Lessons From Our Last Comeback
Political memories tend to be short. As Democrats debate the causes and remedies for our recent losses, we sometimes forget that we’ve been here before. We would do well to remember the lessons of our last comeback as we plan our next one.
Between 1968 and 1988, Democrats lost five out of six presidential elections. It looked like the Republicans would have a permanent lock on the White House. We didn’t just lose the Electoral College, we lost 49 states—twice.
It had become painfully clear that we were trying to sell a product the American people did not want to buy. No amount of money, technology, or campaign strategy or tactics could reverse our losses. We needed new ideas. We needed to change our message.
President Bill Clinton and the New Democrats offered new ideas that fueled our party’s political comeback. That insurgent effort retooled the party’s message. And since Clinton’s victory in 1992, Democrats have won the popular vote in six of the last seven presidential elections, including this year. But in 2014 and 2016, the Republicans won just about everything else. America’s political map is far too red.
As Democrats plot our comeback, once again, there’s far too much talk about demographics, strategies and tactics and far too little focus on what we stand for. I believe our core problem is that too many Americans are not buying what we’re selling. It’s time to modernize our message once again.
America has seen dramatic changes demographically, socially, and technologically in the last quarter century. Because the challenges today are different than in the 1990s, the solutions will be, too, and, a new generation of Democrats must develop them.
Here are seven simple lessons today’s Democrats can learn from the experiences of the New Democrats.
First, honor core Democratic principles; don’t abandon them.
The New Democrat core principles—opportunity, responsibility, community—reconnected our party to its first principles and grandest traditions. Our party was built on Andrew Jackson’s credo of equal opportunity for all, special privilege for none; Thomas Jefferson’s belief in individual liberty and the capacity for self-government; John F. Kennedy’s ethic of civic responsibility; Harry Truman’s tough-minded internationalism; Franklin Roosevelt’s thirst for innovation, and Lyndon Johnson’s quest for social justice.
We need to rededicate ourselves to those progressive principles and further them with new ideas that meet new challenges we face.
Second, grow the private economy.
The animating principle of our party is opportunity for all, and a growing economy is the prerequisite for expanding opportunity. At its best, the Democratic Party is the party of upward mobility. Our first imperative should be to revive the American dream by fostering broad-based economic growth led by a robust private sector, generating high-skill, high-wage jobs, and promoting an agenda to equip every American with the opportunities and skills that he or she needs to get ahead.
Third, remember the forgotten middle class.
We need to address honestly and directly the concerns, hopes and aspirations those who go to work every day and play by the rules. Democrats like to talk about a “populist” agenda that rails against the wealthy and supports the middle class. But tapping anger against the one percent doesn’t engender hope or help the forgotten middle class, and it’s hard to redistribute wealth you don’t create. Without a growing economy, a populist agenda will turn into little more than idle talk and more broken promises.
Our challenge is to expand the winners’ circle in the global economy, not deny its existence. We need to empathize with displaced workers, to find ways to buffer the impact of the dislocation that technology and trade have caused in their lives, and to offer hope that their children can find a path to a brighter future.
Fourth, reclaim the mantle of reform.
Democrats believe government can and should play a positive role in our national life. Unlike the Republicans, we don’t believe government is an alien institution. It is the agent of our collective will and our instrument for helping Americans help themselves and each other. But when government doesn’t work, the people we want to help are hurt the most.
There’s nothing liberal about wasting money. Democrats should champion broad-based reforms to help government better serve ordinary Americans who work hard and pay the taxes.
When they lose confidence in government’s ability to work for them, they tend to vote Republican. Making government work is essential to achieving Democratic goals.
Fifth, close the national security gap.
Keeping the country is safe is the number one responsibility of the commander in chief. But for most of the past 15 years, Gallup has found that more Americans say the Republicans would do a better job than the Democrats of protecting the country from foreign threats. The reason: too many Americans believe that Democrats are not tough enough to act decisively to defend our country’s interests. We need to make it clear that we are not only prepared to build the strongest military in the world, but to use it when circumstances demand.
Sixth, challenge the status quo with bold ideas.
Democrats must once again become the party of progressive change. And the best way to do that is to propose big, defining ideas that challenge business as usual, not small, incremental policy tweaks.
Here’s a big idea we should consider: eliminate the payroll tax—what the late Senator Pat Moynihan called the “tax on work”—and replace it with consumption taxes, including a carbon tax on polluters, to pay for Social Security. No single action we could take would both put needed dollars in the pockets of hard working Americans and create more jobs than cutting the tax on work and lowering payroll costs significantly for employers. Replacing the payroll tax with a green tax would have the added benefit of being an effective market-oriented way to improve the environment by putting a real cost on polluting.
Ending the tax on work would send a strong signal to the hard working forgotten middle class that we’re thinking about them again—and it sure would shake up the status quo.
Seventh, ask Americans to give something back to their country.
Americans are not bound together by a common, race, religion, ethnic origin, or cultural identity, but rather by a common belief in the ethic of civic responsibility.
Citizenship entails responsibilities as well as rights, and we need to ask our citizens, as John Kennedy did, to give something back to their communities and their country. We need to expand opportunities for Americans to serve together in both military and community service.
At its best, America is one community—we’re all in this together and we go up and down together. We must recommit ourselves to the proposition that we can only achieve our individual destinies with a common commitment to our national destiny.
Al From is founder of the Democratic Leadership Council and author of The New Democrats and the Return to Power.