This is crisis mode for the Democratic Party if it wants to survive as a national political party. There is no minimizing what’s at stake – one party rule by the Republican Party for years to come. The Republicans control the White House, Congress, and a substantial majority of governorships and state houses across the nation. As widely discussed by pundits, the Democratic Party lost approximately 1,000 legislative seats nationwide after decades of being outplayed and out strategized by the Republican Party at the state and local levels. Notably, Republicans have also gained legislative seats and the governor’s office in traditionally democratic states. The most devastating consequence of this for Democrats is the number of gerrymandered districts that provide safe haven for Republicans, further exacerbating the problem for Democrats. To survive, the Democratic Party must invest in a fifty-state strategy, expending considerable time and effort. The key to success begins with the rhetoric: Why voters should trust and pick Democrats. They can no longer rely solely on opposing the Republicans but rather must make their own case to voters.
In 2010, extensive Republican gerrymandering and lack of an effective national Democratic message led to what can be described as a political massacre wherein the Democrats lost control of Congress despite having comfortable majorities in both houses. In 2016, they lost the White House to a seriously flawed and inexperienced Republican challenger despite favorable electoral conditions to keep the White House and retake the Senate. Surprisingly, the Democratic Party habitually writes off approximately one-third of the states before the campaigns even start, making electoral victory more difficult. The priority for Democrats to reverse these horrendous electoral losses must be to focus on all fifty states at the local, state, and national levels. They need to recruit and develop competitive and capable candidates, support their candidates despite the challenges, and they need a comprehensive national strategy that appeals to all regions of the country. If the Democrats care about leading and governing the nation, they simply can no longer afford to electorally write off one-third of the country as part of their strategy.
Secretary Clinton, while claiming to accept responsibility for her 2016 loss, blamed then FBI Director James Comey for his comments concerning the investigation into her email server and blamed the Russian hacking and release of DNC and campaign emails. There is some validity to this based on the very close margins in Pennsylvania, Michigan, and Wisconsin, where the impact of those external influences likely impacted the vote. However, the vote should never have been that close. The vote in these and other key states was closer than most predicted primarily because the Clinton campaign had a weak message and failed to provide voters, many of whom did not want to vote for President Trump, with a reason to vote for her. Additionally, part of her failed message involved the lack of candor and persuasiveness in addressing the email issues, allowing Trump to gain ground. Trump’s negatives were well-known and it was a costly mistake for Clinton for focus almost exclusively on those character issues in her advertising and speeches while Trump, despite his own negativity to Clinton, resonated with large numbers of voters with his focus on trade and economic priorities. Had Clinton inspired voters with her vision of the country and her commitment to lead the economic recovery, she would have won the Presidency despite the negative external influences.
The primary reason Democrats have lost support across the country is their rhetoric. Large swaths of the country found the Democrats out of touch with the realities of their communities. The Clinton campaign and Party’s Congressional campaigns failed to bridge this gap. Secretary Clinton’s infamous “basket of deplorables” comment was extremely damaging, serving to energize Trump supporters. To be fair, there was an element of Trump’s support that could accurately be described as racist and extremist deserving the “deplorables” label. However, this does not fairly describe most of Trump’s voters, many of whom were mainstream Republicans and many working-class Democrats. In multiple election cycles, Democrats ceased connecting with working families who were genuinely concerned about quality jobs. Trump effectively directed his economic, trade, and populist messages directly at these working families. Clinton challenged Trump, but never spoke directly to these families, provided her own plan with clarity, or assuaged their profound economic concerns.
Weak and ineffective Democratic rhetoric is more startling in contrast to the Republicans. Democrats allowed Republicans to claim they were the party of the Constitution and patriotic Americans. While it is utterly ridiculous to accept that either party over the other owns the Constitution or patriotism, Democratic reticence on this point hurt their brand. The Supreme Court’s “Citizens United” decision opened the floodgates to unfettered corporate money, most of which goes to Republicans. Because of corporate special interests and the increasing tribalism of American politics, the Republican Party has moved starkly to the right over the past ten years, completely unwilling to work with Democrats to find common ground on challenges facing the nations. In response, Congressional Democrats have grown increasingly less willing to work across the aisle as well, forfeiting the issue.
