The stars are aligning for the Democratic Party, both for 2018 and 2020. There are only two things missing that will likely spell the difference between victory and six more years of Trump and Trumpism: The Democrats must have a message, and they must have a messenger.
It is increasingly clear that the absence of a leader and chief spokesperson for the Democratic Party has been a major impediment in countering the nativism and the regressive policies focused on helping the rich get richer that are the central tenets of Trumpism. If the party waits until after the 2018 elections are over, and for a potentially divisive primary process, before they rally behind a standard bearer, it will likely not only fail to achieve the best midterm results possible, but Democrats will put themselves at a severe disadvantage in 2020.
Similarly, they must offer a clear vision and a positive agenda, not succumb to the temptation to simply attack the policies and character of the President, as valid as such criticisms are.
Unfortunately, within the Democratic Party, there is no consensus on either of these points. The large and rapidly growing crowd of aspirants to the role the party’s leading voice will tell you they have a message, but then expend so much time and rhetoric in trying to define it that it is clear that they lack focus and are still hedging their bets about their priorities. Further, they are, naturally, focused on finding a message that differentiates them from one another rather than one behind which all the party’s supporters can unite.
It is clear that Democrats have still not learned the lessons of 2016. In a country in which so many states are still red, and in which the Republicans have such an edge in the electoral process, at all levels of government, and the judiciary, it is clear the Democrats need more than well-argued policies—they need a new political strategy that is aggressively focused not just on their own base and on turn-out. They must also seek to win back both the center as well as important marginalized groups, notably young people.
To achieve this, the party needs two things: a compelling messenger who is true to the great traditions of the party when it was most broadly appealing (it is worth remembering that the last four Democratic presidents were from the heartland of the nation—Illinois, Arkansas, Georgia, and Texas) and a clear, focused, primarily economic message.
Don Baer, White House Communications Director for President Bill Clinton, used to say that Democrats were really good at “coming up with 100 reasons to do something…but never just one.” He recognized the pitfalls of the wonkish policy-paper approach embraced by some of our recent candidates. Elections are not won, for better or for worse, in rational detailed debates about the fine points of policy. As the election of the current incumbent showed, they largely turn on visceral issues and are decided in the guts of voters rather than in their minds.
Donald Trump argued that we need to make America great again. But America is already great. The real question is “How do we make the country a better place to live for all Americans?” The challenge for our time should be addressing how we can achieve that goal in a rapidly changing economy like ours. This is a complex but eminently solvable issue. But it begins with recognizing that the same old prescriptions just won’t work. The coming election can be won by Democrats if they cast it not as yet another battle between left and right, but as one between exclusion and inclusion, between the past and the future.
Opportunity and security for every American must be at the heart of this message. After four decades of growing economic inequality in America, the vast majority of citizens of both parties are alienated by the fact that the bulk of our growth as a country has gone to the few. Three-quarters of all economic gains since the 1970s have gone to the top 5 percent of Americans. The top 1 percent of Americans own almost 40 percent of the wealth, nearly twice that of the bottom 90 percent. Almost 85 percent of all stocks are owned by just 10 percent of the population. When Lyndon Johnson was President, CEOs earned 20 times the average worker. Today, on average, they earn 271 times what their typical employee makes. Since the crash of 2008, 90 percent of the benefits of the recovery have gone to the top 1 percent.
If you are a woman or black or Latino or poor (a quarter of Americans earn less than $10 an hour) it is even worse. At the current rate at which the gap between blacks and whites is closing, it will take more than two centuries for blacks to catch up. Worse, upward mobility has slowed dramatically, and an aging population is facing a crisis of plummeting incomes as they enter retirement without sufficient savings or sound pension plans. In fact, if there is one thing that unites most Americans, it is economic insecurity; according to one 2016 survey, approximately seven out of 10 Americans have less than $1,000 in savings, and about a third have no savings at all. The very idea of retirement is a promise that is likely to go unkept for the vast majority of Baby Boomers. As they prepare for retirement, they and we, as a nation, must come to grips with the fact that the median savings of Americans between 56 and 61 is a mere $17,000. And with many pension programs still seriously underfunded, this serious problem could become critical in just the next few years.
These are realities Americans know in their hearts and souls. They know that, once again, they were sold a bill of goods by a GOP that said it would help. After the GOP tax bill, they know that Trump and his enablers on Capitol Hill actually represent Wall Street and big corporations. The Democrats, therefore, need to send a clear message that they are the one and only party of Main Street and that they are committed to responding to the urgent needs of the majority of Americans with concrete ideas that will create better opportunities and enhanced economic peace for everyone who wants to make a contribution to our economy.
This means policies that create jobs, promote investment, crackdown on fat-cat abuses, distribute benefits to all, and that protect the rights of all. It means helping Americans see where the jobs of tomorrow will come from and ensuring that we have the education, infrastructure, R&D investment, and lifelong training systems that will enable our workers in every state to fill them and thrive in them. (For example, 75 percent of all venture capital goes to three states—California, New York, and Massachusetts. This means tomorrow’s industries are not benefitting most Americans. This must change.) It means putting an end to the fear endured by so many middle-class Americans that paying for health care or school or aging will bankrupt them. It means ending divisions in our society that threaten to tear us apart and compromise our democratic system and our values.
In each case, the message should mean simple proposals. For example: making at least two years of private college free for all, prioritizing new funding programs to secure pensions, creating programs to stimulate public and private investment in infrastructure and new job-creating industries, returning to humane immigration policies, and finally making progress on putting in place sensible gun laws.
These ideas should be at the heart of a broader message of creating opportunity and security for all. It is a straightforward approach and it is true to the historical identity of the Democratic Party—an identity that draws on a rich history of compassion, job creation, and sound economic policies.
But simply finding the right message without zeroing in on a leader who can deliver it as soon as possible will embroil the party in divisive struggles. That means we need a leader who can both ensure party cohesion and one who can be an effective, compelling messenger who speaks to all Americans and offers an antidote to the division and bitterness of current political debate. (Other party leaders will need to recognize the importance of such cohesion and not seek to fragment or divide the party simply to serve their political self-interests.) In all likelihood, for the reasons mentioned earlier, it will be someone who connects with the Main Street message in a visceral way and embodies the optimism that is essential to fulfilling all the themes cited above.
The clearer the message and the leadership, the more likely the 2018 elections can produce the big swings in Capitol Hill representation that are required to rein in the abuses of our current President. Such a truly unified Democratic Party can defeat what is likely to be a fragmented GOP, reeling from the trail of Trump scandals leading up to 2020—with a positive message of answers for Americans, rather than a unique focus on tearing down a President who is unfit for the job.
There is a risk that the trials of the current Administration will create complacency among Democrats. And the party must be honest with itself: It has yet to bring to the fore the leadership our ideas need to succeed. That means acknowledging the failures and shortcomings of the recent past and recognizing that, to win, the party must do things differently. If that translates into just one lesson learned, it is that political success depends less on communicating the specifics of a prescription or a policy and more on demonstrating that candidates understand the needs and feelings of voters—sound policies are important but real connections forged with constituents are even more essential.
Time is running out. Delay strengthens the GOP. That poses not just political risks. The 2018 and 2020 elections are contests that will determine the future of American democracy and global leadership. The stakes could not be higher. For those reasons, more clarity and more unity are needed, and needed now. Whoever is chosen to lead must provide the necessary vision while assuring unity—though it must be added, we all have a role to play in that regard. Neither the Democratic Party nor, more importantly, the country can afford anything less.