Democrats Are Still In Denial

Despite promising victories, the party has a lot of work to do in establishing a platform that galvanizes voters.
12/18/2017 05:03 am ET
Marvin Gentry / Reuters

We are a former Democratic Congressman, U.S. Senate candidate, and a former Democratic senior White House advisor and current political  and communications strategist and fundraiser.  We have been writing this piece since the early morning hours of November 8, 2016.  As lifetime active and committed Democrats, we had a pretty good idea about what the ensuing months would bring.  So, every time we thought about posting this piece, we realized it would be premature.  Democrats have been in a state of denial for a long time – actually before the 2016 election – feeling stuck, rudderless, and adrift.  But with the publication of Hillary Clinton’s book, What Happened?, the sensation caused by Donna Brazile’s “Stab my Benefactors and Friends in the Back – and Heart” – book, the recent gubernatorial election results, it’s time for a “tough-love” reality check.

It’s been an easy and obvious position to be “Not-Trump.”  But that’s not enough for sustained electoral success.  In fact, it is the complacent formula for myriad defeats in local, state and federal elections in 2018 – a formula that we Democrats have perfected.

A quick look at recent results:  In the five special elections for the House, the scorecard is now Republicans four and Democrats five. And in the Alabama special election for the Senate, the Democratic won, which is to celebrated. But we hope that none of our fellow Democrats see this as a strategic or tactical formula for winning House or Senate races in 2018. This is an anomaly.  

 And Dems have won two out of two gubernatorial races:  Virginia and New Jersey. But jubilant Democrats should not be deceived that anti-Trump messages and campaigns alone will turn America blue again. The Virginia governor’s race was decided by a very large voter turnout in urban areas for the Democrat, Ralph Northam. Rural areas turned out in a big way for the Republican, Ed Gillespie. So, enthusiasm and polarization were, as one analysis suggested, the key to this race. And in New Jersey, the Republican candidate could not distance herself from the historic low approval ratings of Chris Christie, the incumbent bloviator and bully.  The race was more about Christie than it was about Trump.

One important race for the Virginia State Legislature won by Danica Roem was, perhaps, the most instructive for Democrats. Danica passionately focused on Northern Virginia’s traffic congestion as well as jobs and schools. Her authentic passion for tackling real-life problems and the concerns of her neighbors resonated emotionally with parents, families, commuters and working people throughout the district.

Beyond the few bright spots, Democrats are in denial over our persistent structural failings.  Maybe the entire Democratic Party owes America an apology for its persistent refusal to come to terms with the underlying reasons for our electoral failures.  From losing the presidency in 2016, which goes far beyond the primaries, the candidate(s), the strategy etc. to our seemingly endless inability to deliver an energizing, emotionally resonant message to key base constituencies:  People of color, young people and working-class voters, let alone to Independents and any “Republicans of conscience.”

Let’s begin the process of rebuilding with a brief and clear statement from Secretary Clinton:  “I take responsibility for my defeat.” – full stop, no caveats.  Americans are traditionally a very forgiving people to those who take responsibility for their mistakes, and who then sincerely apologize.  While waiting for Secretary Clinton’s unequivocal apology, it’s time for the rest of the Party to move through the 5 stages of grieving:  Denial, anger, bargaining, depression and acceptance, and get back to trying to ensure that the American Dream is available to ALL―not just the top ½ of 1%―as we have promised to do since our Party’s inception. 

But before we begin anew, we cannot ignore the internecine warfare among Democrats.  It represents a deep division within the Party about its fundamental identity.  The Party “establishment” is seen by many as more of an impediment than as an organizing force.  And the Party “insurgents” are seen as trying to dismantle the Party, which terrifies the “establishment.”  To heal the Party’s divisions and achieve electoral success, Democrats must move from denial to acceptance of the long-term failures of Democrats, reclaim core Democratic values, and launch a “moonshot” of policy prescriptions coupled with emotionally resonant messaging to rebuild trust with disaffected voters.  We have the opportunity, no the responsibility, to become the Party of both progress and economic growth – and smart and effective national security.

