Recently, news broke that Donald Trump Jr. was made aware of an effort by Russia to help his father’s campaign prior to his meeting with then-Trump campaign manager Paul Manafort and a Kremlin-tied lawyer. Naturally, with the president’s approval ratings already at nuclear lows, many Democrats are excited, and even more Republicans horrified.
But damning as the revelations may be, they are unlikely to significantly impact upcoming elections. That is largely due to the Democratic Party being in the state it is in.
To say the Democrats are in crisis would be the equivalent of calling the Challenger’s explosion a minor setback to sending the rocket into space. All they seem to know how to do is lose. Rather than a “resistance,” like what was promised after November’s devastating defeat, the party’s leadership appears resigned to ‘moral’ victories as it waits for the rest of the country to catch on that their opposition are the bad guys.
Despite initially promising changes, DNC Chair Tom Perez hasn’t delivered. While some of that may be due to the mitigating influence of House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi and Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer, the fact remains that the party has not adjusted to the populist moment the country is in. Instead, it has been dogmatically focused on Trump and Russia—an issue American voters are tired of hearing about according to a Harvard-Harris Poll from last month—and has consistently overlooked progressive candidates for traditional, center-right social liberals whose pitches amount to little more than “Donald Trump is bad, and I’m not with him.”
Missing from this pitch is any substantive ideological counter to the overtly corporate pseudo-populism of Trump’s Republican Party—much like what Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders has been pushing since the 2016 presidential primaries.
Democrats have a long history of defining themselves by their opposition, tracing back to President Bill Clinton in the 1990’s. By embracing Reagan Era platform goals like welfare and criminal justice “reform” and reining in “big government,” he enabled the country’s rightward shift that eventually empowered Paul Ryan, the Tea Party, and ultimately, Donald Trump.
One would think that somebody in the Democratic power structure would recognize the obvious deficiencies of this we’re-not-them strategy—especially in light of the data. As Rep. Raúl Grijalva pointed out in a recent article for Time Magazine:
There is simply no substantive debate about whether this is the strongest winning message for the Democratic Party.
How do we know? A comprehensive post-election analysis by the polling and consulting firm Greenberg Quinlan Rosner, funded by multiple groups with nothing to gain by paying for bad information, found that fully 60% of voters believe “Jobs still don’t pay enough to live on and it is a struggle to save anything”—and that belief motivated their votes. The same analysis found that when Clinton changed the focus of her campaign message from the economy (on which she soundly beat Trump for months, especially after the presidential debates) to a vague call for “unity and opportunity,” she lost the most important ground of the campaign: who voters trusted more to help their pocketbooks.
Beyond that, polling from April found Senator Sanders was the most popular active politician in the country. A new poll shows he is the most popular U.S. Senator at home. Meanwhile, the policies he championed like single-payer health care have gained in popularity since the election.
As reported by Salon’s Matthew Rozsa:
A Pew Research Center poll released last week found that 33 percent of Americans favor a single-payer health care program, including 52 percent of Democrats/Leaning Democrats and 64 percent of liberals. The total number who favor single payer has risen by 5 percent from its total in January and a whopping 12 percent from where it was in 2014.
Overall 60 percent of the people polled said that the government is responsible for guaranteeing that all Americans have health care coverage, compared to 39 percent who felt that it did not. That number reached 85 percent for Democrats and independents who lean Democratic, while 68 percent of Republicans said the government should not have that responsibility.
Shockingly, the party’s establishment seems blind to the current sentiment of the country. Tired names like Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton have resurfaced as potential influencers in upcoming elections, and the DCCC has announced its planned slogan for 2018. It is every bit as weak as one might expect, asking voters, “have you seen the other guys?”
Last Friday, The New York Times ran an article co-authored by a former Clinton strategist, Mark Penn, and former Manhattan Borough President, Andrew Stein, titled “Back to the Center, Democrats,” advocating—in all seriousness—that the party resist calls to take stronger stances on issues in favor of ‘pragmatic’ center-right policy solutions.
The disconnect is, as the current president would say, “Yuge.” It is as if the writers were living in a vacuum where the economic developments of the last two decades never happened. Moreover, their proposed solution is to do almost exactly what Hillary Clinton’s failed campaign did during the 2016 election, with the one exception being abandoning identity politics. But everything else is essentially Clinton to the letter: in lieu of sweeping platform goals like those presented by her opponent, run as a ‘pragmatist,’ anticipating policy battles that haven’t even happened yet, and proposing compromises accordingly.
“I am concerned that some of his ideas just won’t work, because the numbers don’t add up. Others won’t even pass Congress, or they rely on Republican governors suddenly having a conversion experience and becoming progressives,” she told a union crowd in Philadelphia last April. “In a number of important areas, he doesn’t have a plan at all.”
Former congressional candidate Jon Ossoff also did something similar in the recent special election for Georgia’s 6th District, favoring ‘pragmatic’ solutions to sweeping policy goals. In an interview, the establishment wunderkind who eschewed “litmus tests,” told reporters he didn’t support “any move toward single-payer when we need to be focused on what’s achievable.”
After his $30 million loss, he told his supporters that they had “started something great.” However, considering that, unlike similarly situated progressive candidates who lacked his budget, he underperformed Clinton in his district, it is hard to imagine what that might be.
But all is not lost yet. At the grassroots level, the Democratic Party is undergoing a transformation.
“The Democratic establishment has no vision for the future,” said Randy Abreu, a former Obama Energy Department appointee turned Bernie Sanders delegate who is now running for New York City Council in the Bronx. “It’s top-down message isn’t in the least bit focused on the millions of diverse communities around the country, each with specific needs.”
In the 14th district, where Abreu is running, roughly 40% of the residents do not have a high school diploma, 30% are convicted felons, and the average salary for families is less than $40,000-a-year. The inability to find work and rising rents due to gentrification, pose the most immediate dangers to the community.
“If I’m at the bottom and I’m struggling, what does ‘we’re not the other guys’ tell me?” he continued. “We need to change how we talk to people.”
Abreu’s candidacy is refreshing because as it stands today, the Republican Party has solidified its hold at the state and federal level with the Census—and by extension congressional and state legislative redistricting—just three years away in 2020. Republicans have veto-proof majorities in 17 states, control both houses in 32, and the governorships in 33.
In just three years, whichever party is in control at the state level will likely capture the House of Representatives for the next decade thanks to partisan redistricting—barring a Supreme Court ruling. There is no denying that the outlook for Democrats is bleak. It will be a steep climb to make up enough ground to even have a significant seat at the table during the redistricting process.
All signs point to a simple truth: Russia revelations will not save the party. Only a leftward, progressive shift can do that.