Democrats' Amtrak Route to the Presidency

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For a for-profit corporation that bleeds money – $44 billion in federal subsidies over the past 45 years to keep intercity passenger rail service afloat – Amtrak should do some brisk business in July 2016. That’s because the Democrats are holding their national convention late that month in Philadelphia, which means trains loaded with party loyalists should be making their way to southeastern Pennsylvania from the likes of Boston, Manhattan and the nation’s capital.

Amtrak is an apt metaphor when considering the Democrats’ crop of 2016 presidential hopefuls – and why the party may be in more trouble than it realizes.

The problem, in two words: geographic isolation.

On paper, it’s a good time to be a national Democrat. The party’s won the popular vote in five of the last six presidential elections. According to a Pew Research Center survey from earlier this year, 48 percent of Americans identify with or lean toward the Democratic column, versus only 39 percent for the GOP.

But reality speaks otherwise.

The party that denigrates Republicans as exclusionary and lily-white has not a single minority presidential candidate at present.

The same Democratic Party that gave America three 40-something presidents in JFK, Bill Clinton and Barack Obama has not a single presidential candidate who’s AARP-ineligible.

And the same party that claims to speak for America’s heartland has not a single presidential candidate from the west, south or northwest of suburban Washington, D.C.

Instead, what the Democrats offer in 2016 is the equivalent of Amtraks’s Vermonter, which runs each morning from the nation’s capital to St. Albans in the upper left corner of the Green Mountain State.

Your passengers: former Virginia Sen. Jim Webb, hopping aboard at D.C.’s Union Station. Forty-five minutes later, it’s former Maryland Gov. Martin O’Malley, getting on in Baltimore. Assuming Vice President Joe Biden isn’t a stowaway, or waiting his turn in Wilmington, Del., our train heads on to Manhattan’s Penn Station for a rendezvous with Hillary Clinton.

From here, the train takes a northeastern tack toward Rhode Island – i.e. “the land of Lincoln” (Chafee) – but turns north before reaching the state line. It cuts through Massachusetts, but goes nowhere near Boston, home to Sen. Elizabeth Warren, Secretary of John Kerry and former Gov. Deval Patrick. From this point, it barrels due north into Vermont – past Essex Junction, the closest stop for Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders.

That’s four candidates and one 13-hour train ride across some of the bluest states in America (three hours longer than it’d take to drive).

So why should this concern Democrats, especially with Republicans mired in their summer of voter discontent?

Three reasons:

1)  Not since 1976 and Jimmy Carter has America elected a president whose voting address fell in the Eastern time zone. Before Carter, John F. Kennedy was the last to do the trick.

2)  Except for Webb, who’s virtually non-existent as a candidate but whose home state of Virginia could decide next year’s outcome, none of the Democratic hopefuls comes from a pivotal swing state (Colorado, Florida, Iowa, Ohio).

3)  Even if the Democrats wanted a non-Eastern, non-Hillary alternative, that creature apparently doesn’t exist. As already referenced, the biggest names that might challenge Mrs. Clinton all are “Amtrak Democrats.”

To be fair, this isn’t the first time that Democrats have found themselves looking at an all-Amtrak menu. In 2000, the choices were ex-New Jersey Sen. Bill Bradley and then-Vice President Al Gore. Gore was a Tennessean by birth, but an Amtraker by virtue of having been raised in D.C, attending Harvard, then raising a family in suburban Arlington, Va. If Gore had been more attached to Tennessee, maybe he doesn’t lose his home state – and the election – to George W. Bush.

But what’s changed over the past 16 years: In 2000, three Central time zone Democrats at least bothered to flirt with the idea of running – Missourian Richard Gephardt, Nebraskan Bob Kerrey and the late Paul Wellstone from Minnesota. In 2016, the cupboard’s bare. Small wonder: Only seven of the nation’s 18 Democratic governors and less than half of the 44 Democratic U.S. senators come from land west of the Mississippi River.

For Democrats, such is the mixed blessing that’s been the Obama presidency. On the one hand, after two decisive Obama wins, the next Democratic nominee enjoys a 332-206 working advantage in the Electoral College (that’s using 2012’s results as a baseline for 2016).

Now, the bad news: During Obama’s tenure, Democrats have lost 16 Senate seats, 48 House seats and 11 governorships, placing the party at lows unseen since the 1920s. And then there’s this question: If there’s no Clinton45 presidency, who runs in 2020?

Perhaps the train keeps chugging along and Mrs. Clinton, despite her current troubles (but thanks to both that electoral cushion and Republican infighting), rides the rails all the way to the Oval Office.

But should she or some other Democratic standard-bearer come up short? Then it’s time for some serious intraparty soul-searching – beginning with the realization that there are better ways than Amtrak to make inroads into America’s heartland.

Bill Whalen is a Hoover Institution research fellow who follows California and national politics, and host of Hoover’s “Area 45” podcast on the Trump presidency. He can be reached at


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