In 1960, a vibrant energetic young John F. Kennedy captivated America. Strong on security, strong on hope, strong on a vision for the future, he ushered in the era of a new kind of President. Arguably, Barack Obama rode the same horse into office. But, as we know, the path to the higher ground of the common good trod by Democrats turned rocky in 2010. We suffered a spasmodic regressive backlash to the Democratic Party amid the persistent perception, grounded in sad reality, that Democrats had become the Party of elites, of Wall Street and without the capacity to understand the growing majority of Americans who FEEL that the American Dream is dead for them—and worse, for their children. Mocking Republican Scott Brown’s ownership of a pickup truck in the 2010 Massachusetts senate race, underscored Obama’s elitism, as did Hillary Clinton’s description of millions of Trump supporters as a “basket of deplorables.” Both are prime examples of our Party’s expressed disdain for the feelings and fears of millions of Americans.

Thus, the election of Donald Trump, a self-admitted sexual predator, a liar by his own contradictory words, a dishonest businessman by verdicts and judgments of several courts and a reality TV celebrity should have come as no great surprise.

It has been just over a year since Trump outmaneuvered Clinton in the Electoral College by winning 302 votes to her 232 to become president. Of course, our natural inclination as Democrats has been to bargain, and to repeat over and over, “Well, Hillary won the popular vote… we came close.” No, we didn’t nearly win or almost win or come close ― we lost! Illuminating this depressing reality makes us feel angry. And rationalizing defeat is comforting. But it will not win future elections. So, Democrats, be angry. But get over it!

One of the definitive aspects of political campaigns ― much like most sports contests ― is that on Election Day, or at the end of the game, there are winners and losers. There are not candidates or competitors who almost win or almost lose, or barely win, or barely lose or even came close. There are winners and losers. Right now, with Republican legislative chaos and Trump’s legislative failures, Democrats seem energized, but even with the two recent gubernatorial victories, we remain stuck in denial and internal factional wrestling ― the mentality of losers.

Well that’s depressing, isn’t it?  We don’t want to be losers. So let’s get tough and stop the denial, rationalizing and blaming. What if politics was like a business that goes bankrupt? Pay the creditors, wipe the slate clean and move on. Democrats need a total reboot to win again, not a halfhearted, mealy-mouthed, consultant-driven, palliative care campaign like “A Better Deal.” Is it even possible?  How do you reinvigorate a political party when the party will not even come to terms with the real reasons we lost big from 2010 through 2016?  And as one senior Democratic political strategist noted,”Democrats bring a stalk of kale to a knife fight.” No more kale; Let’s win!

We are now left with only 194 U.S. House seats out of 435; 46 U.S. Senate seats out of 100; 14 governors out of 50; 20 attorneys general out of 50 (who these days are often the only ones standing between our Constitution, the rule of law and the capricious and often illegal mandates and decrees flowing from Washington); 17 Secretaries of State out of 50 (who in most states are the decision-makers and arbiters of election mechanics and voting procedures); and approximately 40 percent of state legislatures, both senate and house. We can’t win if we believe that considerably less than 51 percent representation across the country is winning.

Trump won with an emotionally resonant message that struck at the core of the fear and anxiety of the American electorate. He talked about rebuilding America that everyone who leaves his or her house can see is in desperate need of rebuilding, from roads, to bridges, to tunnels, to name a few examples of our crumbling infrastructure. Hillary and the Dems talked about various government regulations and programs, and the usual smorgasbord of issues that carried no emotionally resonate energy or believability.

There are real reasons for the underlying sense of fear and anxiety so many feel. Consider the first decade of the 21st century. 9/11 struck a blow to our sense of invulnerability, catapulting us into the era of fear. Coupling the drumbeat of the security crisis with irrational economic policies, we suffered the financial collapse of 2007 and 2008. Jobs and houses were gone, replaced by historic bankruptcies. Banks were bailed out, yet no bankers were held accountable. The prescription for fear, anxiety and anger... anger building for years as the middle class suffered stagnant or declining wages while hedge fund managers made billions.

