Donald Trump will continue to provide lots of material to keep Democratic activists motivated in 2018. That’s not enough, however, if Democrats are going to regain control of one or both houses of Congress and make significant progress in state gubernatorial and legislative races. Success in next year’s elections requires fighting for specific goals, not just being opposed to what the President is doing, as awful as that is.
So far, we’ve heard a lot of agonizing over the absence of a clear Democratic message. That’s really not very helpful. The party-out-of-power is also spending an inordinate amount of time refighting the battles of both the 2016 nominating process and the stunning defeat in that year’s presidential election. To round out this trifecta of navel gazing, there’s plenty of despair about the absence of a clear front-runner for the 2020 Democratic presidential nomination.
Much of what’s wrong with the Democratic Party in the 21st century is a preoccupation with presidential politics to the almost total exclusion of every other office, particularly at the state and local level. Rather than devoting so much time to finding a savior, Democrats would be much better off giving their time, attention and money to recruiting a new generation of candidates, winning state and local elections and building a coalition that addresses the interests and concerns of the great majority of Americans.
In fact, there will be a strong, dynamic presidential candidate in 2020. It’s okay we don’t yet know who that is. There are many rising stars who just haven’t gotten national attention yet. The list of potentially appealing candidates–mayors, governors, members of Congress and some who don’t hold political office–is so substantial that the challenge will be picking among them.
Let’s dispense with one piece of the 2016 post-mortem. Trump’s continued support by much, although not all, of his base shows that no Democratic candidate is likely to win their support. No campaign should have to reach out to racists, xenophobes, sexists or bigots of any stripe to win an election. Those individuals are far from a majority in this country and in no way represent what the United States stands for. Of course there are some Trump voters who do not fall into any of those categories and some may be open to the appeal of a thoughtful progressive candidate.
A Democratic message will emerge through the campaigns of candidates for offices at all levels of government. Litmus tests are not required; not every Democrat has to agree on every issue. Neither is it useful to have a long check list of issues that define the Party. Political parties, to be successful, have to be coalitions that allow differences, dissent and flexibility.
My own take on a potential Democratic agenda may not appeal to you. That’s okay because I view it as a first draft. I’ve focused on broad themes and connections that ties issues together. Your favorite cause may not be explicitly mentioned although I might still agree with you about its importance. Finally, I have deliberately kept this list relatively short on the premise that most voters will focus on only a few key priorities.
- Invest in the future. People will have different ideas about what fits into this category. Without necessarily excluding other suggestions, I would start with: education, infrastructure, environmental protection.
- Everyone deserves to be treated fairly and with dignity. A few years ago, I might not have felt the need to say this directly, but the attacks on a whole range of groups and individuals in more recent times makes it imperative. My list under this admonition is long, but I prefer to state the principal rather than run the risk of leaving out any who are at risk.
- Build an economy for a global, interdependent world. Most commentators agree that Democrats need an economic message, but are hard pressed to articulate what it should be. #1 above covers some of it.
- Make sure that all Americans have access to the education and training needed to become productive workers.
- Global competition means that there will be losers; automation means that some of the jobs that exist now will disappear. This country needs to do a much better job of retraining those who lose jobs through no fault of their own. We need to recognize that transitions to new employment will be longer and harder than we have been willing to support up to now.
- Government support for research and development needs to be increased, not decreased as the current administration is doing. Similarly, support for universities and for graduate education needs to be seen as one of the pillars of a robust and competitive economy, not merely as a line item in the budget to be cut.
- Support industries of the future, such as those related to a sustainable environment, that need help in the early stages of development. Republicans object to “picking winners and losers in the economy,” but actually do that all the time, just with different beneficiaries.
- Everyone deserves quality health care at an affordable price. Democrats were on the political defensive about the Affordable Care Act until Republicans started their ugly and disjointed effort to take it away. Americans then discovered that they actually like many of the features of Obamacare. Whatever ends up happening in the short-term, supporting a system of universal health care is both right and a political winner.
- Support the institutions and individual rights that make the United States a democracy. Fight back against voter suppression and gerrymandering. Don’t let the Department of Justice, the court system or the rule of law become political tools.
I could make the list longer and certainly could expand on the explanations, but I mean this to be a starting point. Most fundamentally, I don’t think a winning Democratic message, whether it’s my version or someone else’s, is that hard to develop. Of course, candidates who can articulate and argue the case effectively are required. A free and independent press is also important. The push back against Trump’s fake new campaign is actually a hopeful sign.
Finally, we have to have an informed and engaged electorate. Too often, Democrats have stayed home in off-year elections and in state and local contests. The activism of innumerable groups that sprung into life after the 2016 presidential election should give us all hope.
This is a fight for the very existence of our form of government. It is a fight that can be won. If we make the effort. Freedom doesn’t come like a bird on the wing. Every generation has to win it again.