August 27, 2017
Recent election defeats have led to various suggestions for the key to future Democratic victories. A little perspective is required. Yes, Donald Trump is President, but he lost the popular election by over 2.8 million votes, a margin of 2.1%, the third largest percentage margin since such numbers have been kept, and the largest since 1876. He lost it to a weak candidate who ran a poor campaign. Fewer than 80,000 votes, spread over three states, 0.0567% of the national total, gave Trump the win. Even the magnified effect of those few votes in the electoral college left Trump’s margin in that vote 46th out of the last 58 elections.
Democrats have lost four special elections for the House this year, but did relatively well. These were Republican districts, and the Republican’s winning margin this year, compared to 2016, dropped by 59% to 84%.
Trump’s favorability rating is depressingly high, but as noted earlier, not out of line with historic Republican support.
That is not to say that change in Democratic philosophy is not required — and focusing on the national picture ignores Democratic weakness in many state governments — but some of the suggestions are misdirected. One proposal is to respond to right-wing victories by moving rightward. On July 6, The New York Times ran a column by Mark Penn ("chief strategist" to Hillary Clinton's 2008 campaign) and Andrew Stein advocating a "return" to the center, as if the Party had not been occupying that space for some time.
According to Penn and Stein, "In the early 1990s,the Democrats relied on identity politics, promoted equality of outcomes instead of equality of opportunity and looked to find a government solution for every problem." As Richard Eskow, puts it, "Everyone who remembers that Democratic Party, raise your hands." That imagined situation changed in the mid-90s, according to Penn and Stein, when "President Bill Clinton moved the party back to the center in 1995. . . ."
From that they conclude: "The path back to power for the Democratic Party today, as it was in the 1990s, is unquestionably to move to the center and reject the siren calls of the left, whose policies and ideas have weakened the party." The move is required because, they think, "the last few years of the Obama administration and the 2016 primary season once again created a rush to the left. Identity politics, class warfare and big government all made comebacks." Leaving aside the imaginary move to the left under Obama, any leftward tendency in 2016 was located in the Sanders candidacy; there wasn’t any radicalism in the Clinton campaign. (She recently "pled guilty" to "being kind of moderate and center.")
In any case, to the dedicated non-leftist, "big government" probably means regulation of business (they complain that "the old brick-and-mortar economy is being regulated to death,") and "class warfare" means taxing the rich. (There is concern now that "centrist" Democrats may go along with Republican tax cuts.) We don’t need that sort of centrism. Penn and Stein have a few valid insights; one has to do with "identity politics." According to them, working-class voters "saw the party being mired too often in political correctness, transgender bathroom issues and policies offering more help to undocumented immigrants than to the heartland." Obama’s record on immigration hardly qualifies as leftist, and the rest is exaggerated, although liberals do tend to be annoyingly righteous about sometimes-marginal issues.
They mentioned in passing issues concerning rural voters. This is an area to which Democrats have given too little attention; an article by John Nichols in The Nation summed up the issue for Democrats: "The problem isn’t based in rural America, but in the negligence and ignorance of Democratic Party leaders." In other words, those voters can’t and shouldn’t be dismissed, to borrow a phrase from Mrs. Clinton, as "deplorables." As Nichols put it, "The Democratic Party ceded rural America to the Republicans quite some time ago."Penn and Stein would have Democrats "reject socialist ideas." Sanders’ campaign helped to convince many that they needn’t fear that term or concept, that unregulated capitalism isn’t some sort of mystic formula for prosperity, that fairness and equality don’t appear from nowhere, that government activity — intervention, if you will — is necessary. The Party should build on that.