Where is the party of economic opportunity, of innovation, of the working class? Where are the Democrats of strong national security? Where is the party that faced down Khrushchev over Cuba? Where is the party of equal rights? Where is the party of landmark civil rights? Having let the bankers off the hook, Democrats are now viewed as the party of Wall Street. A recent poll in the spring of 2017 found that two-thirds of the public sees the Democratic Party as “out of touch with the concerns of most people in the United States today.”

After eight years of Republican Congressional racism and obstructionism,  Trump and his supporters cast themselves as the anti-establishment insurgency of change and for millions of Americans longing for a return to the American Dream and American “greatness.” House and Senate Republicans, who originally were vehemently anti-Trump, voluntarily ― and often as a result of being bullied and threatened on Twitter―became serfs in the Trump Court. Quite remarkable!

The electorate in key states simply ignored the ugliness of the so-called “alt-right” unleashed by a nimble, master manipulator of new media. Trump gave permission and support to white supremacy, bigotry and misogyny. The chaos that Trump created, and in which he thrives, amplified the fear, anger and hopelessness of millions of voters, and offered fool’s gold with false promises of more jobs, better healthcare, and lower taxes. Trump sold himself as the populist firebrand who would restore American values to angry, forgotten working folks, and a middle class abandoned by the Democratic Party. Surely, 2016 was a regressive spasm ― Trump reflected the collective psychic injury that came to a head in this century’s first decade. Arguably, the two clearest manifestations of the American psyche today are the current opioid epidemic—the disease of despair as two doctors diagnosed―and the election of Donald Trump.

How could The Democratic Party allow itself to be tagged as the party of Wall Street? How extraordinary is that? How could Democrats have allowed that to happen? Moreover, why does a political party that today is in the distinct minority, from governors to attorneys general to secretaries of state to state legislatures to Congresspersons, and to Senators, blindly refuse to clean house?

Democrats were once viewed as the party most trusted to successfully manage our economy; we’ve lost that trust despite Bill Clinton’s balancing the budget for the first time since the Truman Administration. But we need only look back to the 1990s, when President Clinton forcibly moved the party to the right, rewarded big business with trade deals that proved great for the multi-nationals’ bottom line, but accelerated job losses in traditional industries. Recall that “Wall Street Guru” Bob Rubin served as Clinton’s “Merlin-the-wizard,” and left the Clinton Administration just weeks after deregulating the banking industry for the CEO job at Citicorp.

Of course, the economic crash of 2008 began with the Clinton era bank deregulation, but it was caused by Republican policies. Federal Reserve Chair Alan Greenspan trumpeted the naive-at-best, cynical-at-worst, ideology that Wall Street would police itself.  He consciously allowed real estate practices that were clearly too good to be true, but soporific for a middle class going backwards... “forget about tax cuts for the wealthy and the costs of middle east folly, use your home like an ATM!” In the wake of the economic disaster, President Obama chose another creature of Wall Street, Tim Geithner, and a timid Attorney General, Eric Holder, to pick up the pieces.

 

How can we explain to Americans why only one single low-level bank official was held accountable for the financial negligence, manipulation, and, all too frequently, illegal practices that destroyed the lives of millions of Americans who lost jobs, homes and HOPE—ironically the rallying cry of the first presidential campaigns of Clinton and Obama? The failure of Democrats to seek justice on behalf of the American people constitutes a signature Democratic failing that cemented the perception of Democrats as pocket change for Wall Street and corporate America.  Democrats must accept and acknowledge this harsh reality in order to move forward.

 

When an institution and its followers have been held in high esteem because of values and service, and those values and trust are betrayed, the penalties of that betrayal are often harsher than when expectations were low. No wonder that so many Americans now perceive that Democrats are as complicit in their economic distress as are the Republicans, and equally mistrusted. Until Democrats come to grips with their failings and are able to convince the electorate of their authentic, realistic and inclusive solutions for an uncertain future, Democrats will find it difficult to regain Americans’ confidence in our ability to manage the economy, produce jobs, create and maintain economic stability, and solidify a solid foundation for renewed HOPE. Hope not just for the current generation, but also for the generations coming up.

