Nov 23, 2016 – Arsenal For Democracy Ep. 159

Posted by Bill on behalf of the team.

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Topics: Where do we go from here after the 2016 election? People: Bill, Rachel, and Jonathan. Produced: Nov 21st, 2016.

Episode 159 (55 min):
AFD 159

Discussion Points:

– Trying to get the Democratic Party back on track, especially in the states
– Parties need to remember to campaign for all their core voters
– What do we need to brace for from the Trump Administration & Ryan Congress first

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Music by friend of the show @StuntBirdArmy.

A post-mortem that is pretty much about everything except Sanders

We’re still all processing this election’s boundlessly horrible outcome, but I’m going to keep writing out my post-mortems as they come to me. This will not be a post about Bernie Sanders, except in slight passing, so you can probably save your comment pro or con about him or his supporters, as it will be off-topic by the end of the post. As you all know I was never a fanatical supporter anyway, and as my friend Jonathan Cohn always says, counterfactuals aren’t useful discussions because they are counter to fact. In this case, there are too many unknowables to be sure how that would have played out, and there is enough known information from inside the campaign and party to at least have *some* doubts. Jonathan and I both supported him tactically, without believing he ever actually had a shot at the nomination. But there *are* two big things from the nomination process immediately worth reviewing for future purposes:

First, the message Sanders represented is probably the direction we need to take the party in order to start winning elections again at all levels. I’ll get around to another post elaborating the reasoning for that, but I’ll leave it there for today. (Short version: The answer to this catastrophe definitely isn’t “Go right” nor is it “Be more racist or transphobic.” We need solidarity now more than ever, but we did leave some people behind … and they stayed home this year.)

Second, the eventual outcome of the 2016 nomination was decided long before DNC shenanigans, debate schedules, or anything like that. The nomination was decided by 2014, if not well before then, by crowding everyone else out and by party officials/electeds/activists making up their minds far too early – not just to support Clinton but that she could not possibly lose. Many of you reading this fall into one of those three categories. Nearly all of you among those decided to support Hillary Clinton this cycle by 2014, by 2009, by 2008, or by 1993. Every other possible serious candidate except Biden, O’Malley (and Sanders, it turned out) didn’t even bother to look into running because of this and the universality of major donor preference. Clinton may have been the favorite in 2007 but she was the overwhelming favorite for 2016. Almost any party figures at all levels who had backed *other* candidates in 2008 were with her this time before it even began. Then you assumed all of us were With Her, just as the campaign eventually did with entire states.

Few of you listened as people like me expressed concerns all through 2015 about the electoral competence of the Clinton senior team and the mismatch of what the national mood would be in November 2016. Two years ago, in November 2014, when Democrats got smashed in the midterms, 62% of the country said the U.S. was on the Wrong Track – and jobs were coming back but with fewer hours and lower pay than before the recession. A year ago, in November 2015, 64% of the country said we were on the Wrong Track. Last month, 65% of the country said we were on the Wrong Track. (For perspective, this is the same as the national mood the week Pres. Obama took office at the height of the recession.)

Many of you will remember that at all those points, I warned you that Clinton’s message was dangerously off-key for such a scared and angry electorate. Clinton and the DNC eventually doubled down with an “America Is Already Great” message, which is political malpractice in the face of 60+% Wrong Track numbers.

In the immortal words of my friend Sara this past February, “Don’t bring the Things-Are-Fine candidate to the Everyone is Panicking fight…” As I said at the time, based on both U.S. indicators and events playing out in Europe in parallel, “I don’t think a lot of upper middle class people & DC insiders grasp the political collapse happening right now.” Many of you explicitly defended your support for Hillary Clinton on the grounds of pragmatism and electability – that her candidacy would *not* put at risk the fragile gains so many of our vulnerable communities have made (or could make via Courts for decades to come). This contention was based on … literally nothing.

I don’t care that you didn’t listen to me, even if it’s frustrating. I care that you didn’t listen to the entire country going into a terrified panic as their life circumstances crumbled around them. That’s a recipe for either desperate vote-switching or mass abstention by staying home. (I covered the latter in a post last night.)

As noted above, I’m uncertain as to whether or not Bernie Sanders could have won, although that is a largely irrelevant question at this point. Bernie Sanders was never supposed to be an or the alternative. He just happened to be there, in the right place at the right time, with the right unusual status as having been around for a long time with reputation of being principled, honest, and on message to the national mood. I voted for him in large part because I genuinely believed he was less of a risk than Hillary Clinton in the general election.

And again, he just happened to be there and happened to be the only candidate left standing by the time we got to the caucuses and primaries. Why? Because this was wrapped up years earlier in the over-confident and presumptuous beliefs by Clinton loyalists and other longtime Democratic insiders that she was a sure thing and that it was “her turn.” (Voters don’t like that reasoning, by the way, as they have shown over and over.)

