Start here: absent impeachment, the GOP is tethered to a candidate far too sick to become smarter than his habits.
What Americans will get in 2020 they’ve already seen in 2016 and 2018: Donald Trump’s vulgarity, instability, mendacity, misogyny, spite, self-absorption ― and the bigoted white identity politics he stokes to arouse his base and slake his craving for adulation. Mired in his own pathology, Trump cannot materially expand his share of the electorate. Democrats can.
We saw the tea leaves in November. After losing the House, Trump proclaimed victory while mocking the more temperate GOP incumbents he had doomed to defeat. Democrats turned out their base — women, minorities and a slice of the young — and added more suburban voters who found Trump repellent. They further broadened their appeal by running better and more diverse candidates who symbolized a more inclusive America, creating a blueprint for future recruitment.
Democrats elected a record number of women ― including minorities who carried majority-white districts ― while activating many more women as volunteers and donors. They ran strong nonwhite candidates and drew more minority voters. They supported younger candidates and attracted a greater percentage of millennials. LGBTQ Democrats won some tough races.
A diverse cadre of veterans epitomized real patriotism and national service. So did teachers who sacrifice to do America’s most important job. Both groups infuse Congress with badly needed expertise.
The party’s much-maligned congressional leadership sensibly eschewed a detailed national message, allowing candidates from across the party’s spectrum to tailor their own campaigns ― from the moderate ex-Marine Conor Lamb to the ardently progressive Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez. In the Midwest, pragmatists who focused on pressing state needs won governorships in Wisconsin, Kansas and Michigan, while a pro-labor progressive, Abby Finkenauer, flipped a House seat in Iowa, and another, Sen. Sherrod Brown, bucked a Republican trend in Ohio.
At the state level, Democrats replaced several Republican governors and attorneys general, and over 300 Republican state legislators. Building on these successes is essential to the party’s efforts to win in 2020 — and thereafter to revamp gerrymandered federal and state districts, expand voting rights and curb the influence of money in state elections.
So how can Democrats screw up in 2020? By forgetting what they’ve learned — and wishing away the harsh reality of the Electoral College.
As 2016 reminded us yet again, we elect our president state by state. Because of demographic sorting, that poses a serious disadvantage for Democrats, underscoring why their gubernatorial victories in Wisconsin and Michigan — which Trump won in 2016 — can’t be forgotten.
That Democrats expanded their base among the young, urbanites and minorities to include affluent, often suburban, areas populated by the college-educated ― particularly women ― reflects a rejection of Trump’s white-identity politics. But Trump still turned out his base voters in states that Democrats must win in 2020 ― indeed, older white voters’ percentage of the electorate increased over 2016.
Here’s the inescapable challenge posed by the Electoral College: To recapture the presidency, Democrats must increase turnout among their base ― including minorities ― while gaining among white, non-college-educated voters. Writing off blue-collar whites is electoral malpractice: They still comprise 44 percent of the electorate; 50 percent in every Midwestern state; over 60 percent in Indiana, Iowa, Ohio and Wisconsin; and 80 percent in key Pennsylvania counties ― the places that made Trump president.
Of necessity, Democrats must weave their ideals into a larger tapestry, fusing social and racial justice with a unifying economic program that transcends demographic divisions. That includes re-engaging the nearly 6 million people who switched from Obama to Trump, and who may be torn between concerns for their economic security, a distrust of government and a sense of cultural displacement.
To win, the party’s nominee must deliver a consistent message that, as much as possible, unites the party while expanding its reach. This is no easy task: One salient danger is that a fractious primary contest will drive candidates to the left, saddling the nominee with purple-state poison pills like “abolish ICE,” or “single-payer” as the only path to universal health care. The necessary alternative is crafting a broad progressive agenda that empowers the candidate to win ― and then enact real change.
That means confronting Trump’s ethnonationalism by evoking the historic values that made diverse peoples into a united country with shared aspirations. This includes opposing Trump’s racist demagoguery on immigration with a comprehensive program that replaces fear with humanity and common sense.
“Democrats have failed to tell a compelling overall story about building a stronger and fairer economy.”
We know Trump’s immigration program ― hatred and paranoia. But what’s the Democrats’ program beyond concern for discrete categories of particularly sympathetic people: Dreamers; families traumatized by separation; or law-abiding but undocumented workers? There isn’t one ― in part because the issue splits progressives from working-class whites and, in some cases, African-Americans. So Republicans made Democrats the party of “sanctuary cities,” “open borders” and a fictitious wave of criminal aliens.
Without equivocation, Democrats must emphasize how much immigrants have enriched America. They should propose a path to citizenship for Dreamers and legal status for undocumented immigrants who have observed our laws, humane treatment of refugee families, and prompt and compassionate resolution of asylum claims.
But they should also affirm that national integrity demands secure borders, that the number of new residents should reflect what our economy can absorb, and that we should expeditiously deport undocumented immigrants convicted of serious crimes. Any presidential candidate of conscience can stand on that.
In terms of presentation, some rules of the road. Don’t condescend to Trump voters. Don’t replicate his style ― millions of Americans, including many who supported him, are sick of rancor. Convey commitment and passion in the service of a more compassionate America. Deplore Trump’s meanness of spirit but focus on his failures of governance: threatening health care, passing tax cuts slanted to the rich, turning the Washington swamp into a cesspool.
Most important, don’t fear proposing federal programs that enhance the prospects and security of Americans at large. Most Americans don’t consider themselves progressives, let alone socialists. But when it comes to their own prosperity and security ― those concerns that cut across the boundaries of age, race or class ― neither are they conservatives. That’s why they favor protecting those with pre-existing conditions, defending Social Security and Medicare, and enacting a higher minimum wage ― all potent issues for Democrats in 2018.
But, as with immigration, Democrats have failed to tell a compelling overall story about building a stronger and fairer economy. As Michael Tomasky recently pointed out, the Republican mythology focuses on cutting taxes for the rich while decreasing regulation; its reality includes wage stagnation, income inequality and unsustainable deficits. What the Democrats should say, he advises, is that government grows the economy for all by expanding opportunity for working, middle-class and millennial Americans ― the millions of people, increasingly bereft of security, whom Republican policies have left behind.
Armed with this message, Democrats can propose an inclusive economic program that widens prosperity and opportunity. That includes empowering families, kids and young people by investing in universal health care; infrastructure; affordable housing; paid family and sick leave; day care; early childhood education; better public schools; affordable college; student debt relief; and vocational education and retraining. Our veterans deserve more support; our seniors a secure retirement. Rural America must be linked to our prosperity through broadband connectivity; better highways and rail lines; economic development geared to the new economy; and programs to combat opioid addiction. And future generations need us to do the urgent work of combating climate change ― beginning now.
Not all of this will work. Our resources are not infinite; nor is the public appetite for institutionalizing massive governmental interventions. New federal initiatives should not be grounded in ideological rapture, but in a pragmatic balancing of benefits with cost that acknowledges failure and funds success. But that’s the enduring lesson of Franklin Roosevelt’s New Deal. By inviting Americans to participate in a better common future, Democrats can grow not just prosperity, but hope and compassion ― the best in us, for a change.
Richard North Patterson is a New York Times best-selling author of 22 novels, a former chairman of Common Cause and a member of the Council on Foreign Relations.