The Democrats’ White-Guy Problem

Party leaders are discovering that it’s hard to excite their base if their candidates don’t pass a diversity test.

Thomas Perez
AP Foto/Branden Camp
Feb. 28, 2017, 8:01 p.m.

The battle for the chair­man­ship of the Demo­crat­ic Na­tion­al Com­mit­tee was far from the most con­sequen­tial de­cision that party lead­ers were fa­cing. But it offered an in­struct­ive les­son over how iden­tity polit­ics—put­ting one’s skin col­or or gender over polit­ic­al views and the qual­ity of one’s résumé—has be­come the de­fin­ing prin­ciple for today’s Demo­crat­ic Party act­iv­ists. With a pro­gress­ive grass­roots ob­sessed with check­ing priv­ilege, it’s dif­fi­cult for even the most ap­peal­ing white male can­did­ate to over­come this polit­ic­al han­di­cap with the base.

Former Labor Sec­ret­ary Thomas Perez’s nar­row win over Bernie Sanders-backed Rep. Keith El­lis­on was a vic­tory for es­tab­lish­ment forces with­in the party. But the big­ger, less-ap­pre­ci­ated story was the im­plo­sion of 35-year-old South Bend May­or Pete But­ti­gieg, con­sidered a rising star in the party and a ser­i­ous con­tender for the chair­man­ship. With sup­port from well-placed party lead­ers (like former DNC chair Howard Dean, former Mary­land Gov. Mar­tin O’Mal­ley, Dav­id Axel­rod, and Obama com­mu­nic­a­tions dir­ect­or Jen Psaki), But­ti­gieg looked like a plaus­ible com­prom­ise can­did­ate who could unite the party’s pro­gress­ive and prag­mat­ic fac­tions. In­stead, he dropped out of the race be­fore the first round of bal­lot­ing, re­cog­niz­ing his low vote total would be an em­bar­rass­ment.

On pa­per, But­ti­gieg offered everything the party needed for a pub­lic face—a young, cha­ris­mat­ic small-town may­or from the Mid­w­est who is out­spokenly lib­er­al and openly gay. But be­ing a white guy in today’s Demo­crat­ic Party has be­come a glar­ing polit­ic­al vul­ner­ab­il­ity.

Re­pub­lic­ans have well-pub­li­cized dif­fi­culties with iden­tity polit­ics. They fare poorly with Afric­an-Amer­ic­ans and Lati­nos, and need to make in­roads with these groups if they’re go­ing to be vi­able as the coun­try be­comes more di­verse.

But But­ti­gieg’s un­der­whelm­ing per­form­ance is part of a pat­tern in which Demo­crat­ic lead­ers face their own chal­lenge—how to ex­cite Obama’s co­ali­tion of mil­len­ni­als and non­white voters without play­ing iden­tity polit­ics. Demo­crat­ic op­er­at­ives are now throw­ing Clin­ton run­ning mate Tim Kaine un­der the bus, lament­ing that he didn’t en­er­gize the party’s all-too-com­pla­cent base in last year’s elec­tion. On col­lege cam­puses across the coun­try, left-wing stu­dents are agit­at­ing to ex­cise the names of white male his­tor­ic­al fig­ures from cam­pus build­ings.

There are ex­cep­tions to the dy­nam­ic. Bernie Sanders was able to ex­cite white mil­len­ni­als in the primary cam­paign, but he didn’t gen­er­ate much en­thu­si­asm among Afric­an-Amer­ic­an Demo­crats. Sen. Al Franken’s celebrity could put him in a unique po­s­i­tion, if he chose to run for pres­id­ent. But these out­liers prove the point.

Kaine is a text­book ex­ample of an ac­com­plished lib­er­al swing-state sen­at­or whose prag­mat­ism and de­cency ut­terly failed to ex­cite core Demo­crat­ic voters in last year’s pres­id­en­tial elec­tion. Even with an im­press­ive civil-rights re­cord and flu­ency in Span­ish, he didn’t help Clin­ton at­tract the party’s base of young, non­white voters to the polls. One top Clin­ton ad­viser, who re­ques­ted an­onym­ity to can­didly as­sess the elec­tion, told Na­tion­al Journ­al that pick­ing Kaine as her run­ning mate was a ma­jor blun­der be­cause he didn’t of­fer any­thing to a rest­ive base.

Obama’s Su­preme Court nom­in­ee Mer­rick Gar­land, a re­spec­ted prag­mat­ic jur­ist, also failed to hit the sweet spot with the Demo­crat­ic base. Obama hoped that Re­pub­lic­an ob­struc­tion of his nom­in­a­tion would hand Demo­crats a tail­or-made is­sue for the pres­id­en­tial elec­tion. In­stead, the op­pos­ite happened. The lib­er­al base hardly cared about the fate of a bor­ing white guy, even though the stakes were so high. Demo­crats stopped us­ing Gar­land as a cam­paign is­sue after real­iz­ing his nom­in­a­tion wasn’t res­on­at­ing with their voters. Re­pub­lic­ans, by con­trast, were so en­er­gized by the pro­spect of sav­ing a con­ser­vat­ive ju­di­cial ma­jor­ity that many held their nose and voted for Don­ald Trump des­pite their mis­giv­ings.

This might be a trivi­al is­sue if it wasn’t so con­sequen­tial for the Demo­crat­ic Party’s fu­ture. Just as Re­pub­lic­ans badly need di­versity in the up­per ranks of their party to broaden their ap­peal, Demo­crats must im­prove on their ap­peal with white men. Only 22 per­cent of white men view the Demo­crat­ic party fa­vor­ably, ac­cord­ing to a new NBC News/Wall Street Journ­al poll, with a whop­ping 57 per­cent view­ing it un­fa­vor­ably. Not co­in­cid­ent­ally, just 22 per­cent of Hil­lary Clin­ton’s voters in 2016 were white men, ac­cord­ing to ana­lys­is from my Cook Polit­ic­al Re­port col­league Dav­id Wasser­man.

One of the most alarm­ing trends in polit­ics is the rise of ra­cial po­lar­iz­a­tion. Un­der Trump, Re­pub­lic­ans are now just as eager to mo­bil­ize white men as a core con­stitu­ency to counter the Demo­crats’ in­creased re­li­ance on minor­it­ies.

But each party must pro­mote can­did­ates from out­side its base to break the strangle­hold of iden­tity polit­ics. Re­pub­lic­ans badly need wo­men of col­or in high of­fice to ap­peal to a di­ver­si­fy­ing Amer­ica. But Demo­crats also could use a few good white men to prove that their brand of lib­er­al­ism holds an ap­peal bey­ond the hardened left-wing act­iv­ists.

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