Now that the dust has settled and the Democratic National Committee has elected Tom Perez as its head, there are a few rules the Democratic Party should internalize in its efforts to rebuild:
Rule #1: Nothing is forever
In 1991, political reporter Peter Brown wrote a book titled “Minority Party: Why Democrats Face Defeat in 1992 and Beyond.” His main thesis was that throughout the ’80s the Democratic Party ignored the interests of the majority-white middle class electorate. The party’s emphasis on minority concerns, at the perceived expense of “Joe Sixpack,” explained why the Democrats kept losing. In 1992, Bill Clinton swept the White House, Democrats retained control of the House and Senate and proceeded to win the popular vote in five of the next six elections.
The architect of Bill Clinton’s win, James Carville, wrote a book in 2009 after the election of former President Barack Obama. Its title? “40 More Years: How the Democrats Will Rule the Next Generation.” What’s especially ironic is that the cover shows Carville and Obama standing in front of a background of listed years. The ones that are most visible? 2011, the year Republican John Boehner was inaugurated as Speaker of the House, 2014, the year Republicans won control of the Senate and 2017, the year a Republican president was inaugurated.
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2018 promises to be daunting. The majority of Senate seats up for election will be held by Democrats, many of which are especially vulnerable. The House seems virtually unwinnable — districts have been so gerrymandered that Democratic House candidates won a plurality of the vote in 2012 while netting 46 percent of the seats. The party, however, should take a deep breath and understand that the wilderness will always clear with time.
Rule #2: A rebuilding ought to begin at the local level
Republicans lucked out in the 2010 midterms. Newly elected Republican state Legislatures redrew congressional districts after the census. Republican secretaries of state determined who could vote through voter ID policies and determined ballot referenda language. Republican attorney generals challenged laws such as the Affordable Care Act in federal courts.
While Democrats have a steep climb in retaking the Senate, they should take this opportunity to retake the statehouses. Thirty-six governors will be elected next year. The vast majority of these seats are held by Republicans, presenting a great opportunity to redeem the party’s losses on a state level. Focusing on states, and even counties, would prove beneficial in other ways too. Rising stars in the party are often cultivated on local levels before they can run for a higher office.
Rule #3: Narrative matters
Quick, can you recite any lines from Hillary Clinton’s stump speech? I’m a staunch Democrat, and even I can’t name a single thing Hillary Clinton talked about. But President Donald Trump? “Mexico will pay”, “You will be tired of winning” and “What the hell do you have to lose?” all come to mind immediately. Trump sold the American people on a bill of goods and he was able to because people remembered what he talking about, despite the ridiculousness of its content.
The counter-narrative Democrats should start cultivating is this: We made progress under the Obama years, we have more work to do on a number of issues and Trump is making everything worse.
Angry about Obamacare? Fine. We want to fix it, Trump doesn’t. Scared about national security? We get it, here’s our plan. Every policy issue and every ad from now until November 2020 should promulgate some element of this message. It’s simple. It puts Trump on the defensive and is backed by a cogent policy alternative.
One pitfall of this strategy is the fact that Trump is currently the head of the Republican Party. He has a big personality and an even bigger vacuum — when he speaks, all other messages are silenced.
Rule #4: Ideologically moderate when needed
Bill Clinton won in 1992 because he understood the message of minority party. Bill Clinton, a self-styled new Democrat, campaigned on increased spending on education, jobs, free trade and “ending welfare as we know it.” While there have been negative unintended consequences of his policy decisions, Bill Clinton focused on those issues because the country was simply not ready for a more ideologically extreme candidate.
In recruiting candidates for the 2018 and 2020 elections, the Democratic Party should take great lengths to emphasize an ideological big tent. In Republican districts, it should look for respectable “non-ideological” candidates who campaign on local issues (the opioid crisis, pro-growth economic policies, etc.) to attract moderate and conservative-leaning voters disgusted with the Trump administration. In progressive districts, it should recruit strong liberal voices who would articulate Democratic values and further the national agenda.
The Democratic Party faced a similar challenge to now in 2006. George Bush had been re-elected in 2004 over the allegedly soft-on-terror John Kerry. Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee Chair Rahm Emanuel took great pains to recruit moderate candidates for moderate districts, oftentimes looking for people with a business or military background. The result? Thirty-one more House seats, including gains in Kansas, Indiana, North Carolina and Texas districts.
The overarching lesson? Go after the states, craft a compelling political narrative and recruit good candidates who fit their respective districts. It’s that simple.
Tom, if you’re reading this, good luck. The worst case scenario of not following these rules is eight years of an unchecked Trump as president. If that happens, Rule #1 need not apply.
Zach Urisman ([email protected]) is a junior majoring in finance.