I won’t bother here to dive deeply into the unpopularity issues or any other problems that made Hillary Clinton the last woman we should have nominated to ensure the election of the first female president this year. Even if you believe none of the public’s antipathy toward her is justified, it was real and a real risk – and it had been growing for decades. That’s a massive gamble to make against literally any of the Republicans who ran this cycle, let alone Trump. If you made an electability argument for her, you helped cause this. But the messaging mismatch still overpowered any other considerations, which is also perhaps how the largest field team in history just lost to an erratic campaign with no team.

We never got to find out if there was anybody else who could have stepped up with a clean slate and surprised us (it wasn’t Warren either, for various reasons, I believe) because Hillary Clinton subordinated everyone’s aspirations to her own and pushed every other possible contender out of the field except for a protest candidate and a backup candidate.

Already there are a lot of people who are showing they are very determined to not learn any lessons from this catastrophe. They have no interest in listening to anyone – and perceive triumphalism where there is none in those of us who very much did not prefer a Trump Administration but feel we tried to raise red flags and tried to help nudge course corrections in the Clinton campaign if we weren’t going to be able to get other nominee. They are blaming everyone but themselves, even to the point of suggesting absurd things like that it’s all the fault of internet leftists who didn’t love her hard enough, as opposed to the fault of decisions like Clinton never making a single campaign trip to Wisconsin in the general election. At a certain point, folks need to take ownership for failing all of us and stop accusing everyone of failing Her.

But I’m not talking to people who won’t listen. I’m talking to people who are finally stunned enough that they’re willing to hear me – and others – out.

Now for some even tougher talk:
This defeat came from in-house within my Democratic Party. Every single person responsible at every level has to go – or admit to crashing it big time and work with sincerely us to course correct. You have failed us for the last time. You lost us the 2000 election, the 2002 election, the 2004 election, the 2010 election, the 2014 election, and the 2016 election. You also lost the 1994 election. And so on. People have died and will die because of these failures. You can be part of the solution or you can be the problem, but we’re going to go through you, not around you, if you don’t move out of the way or help us move forward. The Clinton wing took over the Democratic Party after the 1988 landslide defeat. I – and people like me from all corners of our party, of all creeds and colors and genders and orientations – are going to take it now. You don’t get to whiff with this much on the line for people’s lives. You’re done.

###

A Post-Script:
I am, additionally, sympathetic to those whose primary hope for this election was the arrival of the first female U.S. president, because I know this is devastating to many of you. I hope we nominate a woman again next time – someone who will have much broader and deeper support…

Make sure people can vote, and want to

Always remember that in US electoral politics there are two axes: How people vote and which people vote. Rethinking how we talk about the latter – and making sure we talk about them at all – will be key in the months ahead. This post doesn’t point fingers specifically but raises some concerns many of you might not have considered.

Winning elections is not always about converting voters, as this low turnout election – like so many low turnout elections before it – has proven. Sometimes it is about persuading people to show up – and making it possible for them to do so in the first place. We should always work to make it easier for people to vote in our democracy and many states have taken steps in recent years to make it substantially easier. (Oregon Gov. & Former Secretary of State Kate Brown, for example, oversaw the addition of universal automatic voter registration to the state’s existing 100% vote-by-mail system and she made it easier for people with various disabilities to cast special ballots if needed.) On the other hand, many states, especially in the South, have permanently taken away the voting rights of hundreds of thousands – even millions – of minority voters, not to mention purging voter rolls. The Democratic Party should be fighting to make sure all voters can vote. But in addition to people not being able to vote, we didn’t lose this election because we failed to convert reactionary or hateful voters to our worldview, but more because many of their neighbors in those states chose to stay home this year. This was a big drop from 2012, which itself was a sizeable drop from 2008.

I’m not telling you to “listen better” to incorrigible racists; I’m telling you to listen and figure out why several million people felt so much despair about the state of the country and the competing visions being presented to them that nothing motivated them to make the trip to the polls. You can complain that the stakes were so high they should have voted anyway, and you can complain until the cows come home, but it won’t change what happened and it won’t prevent it from happening again in 2018, 2020, and beyond.

Michigan, to focus more narrowly for a moment, has a number of communities, cutting across many ethnicities, facing distinct existential challenges (i.e. challenges that literally threaten their lives on a daily basis), and Democrats have increasingly just looked away as Republicans tightened the screws (when not actively helping). The Michigan Democratic primary was a huge upset and featured issues of not just trade or manufacturing jobs (a multi-racial issue contrary to media narratives) but also Flint’s austerity-driven water poisoning crisis (primarily impacting Black residents) and the United States’ ongoing military activities in Middle Eastern countries where many voters have family. The general election featured no promises to end the wars, no discussion of Flint at all, and no real plan to repair the lives of (solidly Democratic) Black or White working class families impacted by trade laws and union-busting. Forget for a moment the people who jumped to do press interviews about voting for Trump – we let down a lot of our most reliable voters and they decided it wasn’t worth it to go vote if it meant just voting in someone who wasn’t talking about how to end the misery they’re already in every day. And President Obama, while personally popular still to many people, made a lot of promises on trade, environmental safety, and the Middle East that he didn’t fulfill for the people of Michigan, if we’re honest.

