Democrats can’t hope to win simply by being the alternative to a disastrous Republican administration. They need a strategy, as Richard Wagner explains.

Exactly one year ago, Trump shocked much of the country and the world with a very narrow victory over quite possibly the most qualified Presidential candidate in the history of US Presidential elections.

There was already a civil war brewing in the Democratic Party between “centrist” Democrats and “progressive” Democrats.  These “centrists”, or neoliberals, won the battle with the contested nomination of Hillary Clinton over runner-up Bernie Sanders.  

However, the victory of Trump in some ways worked to the advantage of the “progressives”.  While 94% of Sanders voters did vote for Clinton in the General Election, they are often blamed for Clinton’s loss.  This is a pre-emptive attack by the neoliberals, as they knew that Trump’s victory would be followed by #berniewouldhavewon

The Evidence

Most Clinton voters probably know a Trump voter or two who regrets his/her decision.  However, the evidence shows that despite 1 year of controversy, scandal, little to no legislation, and low Presidential approval ratings; Trump would win a rematch!

A Washington Post/ABC Poll shows that while Trump’s favorability has declined, Clinton’s has declined more.  Most importantly, the poll asks whom participants would vote for in a redo of the 2016 election.  As WaPo’s Aaron Blake explains:

“Among those who voted, 46 percent say they picked Clinton last year and 43 percent picked Trump — a slightly more favorable sample than the 2016 election, in which Clinton won the popular vote by two percentage points. But in a head-to-head rematch, Clinton’s support drops even more than Trump’s does, and they wind up in a 40-40 tie. Given that Trump overperformed in key, blue-leaning swing states, that means he’d probably have won again.”

Blake, none the less, underestimates the significance of this.  He largely concludes that Trump can win “under the right circumstance”, those being against Clinton, or someone equally unfavorable.  That gives the impression that the Democrats need only pick some other candidate to win, as Hillary Clinton was, and is, historically disliked.

However, the Democratic Party as whole fares no better.  Over this last year, as Trump’s approval ratings have steadily declined, so have the approval ratings of the Democratic Party.  A recent CNN poll is only the latest example of this downward trend.  54% of Americans have an unfavorable view of the Democratic Party, compared to 37% who view the party favorably.  These polls numbers are nearly identical to Trump’s approval ratings.  The CNN article further explains that the Republicans are viewed equally, if not more unfavorably, but Democrats would be unwise to take any consolation in that.

But what about Virginia?  What about New Jersey?

Let’s start with the easy one.  New Jersey?  Fuggedaboutit Or as the late B. B. King used to sing –  How blue can you get?

This is New Jersey,  If the Democrats couldn’t win in New Jersey, with an outgoing widely unpopular Republican Governor, and an unpopular Republican President, that would symbolize the beginning of a Dempocolypse.

Virginia, however, is a noteworthy victory.  It is a historically red state.  Democrats shouldn’t get too excited, however.  Virginia did go to Hillary Clinton in 2016, and it’s also Tim Kaine’s state.  It seems to be transitioning from “rim south red state,” to neoliberal central.  

The Democrats did not make gains in Georgia however.  Had they won the special election for the vacant House seat, that would have symbolized that maybe Democrats could bounce back without making serious renovations, as Georgia is a reddish state that is becoming less of a down-hill battle for Republicans lately.

In truth, for the Democrats to be able to compete nationally again, they’ll need to win back at least some of the rust belt states that they lost.

So far, there are no signs that this will happen.  But so much could change between now and 2018.

The Political Climate for the Democrats

The Democrats hoped that demographics would yield an inevitable victory for them.  Whites are close to becoming a minority, the Hispanic population is growing, and who hates Trump more than Hispanics?  Right?

Well, Trump didn’t do as badly with Hispanics as DNC strategists had hoped.  Aside from that, the traditional black voting base turned out poorly to vote for the candidate many of them associated with the 1994 Crime Bill, which has resulted in enormous incarceration rates for black males.

Over this last year, the Democrats have been fighting it out.  The progressive wing is demanding that the Democrats stop being “Republican-lite” and embrace their FDRish roots.  This would include Medicare-for-all, “free” college, better trade deals, and a cautious foreign policy (more Jimmy Carter, less LBJ/Clinton).  Bernie is their bro.  

Consequently, Clinton loyalists will describe themselves as the “true Democrats”.  They’ll point out, fairly enough, that Bernie Sanders isn’t a real Democrat.  He was an Independent, switched Democrat only to run in the Primary, and then switched back to Independent as soon as Clinton was nominated.  They see Sanders/progressives as invaders.  Some of them want Sanders voters to fall in line.  Others want to drive them from the party.  But few want to accommodate them.

Why The Democrats Must Embrace Change

Clinton’s unpopularity, as shown above, isn’t unique to Clinton.  The neoliberal platform is simply a losing platform.  The best they can hope for is that Trump will do something so disastrous, like start a nuclear war, that anybody really would be better than Trump.  Even if this were to work, it’s still a poor strategy.  They’d be entering back into governance in a very negative political climate.  

When it comes to negative politics, the Republicans are seasoned veterans.  They’ve been developing their win-by-negativity strategy since the days of FDR.  I’ll spare you the long history lesson.  But the shorter version goes like this.

Rush Limbaugh became the prophet of angry Republicanism.  He is the most successful political radio talk show host in the history of the profession.  Between Limbaugh, FOX News, and the newer venues of Breitbart and Infowars, the right and alt-right have an arsenal of negativity.

They’re so good at negativity politics, that even the negativity directed towards them seems to yield electoral victories for them (as we see in the Trump era).  The downside to this is that they’ve forgotten how to govern.  Negativity can only tear down.  It can’t build.  And so we’re witnessing a historically low productivity Presidential administration.  

Do the Democrats really want to even try to out negative the Republicans?  It would be a long time before they could really beat the Republicans at this game, and even if they did – why?  Clearly, the Republicans aren’t winning the policy agenda, even with control of every level of government.  They couldn’t even repeal and replace Obamacare!  You reap what you sow, and the Republicans are reaping.

The Democrats need to embrace their progressive base if they hope to accomplish anything more than a few meaningless electoral victories followed by obstruction and stagnation.  The Democrats can’t hope to change public policy if they themselves will not embrace change.

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Richard Wagner is an Adjunct Professor of Political Science at Florida State College at Jacksonville. He conducts independent study on the American conservative movement and foreign policy. When he is...

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