Democrats Need To Get Back In Touch

Instead of looking bitterly at the past, they must shape a future that takes them away from the coasts and into flyover country.

FILE - In this July 28, 2015, file photo, Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton gets fresh tomatoes at Dimond Hill Farm between campaign stops in Hopkinton, N.H.
AP Photo/Jim Cole
Charlie Cook
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Charlie Cook
Jan. 2, 2017, 8 p.m.

Pri­or to the Novem­ber elec­tion, there was con­sid­er­able talk about how the Re­pub­lic­an Party would need to put it­self back to­geth­er after Don­ald Trump’s ex­pec­ted pres­id­en­tial loss. Now it’s the Demo­crats who have to fig­ure out a strategy for the post-Obama and post-Clin­ton era. But they don’t seem much in­ter­ested in in­tro­spec­tion, which is sur­pris­ing con­sid­er­ing they had been ex­pec­ted to score a net gain of between four and six Sen­ate seats and win con­trol the cham­ber, and close the gap in the House by net­ting between 10 and 20 seats, in­stead of only six. And of course they came up 30 to 40 elect­or­al votes short of the num­ber they figured to win to keep the White House.

In­stead of plan­ning for the fu­ture, Demo­crats are look­ing bit­terly at the past. They’re driv­en to dis­trac­tion by hatred and con­tempt for Pres­id­ent-elect Trump, the ac­tions of FBI Dir­ect­or James Comey, hack­ing by Rus­si­an in­tel­li­gence op­er­at­ives, fake news, the alt-right move­ment, and even the short­com­ings of Hil­lary Clin­ton’s can­did­acy. While some of these con­cerns are le­git­im­ate and pos­sibly were de­cis­ive, fo­cus­ing on them has no con­struct­ive be­ne­fit for a party that des­per­ately needs a change in dir­ec­tion.

Demo­crats should start by re­build­ing their bench. Barack Obama’s two White House vic­tor­ies ob­scured dev­ast­at­ing losses in 2010 and 2014 on the state level in both le­gis­lat­ive and gubernat­ori­al races. An aging con­gres­sion­al lead­er­ship and little turnover due to high reelec­tion rates caused stag­na­tion in the House, prompt­ing many up-and-com­ing Demo­crats to leave be­cause they saw no near-term pro­spects for ad­vance­ment.

Those state-le­gis­lat­ive losses amoun­ted to des­troy­ing the seed corn for the fu­ture in the lower cham­ber, and gubernat­ori­al losses de­pleted the ranks of fu­ture Sen­ate and pres­id­en­tial as­pir­ants.

Scour­ing the coun­try like base­ball scouts look­ing for new and un­re­cog­nized tal­ent is something that the Demo­crat­ic Party hasn’t done in years. Rather than just re­cruit­ing for spe­cif­ic races, the party needs to find and groom pro­spects for fu­ture races. Many of the com­pre­hens­ive train­ing pro­grams that the Demo­crat­ic Na­tion­al Com­mit­tee sponsored in the 1960s and 1970s are a shad­ow of what they used to be, if they ex­ist at all.

Giv­en the vagar­ies of both con­gres­sion­al re­dis­trict­ing and pop­u­la­tion pat­terns, Demo­crats have little hope of re­cap­tur­ing a House ma­jor­ity in 2018 or 2020, but again they’re con­tent with curs­ing the dark­ness in­stead of plot­ting a bright fu­ture. They put too much blame on Re­pub­lic­an ger­ry­man­der­ing in the states, and no doubt that is part of their prob­lem. Sure, Re­pub­lic­an gains in the 2010 and 2014 elec­tions did boost GOP strength in the state cap­it­als. After all, the midterm elec­tion cycles are when the bulk of gov­ernor­ships and many state-le­gis­lat­ive seats are con­tested. The GOP is simply do­ing to Demo­crats what Demo­crats did to Re­pub­lic­ans for many years, draw­ing party lines to their be­ne­fit. With the won­ders of com­puter tech­no­logy and in­creased straight-party vot­ing, it just has a big­ger im­pact now than in the past.