We are now viewed as a Party of fractured and fractional division. Once, we prospered because of inclusivity and a big tent. While we convened many different identifiable adherents, somehow the Party was able to weave a political patchwork quilt, sometimes ragged at the seams, but a blanket that covered most of us. Today, we seem to live in silos, not as a real coalition.

When one of us ran for Congress in ’06, a year in which Democrats took and held the majority in the US House for four short years, the litmus test was whether the candidate really fit the district. Of course, today the Party’s mainstream strongly supports choice, but the current Chairman of the Democratic Party now says that Pro-choice is a Democratic Party litmus test. Giving the finger to a congressional district in which voters are concerned about third trimester abortions, for example, is not a gesture that will lead to victory.

While our own belief is fervently in favor of women’s reproductive rights, can we win in a relatively conservative America excluding candidates who agree with us on most issues, but who understand that to get elected, they must hew a different line in their districts. Will the purity of political ideology trump the practicality of what it takes to win?

And choosing long time Clinton stalwarts and current lobbyists—lobbyists for Fox News, and Citi Group and CITGO Petroleum to name two―as Members at Large of the Democratic National Committee is a slap, no actually it is sulfuric acid poured on the cuts and bruises of the progressives! To add insult to stupidity, the DNC chairman also “purged” tens of “leftists.”

Before Obama, the American electorate had grown increasingly wary of the power of the federal government.  We don’t ascribe blame, but we accept this as reality.  As president, Obama faced singular challenges.  And as America’s first African-American President, he embodied outside hopes and faced outside enmity. He inherited an economy on the brink of depression.  But after the passage of the American Recovery & Reinvestment Act, the White House chose to pursue an overhaul of the health care system, and found itself on the defensive from the start.  The president, more interested in policy than the politics of governance, failed to galvanize grass root support for his signature piece of legislation.  Republicans successfully cast the Affordable Care Act as Obamacare, and Democrats as “Big Government.” So in the Tea Party tsunami of 2010, 60-plus House seats were lost by Democrats, many of them centrist, blue dog Democrats. The failure of President Obama and the Party to properly “message” the economic recovery and health care legislation not only sacrificed the congressional majority, but also set the stage for Trump in 2016.

In the face of repeated defeats, one would reasonably expect a political party to not only do some soul searching, but also to clean their house!  For example, what about the faces of the Democratic Party now?  Recently, a longtime respected political analyst was overheard cleverly intoning that the average age of the Democratic leadership is dead!  Where are the new faces of Democratic leadership?  Why are they not being given substantive roles to lead the Party truly into the 21st Century?

Simply put, the current Democratic Leadership is unable or unwilling to craft and deliver a cohesive policy agenda and translate that agenda into an emotionally resonant message to speak to the heart of America. The best we can manage is “A Better Deal,” a slogan more consistent with a middling quality choice at an obsolete Sears & Roebuck store than a galvanizing battle cry for Democrats.  It’s a slogan which simply reminds us all that as a political Party, we are still running on the fumes of the 1930’s. Democrats’ misguided approach relies on persuasion, rationale, plans, policy, and ideas. We are living in a much more complex and instant media and message era. Voters don’t vote for ideas. Voters are moved by feelings. Democrats are all about the head. Voters are all about the heart. After the defeat of John Kerry in 2004, one of his closest advisors declared that voters are motivated to go to the polls by ideas. Wrong! People vote on and for and because of emotions. A Better Deal is as flaccid as jello, but without the iridescent colors from which to choose.

The real danger that we face if we are unwilling to reflect, and accept reality by facing the facts, warts and all, is that many of us―and many coming along―are simply going to start looking elsewhere. Donors have been standing on the sidelines waiting for the Party to sort itself out. They are saying that if the Party cannot reconcile, reboot, restore and reinvigorate, they and many other Democrats will not participate. That’s not something any of us want to see. Whatever the differences between the progressive movement and the establishment, they pale in comparison to the dangers posed to the nation by the Trump-Bannon brigade. We are not preaching incrementalism, far from it. We are begging for a reality check.

Lest you readers consider us harsh and hopeless, please know we are  not giving up.  In the next article, we will present our prescriptions for winning – a “moonshot” like the one John Kennedy envisioned, supported and achieved.  We can make America work again, FOR ALL.

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