AVENTURA, Fla. ― It was a good time for this particular crowd to stay out of D.C.
Had the vote counts gone a little differently in three Midwestern counties on Nov. 8, the 120 or so Democratic Party donors gathered at a golf resort outside of Miami this weekend would have been feting each other in the nation’s capital. Instead, they were taking in somber lectures about the electoral catastrophe the party had just suffered, and grappling with the way forward.
It was a gathering of what Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) railed against during his presidential campaign as “the establishment.” The conference, organized by longtime Clinton family operative David Brock, was dominated by Clintonfolk. Jon Cowan, president of the ardently centrist Third Way think tank, was among the most prominent panelists, alongside Hillary Clinton confidante Maya Harris, “Morning Joe” regular Harold Ford and even embattled Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel.
But the overwhelming analysis emanating from Brockapalooza was essentially a haute couture Berniecrat gripe: The Democratic Party has been writing off way too much of the electorate by assuming it doesn’t need ― or can’t win ― the votes of working-class people.
“I think there’s a sense that some portion of the Democratic Party shares the blame for what happened,” New York Attorney General Eric Schneiderman told reporters. “The Democrats acquiesced in many ways to policies making people’s lives worse.”
He was referring obliquely to the legacy of former President Bill Clinton ― deregulating high finance, gutting welfare, feeding mass incarceration ― which leaders of a party ostensibly devoted to empowering the powerless have been reluctant to acknowledge.
“How many bankers went to jail?” Sen. Jeff Merkley (D-Ore.), the sole senator to endorse Sanders in the Democratic primary, asked the crowd on Saturday morning in reference to the 2008 financial crisis. “None,” he concluded.
There were real disagreements about the right course of action. But speaker after speaker said the party’s reliance on demographic trends had made it complacent on matters of economic justice. This had cost Democrats not just the presidency, but governorships and hundreds of state legislature seats across the country.
“The Democratic coalition lives in the economy, all right?” former Bill Clinton campaign manager James Carville told reporters. “The idea that somehow it’s only white working-class people that live in an economy … blacks, Hispanics, unmarried women, gay people ― they’re like everybody else.”
Stephanie Schriock, president of EMILY’s List, a group dedicated to electing pro-abortion rights women to office, generally defended the Democratic record. Hillary Clinton won the popular vote by some 3 million, and Democrats gained ground in both the House and Senate in a year that should have been rough on Democrats.
But she also said the party needed to “go into these rural communities, particularly in the Rust Belt, and at times reintroduce ourselves.” Schriock said EMILY’s List would “go deep” into the ballot, recruiting candidates down to the school board level. It was a tacit acknowledgement that party strategists had needlessly neglected many communities.
This should generally be obvious. Exit polls and vote counts have shown that white working-class voters went for Donald Trump en masse, while brown working-class voters didn’t show up for Clinton. Still, many Democratic partisans maintain that the party’s electoral troubles are due exclusively to interference by FBI Director James Comey and Russian leader Vladimir Putin. That didn’t seem to be winning over many of the attendees at Brock’s confab.
“It’s like blaming the refs for a bad call at the buzzer,” one attendee told The Huffington Post. “Why was it a 1-point game?”
Just about everybody willing to talk to reporters at Brock’s retreat touted the valor of both the Democratic Party and “the progressive movement.” Given the progressive wing of the party’s skepticism toward big donors and corporate economics, it’s not obvious that the organizations purporting to lead the “movement” really understand where the energy of that movement lives. But they wanted to be part of it. It is, at least in the era of Trump, a good brand.
Still, aside from better voter outreach strategies, speakers didn’t offer much. Many seemed to hope that Trump’s terribleness will galvanize supporters with different interests, making it easier to forge a grassroots-oriented resistance.
“You do tend to forget the minor things that divided you when you realize you’re facing World War II,” Schneiderman said.
You do tend to forget the minor things that divided you when you realize you’re facing World War II. New York Attorney General Eric Schneiderman
And so far that seems to be the case. Millions of people rallied for women’s marches around the world on Saturday, generating enthusiasm and solidarity among Trump critics. But at some point Democrats will need something other than “Trump is bad!” if they want to build a lasting majority. Even Brock, one of the few diehard defenders of the party’s approach at his own conference, acknowledged that trashing Trump’s unfitness just didn’t work.
But even when Democrats weren’t just pointing a finger at Trump in 2016, their message was essentially defensive, rather than proactive. “America is already great!” was just the most obvious manifestation. Democrats were exhorted to protect Barack Obama’s legacy, even as they were warned not to expect much more from their next leader. Since Trump’s election, Democrats from Sanders to Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.) are everywhere fighting to preserve existing programs rather than presenting an explanation for why things are hard for families and what should be done to make things better.
Millions of people would be worse off without Planned Parenthood or Social Security or Medicare or Obamacare. But they also want to know why their sister just lost her job and why they haven’t received a raise in 12 years. It’s a mistake to equate 2016 with the promised land, even if Trump ravages the social safety net in 2017.
There are a few ideas circulating among Democrats designed to present a forward-looking agenda that maintains the party’s existing commitments to working families. But like the candidates vying to chair the Democratic National Committee, Democratic leaders playing to big donors this weekend seemed content to reach out to state and local parties, then wait and see.
We’ll see how that goes.