×

Jonathan P. Baird: Democrats lost in America

  • Former President Bill Clinton and vice presidential candidate Sen. Tim Kaine, D-Va.,applaud Hillary Clinton speaks in New York on Nov. 9, 2016, where she conceded her defeat to Donald Trump. AP



For the Monitor
Sunday, September 10, 2017

Since their election defeat last November, the Democrats remain in a rudderless, traumatized state of disbelief. Losing to Donald Trump was unthinkable – but then the unthinkable happened.

At this point, the Democrats still show little sign that they grasp the reasons for their defeat. Being in the political wilderness can be confusing. Like being lost in the woods, it can be hard to know which way is the way out.

Early signs are not promising that Democrats will figure the best direction to go. In late July, after doing months of polling and after consulting focus groups and enlisting political consultants, Democrats came up with a new slogan: “A Better Deal: Better Jobs, Better Wages, Better Future.”

As was pointed out in the media, the slogan bore a strong resemblance to Papa John’s pizza: “Better Ingredients, Better Pizza. Papa John’s.”

The slogan appeared to have its origins from a May 24 USA Today op-ed authored by Sen. Tim Kaine, Hillary Clinton’s running mate. Kaine had used the phrase “Better Skills, Better Jobs, Better Wages.”

The slogans are an embarrassment. They were rightfully mocked on social media. After a historic defeat, after no shortage of soul-searching, the Democrats came up with something so uninspiring. Is a faux pizza ad the best that can be offered up?

The truth is that since the Bill Clinton era the Democrats have run on what I would call a minimalist change agenda. They want to make clear they are not Republicans, but all too often they look like Republican-lite. They have a history of feeding at the same corporate trough as the Republicans.

It has been very hard to know what Democrats stand for. The Hillary Clinton campaign was the absolute embodiment of this approach. The belief was that it was enough to be anti-Trump because he was so uniquely disgusting.

The Hillary campaign slogan was “Stronger Together.” That has to be the apogee of meaninglessness.

Let me offer a suggestion: The Democrats must be the party of progressive change – not a status quo party. We already have one conservative party, the Republicans. Democrats need to provide a stark contrast to the Republicans. Clintonian triangulation is not a progressive vision of the future.

One of the most maddening aspects of the last election was Trump’s ability to seize the mantle of being a change agent. The Democrats mistakenly ceded that territory because they were caught up in defending the progress made under President Obama. In touting the status quo, the Democrats utterly misread the public and its anxieties.

Even though Trump is a fraud and a pathological liar, he had the political horse sense to know people were hurting badly. Siding with “forgotten” Americans was smart politics. The Clinton campaign lost touch with the public mood at the same time as it played it safe.

While he did not win, Bernie Sanders had a much more accurate read on the public. His populist message attacking Big Money did strike a nerve. He showed the possibility of running without reliance on millionaires and billionaires. His millennial support grew, in part, because of his awareness of crushing student loan debt and the need to address that.

Democrats need to learn from what was positive about the Sanders campaign. The America Sanders described was much closer to the mark than Clinton’s take. The Democrats’ continuing cluelessness about the reasons for Sanders’s popularity is sad. Maybe they should not be so ready to dismiss the candidate who has the highest approval rating of any politician in the country.

I know this will be unpopular to say but, along with Hillary Clinton, I blame President Obama for the Democratic defeat. Obama bailed out banks more than working people. His justice department never prosecuted the white-collar criminals who crashed the economy. Nor did he do much to help the 5 million people who lost their homes to foreclosure.

During the 2016 election campaign, President Obama and Secretary Clinton emphasized all the economic progress made. They praised the recovery made from the recession, saying 15 million jobs had been created.

The problem is this narrative did not ring true to millions of working people across America because it wasn’t true. Much of Middle America remains a post-industrial wasteland. Many worry their jobs will be automated or shipped to the Third World. The jobs created are typically a far cry from the jobs lost. A college degree now guarantees nothing, and people are legitimately anxious about the future. They have been screwed by the system and the future hardly looks rosy.

Too many jobs do not pay enough. And they lack good benefits. Twenty-somethings cannot make enough to move out of their parents’ homes and fifty-somethings are put out to pasture early. Health insurance is too expensive (if people have it) and now looks even more tenuous. Student loans are a killer, like carrying a second mortgage payment. Contrary to Clinton and Obama’s assertions, it is not a pretty picture.

The Democrats need to look at where in America they have done poorly. This includes small cities, towns and rural America. The Democrats need a respectful and compelling message that can appeal nationally. Too often, to the rest of America, the Democrats look like an economically ascendant coastal elite, disconnected from working-class people.

Message to the Democrats: Not everybody went to Harvard and Yale.

If they want to win, the Democrats need to totally overturn their present leadership. It needs to be said: that leadership failed. It does not denigrate past leaders like the Clintons or Pelosi to acknowledge that they are the past. It is time for a new generation of Democratic leaders who can make a fresh start. Whatever the merits of past leaders, they all have too much baggage, and they are heavily implicated in the wave of Democratic defeats leading to the Trump debacle.

The Democrats need to stop pretending they can simply repackage their failed, timid policies. Those policies never seriously challenged income inequality.

The scope of Democratic defeat requires a new humility. Considering all the defeats, there may be nothing more ridiculous and obnoxious than self-righteous posturing by progressives. I hope the party advances in a far more progressive direction, but the party must have no litmus tests and it should be welcoming to a wide range of divergent views.

I believe the Democrats can turn it around. But, without self-critical evaluation of their mistakes, they could very well repeat them.

(Jonathan P. Baird of Wilmot works at the Social Security Administration. His column reflects his own views and not those of his employer.)