What the Democrats Need to Do to Win Back the White House

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tags: Democrats, election 2020

David A. Horowitz, a professor of US Cultural and Political History at Portland State University, is the author of "America's Political Class under Fire: The 20th Century's Great Culture War(2003) and a memoir entitled "Getting There: An American Cultural Odyssey"(2015).


It now seems obvious that the Republican Party has disqualified itself as a morally accountable force in American politics. Its refusal to deal with the challenges of climate change, its association with a vicious and life-threatening health care proposal designed to provide tax cuts for the wealthy, and the reluctance of many in its base and leadership to distance itself from the erosion of the rule of law in the Trump administration are only the latest symptoms of a faction whose only reason for being lies in its desire to inspire the outrage of liberals.

As Progressives search for a fruitful response to the present administration's assault on the civic state and plot their political future, the options may be more complicated than optimists imagine.

To start, a first-term impeachment may not be a sure thing. Admittedly, Donald Trump has an uncanny ability to sabotage his own legitimacy, a pattern now revealed in his apparent obstruction of justiceregarding James Comey and the FBI investigation of General Flynn's ties to Russian interests. Yet a Republican House will have to decide if Comey's memos detailing conversations with the president, in conjunction with the director's firing and other circumstantial evidence, are sufficient to advance a bill of impeachment. Certainly, there is little reason to trust Trump's tweets about a White House taping system that could produce a smoking gun. Add to that, it would take a two-thirds vote of the Senate, including nineteen Republicans, for an impeachment conviction.

House Republicans face the dilemma of going down with the ship in 2018 or facing the wrath of the Trump base by splitting with the president. Either way, chances of a Democratic takeover of the House improve each day (generic preference polling now stands at +5 in their favor; given gerrymandering, they need a +8 rating to pick up the two dozen seats they would need). Given the reawakened Democratic base, this is not unrealistic. Yet the Senate will almost certainly remain Republican since Democrats hold most of the seats up for election. Conceivably, Democratic incumbents could hold Trump states like West Virginia, Montana, North Dakota, Ohio, Florida, and Missouri, but Indiana, where the Democrat won in 2012 with only 49% of the vote after the Republican candidate talked about “real” rape, might be a stretch. Even if the Democrats held all their seats, however, they would still need to pick up 3 Republican seats to get to a 51-seat majority. There's a reasonable opportunity to oust Dean Heller in Nevada and Jeff Flake in Arizona for 2. Beyond that, it's hard to find a 3rd unless Maine's Susan Collins decides against running for governor in 2018 and joins her counterpart Angus King in declaring herself an independent who will caucus with the Democrats.

If the Democrats won the House in 2018 they could stymie the remnants of a Trump agenda. Yet real political realignment will have to wait until 2020 when far more Republican senators than Democrats, many in blue states, will face re-election, and Democrats will likely attract a hefty presidential election year turnout. Still, if all this is to work, the party will need to field a presidential candidate who can inspire disciplined unity within the ranks while attracting enough of an emotionally shattered and divisive general electorate to take back the White House.

Along these lines, some figures from the 2016 election are instructive.

Hillary Clinton lost the Electoral College when Donald Trump out-polled her by a total of 78,000 votes in Wisconsin, Michigan, and Pennsylvania. Sixty thousand of that 78,000 vote margin came from the Green and Libertarian parties increasing their 2012 vote by a half million (Trump picked up only 440,000 more votes in those three states than Romney in 2012).

In Wisconsin, Trump beat Hillary by 23,000 votes. Jill Stein's Green Party won 31,000 votes.

Clinton's Wisconsin vote was 193,000 less than Obama's in 2012 with more than half of the white share of that number voting Green or Libertarian.

In Michigan, Trump beat Hillary by fewer than 13,000 votes. Jill Stein's Green Party won 51,000 votes in a state where the white vote for 3rd and 4th parties increased five-fold from 2012.

Pennsylvania offered a different picture. Clinton actually improved Obama's 2012 white vote but 130,000 fewer black voters cast a ballot than in 2012. Hillary lost the state by 44,000 votes.

There are some disturbing implications to these numbers for Progressives.

Green Party voters who didn't trust Clinton on the environment now face an administration intent on dismembering every federal program designed to protect the environment and ameliorate the effects of climate change.

Progressives who didn't trust Hillary's incremental commitment to universal health care now face an administration intent on dismembering the Affordable Health Care Act to advantage wealthy donors.

Critics who questioned Clinton's relationship to Wall Street and commitment to economic equity now face an administration dedicated to the wholesale eradication of financial and industrial regulation and public protections, the imposition of hefty tax cuts for the wealthy, and the institutionalization of greed and predatory behavior as the unquestioned foundation of American life.

Social justice activists, including some African Americans and Hispanics, who questioned Clinton's commitment to humane immigration reform and the reduction of police abuse, mass incarceration, and punitive drug practices now face what may be one of the most repressive Justice Departments in history.

The point is not to re-litigate the 2016 election or suggest that Clinton was the perfect candidate. Nor is it to deny that Democrats need to align with working- and middle-class Americans while addressing the nation’s ethnic and cultural diversity. Yet the party needs to do so in a way that goes beyond the favorite ideological fixations of its base such as doing away with the large banks or promoting the rapid adoption of a single-payer health system and, instead, addresses voters where they find them.

As the country moves toward 2020 after a divisive and stressful presidency, voters will be looking for calm reassurance that a semblance of sanity can be restored in Washington. At that point, a presidential candidate's personal qualities may matter far more than any explicit program. This would require someone with emotional and intellectual maturity, a healer who speaks softly but passionately about the values of cooperation and mutual respect that most Americans cherish. The last thing the electorate will seek is another round of divisive political rhetoric that only convinces people that politics has nothing to do with their lives. When large numbers of voters become apathetic, conservatives win and nothing ever changes for the better. The right candidate, however, may provide the chance to bring a semblance of unity and a desperately needed degree of accomplishment to a broken and dispirited political system.

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