Rebuilding The Democratic Machine

The Democratic Party is not dead. But the 2016 election needs a post-mortem, that's for sure.

The Democratic Party is in pretty dire straights at the moment. Republicans not only control the United States Senate, the House of Representatives, and the White House, but when you take a look down at the state level, things are even more depressing. Republicans have full control (both statehouses and the governor’s office) in 25 states. Democrats only have complete control in five. Two-thirds of all the individual statehouses (state senates and state assemblies or houses) are Republican-controlled. Democrats have lost over 900 of the total seats in the statehouses since Barack Obama took office. By some levels, the Democrats are worse off than they’ve been since the 1920s.

Democrats face headwinds in the 2018 elections, but what’s even more concerning than that is what happens after the 2020 Census. The U.S. House will be redistricted, and if Democrats haven’t staged a pretty significant comeback by then, Republican governors and statehouses will gerrymander their way into locking up the House for another decade. They successfully did so after the 2010 Census, which is why the House has remained out of reach for Democrats since then.

That’s all pretty grim for Democrats to consider. But the only way to fix it is to face the facts and decide to do something about the problems. The first test of this will be who gets elected to head the Democratic National Committee, but there are other things that need to happen if Democrats are going to turn things around. So here’s my take on what needs to be done in the next six months or so if Democrats want to successfully rebuild their political machine.


Get a dynamic person to chair the D.N.C.

The Washington Post just posted a pretty good rundown from a party insider about what the priorities for picking the next party chair should be. Without taking sides between any of the current candidates, this is a pretty good list of what they’ll find on their desk on their first day.

The ideal candidate would be a perfect mix of cheerleader and organizer. Debbie Wasserman Schultz (who ran the party during much of Obama’s time in office) was a pretty good cheerleader, I have to give her that. She appeared often on news shows, and for the most part did a very good job of defending the Democratic agenda. She was feisty, and she did an excellent job of shooting down the nonsense from the Republicans while explaining why Democratic plans were so much better. The incoming chair has to be very effective on television, because they will be one of the most prominent Democratic voices left standing. There won’t be a Democratic president, speaker of the House, or Senate majority leader to talk to, so other than the two minority leaders in Congress, the D.N.C. chair is going to have to be a strong point person to make the Democrats’ case to the voters. So being telegenic and having the ability to strongly make the case for the Democratic agenda is an absolute priority for the next D.N.C. chair.

The organizational aspects of the job are just as crucial. Democrats need to rebuild their party down to the state level in almost all of the 50 states. Using all the high-tech wizardry that got Obama elected is important (compiling databases, building a volunteer network, etc.) ― but not just for the presidential race. State efforts can’t be ignored, and state candidates’ hard work shouldn’t be discarded after the election is over. Fundraising has to shift focus to small donors and a Bernie Sanders style of appealing to small donors, rather than just concentrating on how many fatcats can be squeezed at overpriced dinners with famous Democrats. That’s what Democrats have been focused on, but there is a better way to raise money that doesn’t leave the party beholden to Wall Street and Big Business quite so much.


An honest post-mortem

The first thing the new party chair should accomplish is an honest accounting of the 2016 election. The Republicans did this after their 2012 loss, and then completely ignored the document’s suggestions (granted, this has worked out pretty well for them since). Democrats need a serious period of self-examination to find out what they need to do better, but it needs to happen pretty quickly. The big three questions this document should address are: the candidate, the campaign, and the message.

How much of the 2016 loss can be placed at the feet of Hillary Clinton? That is going to be a painful subject to address, but it absolutely must be examined. Would Bernie Sanders have beaten Trump? Would a generic Democratic candidate have done so? Why, or why not? Clinton won the primaries, meaning the question is broader than just the D.N.C., because the base of Democratic voters had their say in the matter. In some ways, this may turn into a post-mortem on the entire Clinton influence within the Democratic Party, because neither Hillary nor Bill is ever going to run for president again. This means the Clintons will not be as heavily involved in the next few election cycles, which might free the party up to head in a different direction.

Next, Democrats need to perform a wonky nuts-and-bolts examination of Clinton’s campaign. If she had scheduled a few campaign events in Wisconsin, would it really have made a difference? She lost in Michigan and Pennsylvania, after all, and she spent plenty of time in both of those states. What happened to the get-out-the-vote effort that worked so well for Obama but fell woefully short for Clinton? How effective was Clinton’s advertising strategy (and tactics)? Would more ads in different places have helped? Would ads with a different focus have helped? There are plenty of unanswered questions about how the Clinton campaign’s overall strategy as well as their voter targeting efforts fell short, and they should all be addressed in detail.

The primary campaign needs examination as well, which will be even more of a navel-gazing exercise for the D.N.C. Debbie Wasserman Schultz was forced to step down from her chairmanship right when the Democratic National Convention started, because she was seen as putting a pretty hefty thumb on the scale for Clinton’s primary campaign. The WikiLeaks emails confirmed that there was a significant amount of favoritism in play during the primaries. So what changes at the D.N.C. would assure this never happens again? Some very bright lines need to be drawn between the national party organization and individual primary campaigns, so that we never see a repeat of this again. The entire logic of the superdelegate system needs a very hard look as well. Republicans seem to get along without superdelegates at their conventions, so perhaps Democrats should just scrap the whole system ― or, at the very least, reform it considerably.

Finally, Hillary Clinton’s campaign messaging needs a close examination. This is going to be crucial to win back two very large demographics who should be eagerly voting for Democratic candidates. The first is young voters, and the second is blue-collar voters. Both were notably lacking in excitement about Hillary Clinton. The people who generate the most excitement in the Democratic base (and, in particular, young and working-class voters) are the strongest voices for economic populism. Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren have both shown the Democratic Party how excited and enthused and hopeful voters can be when Democrats have a clear and consistent economic message tuned directly in to those who worry about the state of the economy the most. Big and bold get more support from the base, rather than small and incremental. There’s a big lesson to be learned from this by the national party as a whole.


