Sam Smith – For more than thirty years, one of the least noted aspects of the Democratic Party has been its tendency to deny its own realities – the corruption of some of its politicians, its growing rejection of New Deal and Great Society programs and values, its failure to come up with alternatives, and an agenda that appealed to comfortable and more upscale liberals rather than to ordinary Americans. As I put it sometimes, we’ve always had evangelical Christians in America, but we used to call them New Deal Democrats.
There have been, to be sure, exceptions – Bernie Sanders being the most striking one in several decades. But on the whole the Democrats have favored denying their problems rather than pragmatically dealing with them. What follows is a look at some of these, not from an ideological perspective but from a pragmatic one – the way a sports coach would look at a team and figure out what’s wrong and what’s to do about it -precisely what Democrats don’t do these days.
The Hillary problem
For a leading presidential candidate, try to find one in American history who ranks so high in popular distrust polls, had three of her close business associates go to prison, was subjected to a criminal investigation and, according to one prosecutor, was almost indicted.
That’s just for starters. Until the revival of the Bill Clinton sex scandals, the GOP wasn’t taking advantage of any of the notable downsides of the Clintons’ history, but there is much more to come – some of it true, some not, but all of it there. The notion that HRC is not a strikingly vulnerable candidate is denial and naivete at its political worst.
You can call some or all of it lies, unfair, a conspiracy but the fact is that it will be there and a candidate who right now, based on the past three polls, is in a statistical tie with all major GOP candidates except for Bush is not one you want to become even more controversial.
The party’s Clinton denial goes back more than 30 years. There has been a myth that the Clintons were extremely popular figures but, in fact, Bill Clinton won the first time only because Ross Perot was in the race taking votes away from the GOP and it can be fairly argued, based on poll studies, that Al Gore actually lost 2000 not because of Ralph Nader but because he declined to distance himself from Clinton. As for Hillary Clinton, Democrats seem to forget that she lost to a little known black guy with a minimal political record. These are not the political saviors the media and liberal backers assume, especially when you add in their disassembling of, or indifference to, the liberal tradition.
So what’s the alternative? It may well be too late. There is, of course, Sanders but he is a ground breaker not a ground retriever. He may save the party in the long run by reintroducing it to its heritage, but probably not in 2016. The poor showing of O’Malley doesn’t give a fallback solution much hope, but Democrats should be at least thinking about a possible emergency entrance for Elizabeth Warren, Al Gore, or highly popular governors like Earl Tomblin of West Virginia and Mark Dayton of Minnesota.
The age issue
Nobody’s talking about this, in part because Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton would each be the oldest presidents except for Ronald Reagan. But what if Clinton at 68 faces Rubio or Cruz, both in the mid forties? It makes the image of a new future considerably harder to project.
The issue issue
One of the reasons Democrats have not done better in recent decades is because of the issues they chose to emphasize, the latest example being gun control. As this matter has increasingly come to the fore, gun sales have actually soared.
This doesn’t mean you have to ignore such issues, but you’ve got to be much smarter than, say, Barack Obama, in how you handle them. For example, there is strong support for background checks but you don’t send a preachy message from the White House to make it work; you form alliances with hunter groups that share this support and let them be front and center. When Obama tried the lecture approach, Smithy & Wesson’s stock went up 11% in one day.
Further, you don’t push such issues in election year. Living in Maine, I’m aware of this problem in part because of what happened in our last state election, as reported by Mike Tipping in the Bangor Daily News:
Emily Shaw, formerly a Maine-based political scientist and now national policy manager at the Sunlight Foundation, recently took a look at the results of the 2014 election and came up with an answer to a persistent political question about what role a citizen-initiated referendum banning the use of bait, traps and dogs in the hunting of bears in Maine had on the state’s gubernatorial race.
“So what was the effect of the highly contentious ballot measure on turnout and support for LePage? Was it a game-changer?” asks Shaw in a post on her personal blog. “It totally was,” she concludes.
Shaw’s analysis indicates that the referendum drove turnout, especially for voters favoring the re-election of Maine governor Paul LePage.
“Controlling for people in the town who voted for LePage in 2010 and the power of median municipal household income, every four votes against Question 1 predicted an increase of 1 vote in support of Gov. LePage,” writes Shaw.
High levels of opposition to the referendum (and in favor of keeping bear baiting legal) were predictive of 17% additional turnout in municipal totals.
The problem also involves the issues chosen to be emphasized. Abortion and gay rights are noble causes but if you’re trying to get elected, they shouldn’t be at the top of the list – especially compared to economic matters. But liberals have increasingly dropped money issues from their priorities – although the minimum wage is a hopeful exception – and they have paid a high price because the GOP loves to debate abortion, gun control and gay rights during an election year.
The Democratic sound
As exemplified by Barack Obama, the Democrats have come to sound increasingly not the voice of the people but as echos of professors and preachers lecturing the public. Hillary Clinton often has this sound as well, one that suggests implicitly that the voter must trust her rather than joining with her. The image is re-enforced by legislation such as Obamacare which fill a couple of thousand pages in a conglomeration that allows anyone to find something wrong and blame the whole bill for it. Social intelligence, particularly among Democrats, has faded in Washington’s recent decades and we are left with a gradocracy of lawyers, MBAs and accountants culturally detached from those they are attempting to lead.
Lack of a new future
If you compare the progressive Democratic legislation of the New Deal and Great Society with that since the 1980s, there is in the latter an appalling vacuum, especially of bills that improve the economic lives of ordinary Americans. Here are just a few examples of measures that could be put high on the agenda for the benefit of and the party:
- State banks
- Postal service banking
- A guaranteed income. (If this seems extreme, consider that both Richard Nixon and George McGovern supported a form of it)
- An interest limit on credit cards and laws against other forms of usury
- Recovery of anti-trust laws
- Support of cooperatives over mercenary corporations
- An elected attorney general
- Shorter workweek
- Ranked choice voting
- Real support of small businesses rather than just talking about it
- Public works projects with job priority given veterans rather than sending them to die in another useless war.
You can find more about these here
Emphasize party rather than candidate
Assuming that Clinton will be the Democrats’ choice, her liabilities could be lessened by treating politics more like we used to: a struggle between opposing parties instead of one between political celebrities. I’m already telling people that the election is not between Clinton and some Republican but between the Democrats and the GOP. Neither are admirable but it you want to retain the freedoms the Supreme Court has already assured us and not have them overturned by four new right wingers, if you want to save Social Security, Medicare, food stamps and other social programs, and if you want to hold on to what’s left of our civil liberties, then you have to vote Democratic whatever you think of Hillary Clinton. There is so much more to life and its future than treating this election as just another American Idol contest.