Democrats' Only Man With a Plan Is Obama
Democrats may have watched President Obama giving his final address in Chicago Tuesday night, taking credit for much and blame for little, and wondered just how they will crawl out of the hole he left them in. “Yes, we did,” he told them, and “yes, we can.” Some may have smirked at the irony of his pledge to keep working alongside them, but guess what, Democrats? He’s all you’ve got.
Wound-licking still continues, not only by those who worked on Hillary Clinton's campaign, but among many Democrats who would prefer to imagine the implosion the GOP would be suffering now if Donald Trump not been able to eke out the 0.56 percentage-point margin to beat Clinton in three states by a combined 77,000 votes. That would have been quite an autopsy indeed.
But not only did Clinton, a disastrously flawed candidate, disgust more voters than Trump did -- or something like that -- the Democratic Party has systematically destroyed its once durable reach into rural and white working-class America. Many of these voters are former Democrats, many even voted for President Obama twice, but they not only rejected Clinton they voted for Trump. The Clinton era is dead, and while the Obama presidency may have driven the party over a cliff, the president himself seems to be the only Democrat working on a path forward.
According to the New York Times, Obama gathered House Democratic leader Nancy Pelosi and Senate Democratic leader Chuck Schumer last week, along with Virginia Gov. Terry McAuliffe, to engage their help in one of his top post-presidency goals: to start winning back the state and federal offices Democrats lost so badly during his two terms.
It appears Obama has, at least privately, acknowledged the extent of the damage the last eight years have inflicted on his party. A winnable election was lost to Trump, Democrats have bled so many hundreds of seats in Congress, state legislatures and governorships that the GOP has more power than at any time since the 1920s. Around the corner, the Supreme Court could see three new conservative justices in the years to come.
Obama has watched the monopoly that redistricting gave Republicans in Congress help derail his agenda after 2010, and he realizes his party can no longer wait for kooky GOP candidates like former Rep. Todd Aiken -- who questioned whether rape victims can get pregnant -- to create backlashes and elect Democrats to critical swing seats.
Obama has been joined by former attorney general Eric Holder in launching the National Democratic Redistricting Committee, which aims to prepare Democrats for the 2020 redistricting. They begin at a steep disadvantage. The NDRC’s immediate goal is to get a seat at the table and begin the blocking and tackling the GOP did so successfully before the maps were last drawn in 2010. The initiative focuses on three fronts: challenging some GOP maps in court, pushing ballot referendums in states that allow direct voter engagement on redistricting, and campaigning to win statehouse seats and governorships that control reapportionment.
At the Center for American Progress on Thursday, Holder said the NDRC would create a path allowing Democrats to “face uncertainty with conviction, the fear with courage and the threats with resistance.”
There is certainly some resistance within the Democratic Party to the project. The members of the Congressional Black Caucus, for example, represent the most liberal and most partisan stacked seats in the country, according to the Cook Report’s Partisan Voting Index.
Not only will safe members want to avoid more competitive races, but Obama -- Mr. Long Game himself -- will have to work hard to keep Democrats focused on this state-by-state strategy while the party, as is tradition in politics, reflexively focuses on the debate and dynamics of the moment.
As the months pass, stronger voices in the party will consume the oxygen -- Sen. Elizabeth Warren hating on the banks and Sen. Cory Booker demanding a “courageous empathy” from government administrators – and the slog of a long-term redistricting strategy will grow more cumbersome and dull compared to the distraction of the 2020 Democratic primary campaign.
But as Obama turns his energy towards improving the mechanics, the party will have to debate a change in message as well. Democrats must swallow a sobering truth: that their dependence on identity politics, which they deployed to grow their ranks by motivating separate pockets of voters with a divisive appeal to rights, has shrunk what was a seemingly impenetrable coalition.
The bloc that broke away may care no less for the victims of sexual assault or for the transgendered or disabled, but these voters feel separated from that message, and do not accept that tolerance and inclusion should be the sole focus of the government’s problem solving. What unites a large majority of Americans is a fear for their security, an inability to pay their bills, or take care of their health, or educate their kids or keep a roof over their heads. Until these voters’ employment and wage prospects drastically improve, messengers speaking to these priorities will likely gain the most ears, and the most votes.
Obama barely veiled his criticisms of the way Clinton conducted her campaign, and Democrats should heed his warnings and advice. He disagreed with Clinton’s decision to give up on states like Ohio and Iowa, and certain portions of the electorate.
“Part of the reason it's important to show up ... is because it then builds trust and it gives you a better sense of how you should talk about issues in a way that feel salient and feel meaningful to people,” Obama told National Public Radio in December.
During these dark days while the Democrats stumble around in the wilderness, it’s worth listening to the soon-to-be-former president. While politicians can dream of leading movements of loyal followers -- and fancy themselves the next Obama or Trump -- parties need to plow ahead with strategies to grow without such fantasies. Focusing on the numbers, on finding voters with a unifying message, block by block and town by town, and then keeping them motivated, is the only way to win again.
Obama has taken the first step on the road to recovery, by admitting the problem and taking action. His party should follow him.