Monday, January 1, 2018

Democrats Need To Find Their Own Trump

Now before all of you have me carted away in a straightjacket, let me explain. Imagine for a moment if, instead of being a world-class narcissist who picked fights with the media and his political rivals, Donald Trump behaved like an adult and forged working relationships that furthered his agenda? What if, instead of pandering to the nativist elements within the Republican base, Trump decided to expand his appeal by reaching out to African Americans and Hispanics? What if, instead of passing a trillion dollar tax cut that rewards the very wealthy at the expense of millions of middle-class families, he had spent that money rebuilding the nation's infrastructure? And what if, instead of screwing the people who voted for him, he actually delivered on his populist appeal?

Know what you'd have? You'd have the most popular presidency since FDR, that's what you'd have. For lack of a better explanation, Donald Trump's biggest problem has been Donald Trump. He rode a wave of populism that began in Great Britain all the way to the White House and then wiped out short of the beach. What Democrats need to realize is that sometimes it isn't the message that's the issue, it's the messenger.

Throughout the 2016 campaign, the two candidates that hit a nerve with blue-collar workers were Trump and Bernie Sanders. Bernie wasn't able to close the deal, primarily because his opponent, Hillary Clinton, had a warchest the size of the Vatican and the then occupant of the White House just happened to be very popular AND a Democrat. Trump had no such impediments. If anything, his GOP rivals looked more like a class reunion from Ridgemont High.

But in the general election, Hillary swung and missed in the area of the country Bernie hit a home run in - the Rust Belt states - and, well, you know the rest. And ever since President Shitzenstein was sworn in, Democrats have been scratching their heads trying to come up with a strategy they can employ to retake the White House in 2020. Why? The groundwork's already been laid. Two years from now those very same voters who gave the reigns of power to Trump are going to realize they got screwed. They're still going to be hurting and they're still going to be looking for the candidate who can come to the table with the right solutions. Whether that's Bernie, or Kamala Harris or Tim Ryan, makes no difference. The issues will still be the same: how to revive a sector of the economy that got decimated more than twenty years ago and has never fully recovered. Trump may have been the wrong messenger but that doesn't mean the message wasn't right.

So, with that in mind, let me repeat the title of this piece: Democrats need to find their own Trump. There now, calmer? You should be, because the good news is that every single issue that Trump beat Hillary on used to be a Democratic strength. For decades, blue-collar workers in Pennsylvania, Ohio, Michigan and Wisconsin voted for the Democrat in almost every election. In fact, Obama cleaned both John McCain's and Mitt Romney's clock in 2008 and 2012 respectively with this demographic. Getting these voters back into the blue column won't be easy. The constant infighting between centrists and progressives threatens the Party's prospects in the upcoming midterms. Even now, Hillary supporters still can't forgive Bernie. For what, losing the nomination?

Look, I'm no fan of the man. He can be an ass, just like he was during the Virginia gubernatorial race when he wouldn't endorse Ralph Northam because his guy didn't win. And his supporters can try the patience of a saint. But it's time to admit the obvious: if Democrats had listened to him back in 2015, Hillary would be in the White House now. Put that in your pipe and smoke it.

So how do Democrats take back what they so arrogantly threw away? Three words: humility, empathy and courage. First, they need to acknowledge what everyone already knows: that the Party turned away from the core values that helped define it since the '60s. Eating some humble pie will go a long way towards repairing the bridges that they themselves burned down. Secondly, they need to listen to what their constituents are telling them without the typical condescension that way too many of their candidates have exhibited. A friend of mine has a saying: people don't care how much you know until they know how much you care. With few exceptions, Hillary's positions were far superior to Trump's. Yet she lost because the voters felt she didn't care about their needs.

And last, but not least, Democrats have to abandon the game plan they've been employing over the last few elections. They need to deliver on that "big tent" philosophy and, to paraphrase a Star Trek euphemism, go where no Democrat has gone in a while. It wasn't that long ago that Dems held positions of power in states like Louisiana, Arkansas and Tennessee. Now they're about as popular as a tick on a dog's butt. This was not an accident. The Obama campaign in 2008 scaled back the 50 state strategy that former Vermont governor Howard Dean successfully used to flip the House and Senate in '06. As a result, Dems found themselves boxed in with little room to expand their horizons. While Obama easily won reelection in 2012, the national party suffered major losses in both the 2010 and 2014 midterms. Its infrastructure is now all but nonexistent in the South and many other parts of the country.

Rebuilding that infrastructure will not be easy, but thankfully Doug Jones has given them a path forward. Jones's decision to campaign in areas of Alabama that were clearly conservative was a stroke of genius. No, he didn't win those areas, but he did something almost as good: he deprived Roy Moore of the margins he needed there to carry the state. The DNC needs to pour resources into states like Georgia, Texas, Arizona, Louisiana, Tennessee, Arkansas and, yes, even Alabama. But more importantly, it needs to craft a message that doesn't drive away 70 to 80 percent of the voters in those states. Relying on identity politics isn't going to expand the electoral map for Dems; if anything, that strategy has shrunken it.

Think about this: if you take away cities like New York, Boston, Chicago, Los Angeles, San Francisco, Portland, Seattle, Minneapolis and Denver, Trump would've won in a landslide. The Democratic Party has now become, for all intents and purposes, an urban-only party. Drive more than forty or fifty miles away from any major city and you'd have a better shot getting struck by lightning on a sunny day than seeing a Democrat win an election. The sad and painful truth is that Republicans control more than two thirds of the nation's geographical vote. The only reason Democrats are still competitive on a national level is because of the huge population advantage they enjoy in those cities. But as we saw last year in Pennsylvania, Michigan and Wisconsin, that advantage wasn't enough to keep those states from going red; and it won't be enough to flip them back into the blue column in 2020.

That's why whoever ends up getting the Democratic nomination in 2020 should come from the very area of the country Hillary got crushed in. For me, Tim Ryan of Ohio fills the bill quite nicely. Check out the interview he did with Chris Matthews a few months ago and listen to what he had to say about infrastructure and private investment in communities that have been devastated by the global economy. I don't know of a single Democrat who's talking like this, not even Bernie. Ryan's one of the few people in the party that can travel to places like Indiana, Kentucky and West Virginia without getting booed because he listens to people's concerns and he comes to the table with solutions that resonate with voters. What he lacks in style he more than makes up for in substance.

He's not a progressive, at least not in the same mold as Sanders or Elizabeth Warren. So what? Neither is Ralph Northam or Doug Jones. While we're at it, Trump isn't a conservative, and yet he not only won the GOP nomination, he won the general. Conservatism vs. liberalism is a tired argument that has come and gone. People don't vote the same way they used to and the quicker Democrats figure this out the better their prospects for 2018 and beyond will be.

Look, I'm not saying that Tim Ryan is going to lead the Democrats back to the Promised Land. At present we don't even know if he intends on running for president. But he makes a lot of sense and the party should listen to what he has to say.

His constituents sure as hell are.

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