The Democrats briefly captured the political center from Republicans leading to their electoral successes in 2006 and 2008. However, the party then chose to move left, abandoned fiscal responsibility, and ceded their Congressional majorities, then later the White House, all the while continuing to suffer losses in many states. The move to the left appears to coincide with efforts to ensure ideological purity, demanding candidates for any office to be wholly consistent with the more progressive and radically liberal elements of the party. Even Secretary Clinton, a well-known leader of the party, was forced to adopt a more stringent progressive philosophy to win the 2016 primary. Ideological purity is self-destructive and hinders efforts for Democrats to regain competitiveness in elections across the country. Moderate Democrats would be far more competitive in many of the states where the party has suffered its losses and opts not to employ resources. It matters little for what you stand or your party platform when you can’t win elections and have no power to act. Currently, Democrats are powerless to act in Congress, the White House, and a large majority of states. The shift to the left and ideological purity is destroying the Democrats as a national party and creating self-imposed obstacles to regaining control of Congress and the White House.
The Democratic Party’s resurgence starts with a bona fide commitment to win in state legislatures and statewide offices in fifty states. Without this critical base, the party will struggle to find strong candidates for governor and Congress. They will continue to lack the power to act whether to enact policies or stop Republican overreaching. To be clear, the Democratic Party should continue its commitment to its core values as defined by members and leaders. However, Democrats must accept members and candidates who support the core values and party goals, but perhaps disagree on an issue where they have deeply held convictions. These candidates may maintain fidelity with their constituents on issues of importance in the community while also maintaining allegiance to the Party’s core values. Democrats cannot continue to concede so many seats to Republicans because of demands for ideological purity. It is far better to achieve victory on at least part of the party’s primary objectives than to be forced to watch the Republicans achieve victory on their own after each election cycle.
The Democratic Party by and through its rhetoric and ideological purity has unnecessarily alienated categories of voters across the nation, resulting in Democrats not being competitive in various districts, states, and regions. Ideological purity leads to weaker candidates in many competitive districts. Religious voters are a good example. Not all voters who prioritize values and faith issues squarely align with the Republican platform. While these voters may be vehemently against abortion, many also care deeply about social justice, health care, the environment, economic fairness, or other issues that align better with the Democratic Party. The Party platform may maintain a commitment to abortion rights, but the party should welcome strong, viable candidates who oppose abortion, but who also support Democratic core values and priorities. This is especially true in areas where pro-choice Democrats face insurmountable opposition. Another example involves gun ownership. This may be the most profound regional difference in American politics. Democrats, especially urban based addressing increasing gun violence, favor stricter gun safety legislation and limits on military grade weapons. In other regions, gun ownership is a natural part of life. Not all gun owners fit a unitary conservative profile and many gun rights advocates also support traditional Democratic values on other issues. The Democratic Party Platform can address the growing violence in our country and advocate for reasonable safety rules while also welcoming candidates who support gun rights as well as other Democratic priorities. Again, this is true where Democratic candidates supporting extensive gun control legislation face insurmountable opposition. The United States is not a monolith. There are profound differences of priority and opinion in different regions across the nation. The Democrats need to embrace this and run competitive candidates who can win and serve their districts. Cookie-cutter candidates are doomed to fail.
The critical issue is the rhetoric. Democrats must welcome these and other groups into the party to build back a sufficient base and become competitive in all fifty states and regain control of state governments and Congress. The party can still maintain traditional party priorities while recognizing the utility of professional dissent and disagreement within the party based on profoundly held views. The party can’t achieve anything in the minority, but can work with these and other groups on issues of common interest and accomplish much to better the lives of the American people. Whereas the results in some states and districts now might be heavily weighted in favor of Republicans, the Democrats need to work towards closing the margins over time, eventually resulting in competitive races. At a minimum, force the Republicans to earn their victories.