The oth­er side of the coin is that Demo­crats have be­come an urb­an and coastal party. A glance at the red-blue na­tion­al maps of pres­id­en­tial and con­gres­sion­al vot­ing shows that the Demo­crat­ic Party has a very nar­row foot­print. Demo­crats are very highly con­cen­trated in urb­an areas and col­lege towns. Where do Re­pub­lic­an voters tend to live? Every­where else—small-town and rur­al Amer­ica and the out­er­most sub­urbs. Re­pub­lic­an voters are more evenly dis­trib­uted across many dis­tricts while Demo­crat­ic voters are piled up on top of each oth­er. The res­ult: The party wins a smal­ler num­ber of dis­tricts by of­ten as­tro­nom­ic­al mar­gins, wast­ing votes with big vic­tor­ies. My col­league Dav­id Wasser­man jokes that Demo­crats need to launch a massive voter re­lo­ca­tion pro­gram, ur­ging their sup­port­ers to move out of the cit­ies and in­to the out­er con­cent­ric circles of met­ro­pol­it­an areas, as well as to small towns and rur­al Amer­ica.

There was a time when many con­gres­sion­al Demo­crats, par­tic­u­larly those on the Ag­ri­cul­ture Com­mit­tee, would make a con­cer­ted ef­fort to bring their urb­an col­leagues to their South­ern and Mid­west­ern dis­tricts to help them un­der­stand the needs of rur­al Amer­ic­ans. Today, there are prac­tic­ally no Demo­crats in the House who rep­res­ent coun­try dis­tricts, so these vis­its by city folks are just a memory. For older urb­an Demo­crats, their view of rur­al Amer­ica comes from re­runs of Lassie, Pet­ti­coat Junc­tion, and The Beverly Hill­bil­lies.

Re­search shows that Demo­crats who live out­side met­ro­pol­it­an areas think that urb­an elites and people on the East and West coasts don’t un­der­stand them. They feel ig­nored or even dis­respec­ted. Demo­crats don’t seem to un­der­stand that they can fight for the rights of pre­vi­ously neg­lected groups and still pur­sue policies aimed at help­ing Joe and Jane Lunch-buck­et. These goals are not mu­tu­ally ex­clus­ive. The re­l­at­ively small share of in­fra­struc­ture spend­ing in the 2009 eco­nom­ic stim­u­lus pack­age is a good ex­ample of how Demo­crats failed to pur­sue a course that would have cre­ated well-pay­ing jobs for laid-off work­ers and people who choose not to go to col­lege or can’t af­ford to.

Med­ic­al-re­cords tech­no­logy and green-en­ergy pro­jects are not par­tic­u­larly ef­fect­ive in cre­at­ing jobs for people dis­placed by trade and en­vir­on­ment­al policies. If you are go­ing to throw coal miners out of work, you’d bet­ter take ag­gress­ive steps to find com­par­able jobs for them and their chil­dren and grand­chil­dren. Mak­ing ag­ri­cul­ture a more im­port­ant tool of for­eign policy, us­ing it to gen­er­ate good will in coun­tries that are in­creas­ingly hos­tile to the U.S., would bring be­ne­fits at home and abroad.

The im­me­di­ate ob­ject­ives are to keep Demo­crat­ic losses in the Sen­ate to a min­im­um and to start mak­ing in­roads in gubernat­ori­al and state-le­gis­lat­ive races in 2018. But mak­ing Demo­crats a na­tion­al party again re­quires a broad­er vis­ion. They need to define di­versity not just along the lines of race and sexu­al ori­ent­a­tion, but also in terms of geo­graphy and eco­nom­ic class. In short, they need to para­chute in­to “fly­over” coun­try and get back in touch with or­din­ary Amer­ic­ans.

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