are thus all the more remarkable in the face of their intransigence. Still, compare his tenure with that of Bill Clinton, who faced at least as clever and relentless political opposition while presiding over the most successful Democratic regime in the modern era. And all of this was in spite of the indignity of almost being impeached.

The Democratic Party will recover and once again become a vibrant political force across the land. Early reports of fracture or even demise are overwrought and are comparable to what is usually said after painful defeats of either party. For example, the Goldwater cataclysm in 1964 was supposed to be the end of the Republican Party. However, the near victory by Hillary Clinton this time is misleading. She had the weakest opponent since the Democrats threw up Walter Mondale or Michael Dukakis. I think Joe Biden would have won handily even though he would be fighting the tide of a change election.

How long this recovery takes depends on how quickly Democratic movers and shakers come to grips with what is wrong and why. It is too soon after this election to even begin this process. In addition, the poison fruits of a generation of neglect of “flyover America” will threaten any renaissance. The 2020 census is not that far off and the mass of Republican legislatures and Governors will no doubt continue their re-apportionment gerrymandering.

My two cents worth is that depending on big city juggernauts and the growth of the Hispanic population will not work. The latter group is far more diverse in outlook and interests than is popularly appreciated. Democrats have to listen to old hands like Joe Biden and reconnect with their old base among the less-educated middle class, both white and black. These are not just “po’ white trash” as the Democratic intelligentsia sometimes appear to believe. Relying on the poor and the well-to-do intellectual class is not a viable long-term solution because they are geographically concentrated in ways that don’t work on our electoral map. Bernie Sanders had it right is some ways, but he was a flawed spokesman for that viewpoint.

Another critical flaw in the recent approach by Democrats is laying a big bet on income inequality as a political wedge. The problem is that, even for many of the poor, “coveting their neighbor’s ass” has never been much of a motivator for most Americans. People want a piece of the action but not necessarily by redistributing wealth. Indeed they often admire great success unless it is clearly undeserved; they just want a fair shot at achieving it themselves. Unsurprisingly, the big proponents for income redistribution are well-off intellectuals who, I presume, expect that “it won’t effect thee or me, but instead that guy behind the tree.

To end on a bright note for those of you who voted for Hillary, there is an excellent chance that Republicans under the leadership of Donald Trump will step in the big do-do. The announcement yesterday that Steve Bannon, of Alt-Right infamy, will be Chief Strategist for the new administration is a time-bomb waiting to explode. If the nation survives this, as I am quite confident it will, we will be well-positioned for a return to sane, progressive leadership if the Democrats can find their way to offer it in 2020.