/Dear Democrats: Here’s How Not to Blow It

Dear Democrats: Here’s How Not to Blow It

From left, Democratic presidential candidates Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., former Vice President Joe Biden and Sen. Elizabeth Warren, D-Mass. raise their hands to answer a question Thursday, Sept. 12, 2019, during a Democratic presidential primary debate hosted by ABC at Texas Southern University in Houston.

AP Photo/David J. Phillip

Opinion

What the party needs to learn from this week’s elections.

November 08, 2019

Rahm Emanuel is the former mayor of Chicago, former White House chief of staff, and former member of Congress from Illinois.

This week’s elections confirmed two things.

One: Democrats are on a winning streak. We flipped Kentucky’s gubernatorial seat and won control of the Virginia state legislature—this on top of the gains from 2018, when Democrats retook the U.S. House of Representatives, flipped six state houses and picked up seven gubernatorial seats.

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Two: That the playbook Democrats have used to such success in swing states over the last year is being utterly ignored by our party’s presidential candidates.

Every Democrat shares in the conviction that our overriding priority is making Donald Trump a one-term president. Liberal or moderate, we’re united in wanting to win. And after our big victories last November and earlier this month—which saw Democrats victorious not just in safely blue areas, but also in competitive suburban communities and battleground states—there’s no question about how to get that done.

Which is why, for the life of me, I cannot understand why our presidential candidates are failing to heed the lessons from Democrats’ 2018 and 2019 victories.

The Democratic candidates who have prevailed in battleground contests since 2016 didn’t embrace pie-in-the-sky policy ideas or propose a smorgasbord of new entitlements. They didn’t talk constantly about providing a guaranteed basic income. Or promising to make college free. Or eliminating private insurance and replacing it with a government-run health care system. Or giving $250 more each month in Social Security benefits. Or enacting the Green New Deal. Or calling for the immediate and abrupt end of fossil fuels. Or vowing to seize guns from people’s homes.

During both cycles, we won swing districts and battleground states by using the same playbook: sticking to an agenda that meets voters where and how they live their lives. In tone, tenor and talent, those winning candidates spoke to issues that middle-class voters face every day. Which raises the question: Why aren’t our leading presidential candidates looking to replicate that success?

There’s a gaping disconnect between that successful playbook and the strategic choices on display during the ongoing presidential primary debates. Inexplicably, the men and women who want to be our party’s standard bearer seem to be ignoring the unambiguous message voters are sending—and that should concern anyone who wants to defeat Donald Trump in 2020.

Voters of almost all stripes want to vote against President Trump. He’s remarkably unpopular, particularly given that unemployment is at 3.7 percent. From a political perspective, that’s an unusual gift for us. Other Republicans would know how to take advantage of the current economic conditions, but Donald Trump is no Ronald Reagan. No one would ever describe him as a “happy warrior.” (Frankly, he even makes Richard Nixon look like a ray of sunshine.) A majority of Americans don’t like Trump’s personality, his divisive rhetoric or his performance in office.

That’s a significant opening for Democrats—but not a guarantee. Even having been dealt a good hand, we need to play our cards carefully.

For too long, Democrats have been engaged internally in a fruitless debate about whether we ought to pursue a strategy that emphasizes persuasion or mobilization. Trump has made that conversation obsolete. He is all the impetus many voters need to get out to the polls. The 2018 midterm elections had a record turnout. And this past Tuesday, Kentucky’s incumbent Republican governor, Matt Bevin, lost despite getting roughly 200,000 more votes in this year’s election than he had four years earlier, when he won.

The good news for Democrats is that Trump doesn’t have enough die-hard voters to win without persuading some voters who are on the fence. The bad news for Democrats? Neither do we.

As the 2018 and 2019 elections proved beyond any doubt, if we’re going to prevail in battleground states like Wisconsin, Michigan and Pennsylvania, we both need to get our base to the polls and we need to persuade voters that they can safely vote for our candidates, knowing that they are the right choice for the country.

Candidates like Michigan Governor Gretchen Whitmer, Kentucky Governor-elect Andy Beshear, a host of first-term members of the House of Representatives, and a bevy of state legislators around the country have made absolutely plain how to win in battleground states and districts. They established a durable playbook for building coalitions between urban and suburban voters—an alliance that I term the “Metropolitan Majority.”

When Whitmer was running for governor, she made “Fix the Damn Roads!” her campaign slogan because that phrase spoke to Michiganders’ general frustration that government simply wasn’t doing its job. She wasn’t offering voters Shangri-La, in large part because she knew they wouldn’t believe any elected official could deliver it. Instead, she offered the public an appreciation that getting the basics done well would exceed most people’s expectations and help improve their lives in practical, tangible ways. By tapping into the prevailing view, Whitmer was able to fortify our party’s Metropolitan Majority—flipping a swing-state gubernatorial seat Republicans had held for eight years.

That’s why our party enjoyed so much success both in 2018 and then again this Tuesday. What’s so odd is that despite the lessons of their success, our candidates are taking positions during this primary campaign that will almost inevitably be liabilities during the general election.

The dissonance is remarkable. Compare what the candidates who won last year and this year’s elections have done to what the presidential candidates are offering ahead of 2020. On health care, successful Democrats didn’t mention Medicare for All; they explained how they would control prescription drug costs and preserve protections for pre-existing conditions. They didn’t offer free college; they spoke about equity and fairness across the educational spectrum, from early childhood to higher ed. They didn’t talk about the Green New Deal so much as they proposed to expand renewable energy and invest in the jobs and growth that come with it. They didn’t offer to guarantee anyone’s income so much as explained how they would attract good jobs that would provide for a middle-class life. They didn’t talk about confiscating guns from law-abiding citizens; they promised to support the background checks that prevent criminals from getting access to weapons.

These distinctions matter. The substance of our ideas provides a window into what we care about, whose interests we’ll pursue and how we intend to govern. That’s why, as a political matter, the Democratic Party’s agenda needs to be practical, prudent and progressive. In his column yesterday, John Harris argued that it’s not always the “safe” Democrats who make history. Maybe so, but that’s putting the cart before the horse: You can’t make history if you don’t hold the White House, and that has to be the overwhelming priority this year.

Our proposals should be defensible when they’re attacked—or, even better, they should bait Republicans into revealing how out of touch they really are. How could they be against protecting the health insurance covering people with pre-existing conditions? Or keeping automatic weapons out of the hands of convicted criminals? Let’s not give Trump the opportunity to claim that we want to take away people’s health insurance. Instead, let’s put him in a position of having to defend the people who offer nothing but thoughts and prayers when there’s yet another mass shooting in a schoolyard.

There’s a reason that successful candidates in state and local battlegrounds have chosen this approach: It works both electorally and as an agenda for governing. To win nationwide, we need to focus on building a lasting Metropolitan Majority that binds together the broad collection of liberal, moderate, urban and suburban voters.

This can be a historic moment for a party, one in which, beyond beating Trump, we establish a lasting coalition. Let’s let the lessons we’ve learned in the last three years point us in a direction that ends the current nightmare, puts the Democratic Party on firm footing and gets the country back on track.

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