Sure, I’m upset with people who voted for Donald Trump, but I wasn’t expecting or trying to win them over in great numbers – nor am I now. I’m trying to make sure our own voters have a reason to believe it’s worth voting and will make a difference. I’m trying to make sure we run on and deliver on an agenda that makes a noticeable difference in the lives of people who have a hard go of it, so that voters can see not just why they should vote for us but why they should vote at all.

Building toward 2018 and 2020

In July 2014, I wrote that “Democrats need to focus on state legislatures (or stay doomed)”. Here’s what I argued at the time:

Democrats aren’t focusing enough on taking the steps necessary to correct the districting imbalance that’s hurting them so badly. That would boil down, essentially, to investing a lot of money right now into the state parties of every Democratic-leaning state, swing state, and Republican-trending-Democratic-demographic state in the country to recruit, train, and finance candidates in state legislative races and governor races in 2014, 2016, 2018, and 2020.

If executed well, Democrats would be in a position to reasonably expect in 2020 (barring some catastrophic political wave against them that year) to win a lot of majorities in state legislatures all over, to prevent Republicans from extending the post-2010 maps that have been so weighted against Democrats in Congressional races. At the very least, Democratic-led legislatures could implement fairer, nonpartisan redistricting systems that take away the self-serving bias of having legislators redraw their own districts.
[…]
We’re going to panic in October 2020 — right before the election that will determine the next round of post-census redistricting nationwide — when we suddenly realize we needed 3-4 cycles (e.g. starting 2014 or 2016) to ramp back up toward legislative majorities in a lot of states by election night in November 2020. That year will be a presidential year when the Democratic base really turns out, unlike in the 2010 non-presidential cycle. But it won’t make a bit of difference if the state parties all over the country haven’t recruited electable legislative candidates. They’re going to need consistent national Democratic support for the next six and a half years to make that happen.

Without that effort, Democrats can look forward to another ten years of Republican domination on multiple levels or full-stop obstruction of all Democratic agenda points.

 
Some further reflections from the vantage point of a couple years later, for legislative and other races:

For maximum effectiveness, we need open seat primaries in heavily Democratic areas plus primary wins to nominate challengers in Republican areas. Only social democrats will recruit winnable candidates. The Clinton wing is uninterested in downballot and always has been.

The Democratic party institutions’ recruiters are also, unfortunately, terrible at assessing true electability. If we keep recruiting multi-millionaires with political last names to run on bipartisan budget cuts & entitlement reform, we will lose 2018. Democratic candidates who run as Lite Republicans in 2018 will lose to the real thing 90% of the time. We can’t faceplant again.

Federally, legislatively, and gubernatorially, all post-November 2016 energy has to be on recruiting Dems with a new message that turns out the existing base heavily plus turns out new votes from people who might not otherwise show up. Our only shot is bold progressivism (social democracy) in Dem areas and low-income economic populism in poor Republican areas. (These are similar or the same policies prescriptions but somewhat differently messaged.)

Opposition Leadership

We need someone speaking every single day to the media and other party members, without apology, for progress and for our values. This is important in any context, but it is of even greater importance with a conservative Republican governor and with Democrats taking on an opposing role.

We, the progressive core of the Massachusetts Democratic Party, are not merely right on the issues in idealistic terms; our solutions are actually more realistic and more grounded than the other side’s solutions. And when the other side occupies part of the space of our party and blurs the lines on critical issues, it becomes harder to win elections than it should be, rather than helping to retain seats in swing districts. While there is room for disagreement on policy specifics, there should be a broad alignment of values on the major and contentious issues of our time.

Voters want bold, clear, and courageous leadership in their officials. Leadership sometimes means leading the voters toward one’s point of view on the issues. We have to make our case, in plain terms, as to why we are correct on those issues.

We can only offer the voters an informed choice in making their decisions at the ballot box if we argue our case to them for our preferred positions on the issues.

Baseline goals

Arsenal Bolt: Quick updates on the news stories we’re following.

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“Bernie Sanders invokes FDR in explaining socialism as ‘foundation of middle class'” – LA Times:

“The next time you hear me attacked as a socialist,” Sanders said, “remember this: I don’t believe government should take over the grocery store down the street or own means of production. But I do believe the middle class and working class of this country who produce the wealth of this country deserve a decent standard of living, and their incomes should go up and not down.”