Offer some hope to the Rust Belt

Wisconsin. Michigan. Indiana. Ohio. Pennsylvania. All these states need a special effort from Democrats right now, or else they’ll slip beyond the party’s reach for a long time to come. Barack Obama saved the auto industry from absolute ruin, which is a major factor in these states. But that was a while ago ― what have Democrats done for them lately?

Donald Trump has made promises to these states that he’s not going to be able to keep. Democrats must be ready with an alternative when Trump fails. So far, Democrats have only two answers for people in factory towns when the factory moves out: get smarter, or move. That’s pretty thin gruel for a town decimated by the loss of thousands of good jobs. Get “retrained” for industries that have never operated in these regions, or move to a blue state where the economy’s doing better. Democrats have to figure out a way to entice corporations to use the fallow labor force in such towns so that when the factories move out, other industries decide to move in.

Where are the liberal think tanks who are working on this problem? There has got to be a better answer than “you’re not smart and talented enough” or “move to the coasts.” Industries die and industries are born all the time, and more jobs are being lost to automation all the time. There’s a big sector of the workforce that is about to get decimated which will involve millions of jobs in jeopardy (not just primary jobs, but for the whole support network as well). Once automated driverless trucks are allowed on the freeways, there will be an enormous drop in employment as a direct result. These are some of the last jobs left that an average Joe can do and still make a pretty good living ― with only a high-school education. When this industry is disrupted, it’s only going to exacerbate the problem, and it is coming soon.

I am not an economic genius, nor have I ever pretended to be. But there are macroeconomic wonks on the liberal side who should really be coming up with some answers, and fast. Is the solution a guaranteed minimum income? I have no idea, but the idea seems worth exploring. Should “enterprise zones” be set up in small towns across the Rust Belt to entice corporations to move there? Certainly seems like it could work. Ideas from across the spectrum need to be identified, because with Republican control of Congress, Democrats may have to decide on some conservative ideas that could be worth supporting if anything is going to actually pass.

What needs to happen to help out the 50-year-old worker in Ohio who has just seen his job move overseas? What can Democrats offer him or her that would provide any sort of hope for the future? This is crucial for Democrats to figure out, because if they don’t then they might as well kiss goodbye their electoral chances in states stretching from Pittsburgh to Green Bay. Trump gave these people hope ― many of whom previously voted for Obama. When that hope proves to be false, Democrats must be ready with plans of their own to improve this entire region’s prospects for the future.


Attacking the gerrymandering problem

This effort has already been announced, because it is what both Barack Obama and Eric Holder plan on doing after January. Statehouses and governors matter. They matter in two big ways ― building a deep Democratic “bench” to use to recruit candidates for national office, and preventing House districts drawn after the 2020 Census from overwhelmingly favoring Republicans. This lasts for ten years, so the entire 2020 decade is really at stake here.

Some states have taken the lead on getting politics as far away from the redistricting process as possible. Arizona and California now have non-partisan panels to draw the district lines, for instance. While moving this trend forward bodes well for regaining balance and fairness in redistricting, that trend is going to take a long time before it bears fruit on a national scale. Until then, Democrats need to win back some statehouses to have a fighting chance at ever retaking the House of Representatives.

Holder and Obama’s project should be supported wholeheartedly by the D.N.C., and the incoming chair needs to do whatever is necessary to make the project successful. A 50-state strategy to accomplish this should be one of the top priorities of the Democratic Party for the next four years. This includes much better recruiting of candidates, and it requires supporting local and state candidates from the national organization in new and creative ways (as well as the tried-and-true “providing campaign cash”). Obama has signaled he’s not going to fade into non-partisan do-gooding after his presidency (like Jimmy Carter and Bill Clinton have done), but rather he’s going to get down in the state-level trenches and fight to rebuild the party. The party itself needs to get behind him and support this effort to the hilt.


Stay on message!

Finally, Democrats need to do much better at staying on message, once an overall party message has been agreed upon. Speak with one voice rather than hearing different factions of the party endlessly squabbling in public.

Of course, the “herding cats” problem is a longstanding one among Democrats, ever since Will Rogers uttered his famous line: “I am not a member of any organized political party. I am a Democrat.” In fact, I can end this just by linking to my very first blog post, written over 10 years ago ― when Democrats were also out in the cold in both Congress and the White House. I say this because I ended this foray into the blogosphere by quoting that exact Will Rogers line. When you’re the “out” party, you’ve got to pull together like never before.

So that’s my prescription for the Democratic Party. Get someone effective (both on television and in the campaign war room) to run the Democratic National Party. Closely and honestly examine the last election to see what went so wrong, and offer positive solutions for change. Stop ignoring the Rust Belt and being so condescending to “flyover country,” because you cannot continue to count on their votes any longer if you do. Plan for 2020 and the redistricting now, so it won’t take the party by surprise. And speak with one voice.

The Democratic Party is not dead. But the 2016 election needs a post-mortem, that’s for sure. The party needs to revitalize itself and start leading in a direction that young people and working-class people want to go towards. The party leadership itself is in serious need of a shakeup, as is the institutional problems that were on display during the primary season. To rebuild an effective party machine, get a better message for why Democrats should be in charge of things ― a message that appeals to the widest possible swath of voters. A Democratic renaissance is possible, but only if some rather fundamental changes are made.


Chris Weigant blogs at:

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