Democrats begin struggling to find their new direction
WASHINGTON — As they struggled through the wreckage of one of their worst election nights in memory, Democrats faced a brutal reckoning over how the party, soon to be out of power on both ends of Pennsylvania Avenue, can regain relevance.
Democrats went into Tuesday’s balloting presuming that they would win the presidency for a third time in a row, gain a majority in the U.S. Senate and, if everything went well, cut into the Republicans’ margin in the House. Nothing went well. Not only did Hillary Clinton suffer defeat at the hands of Donald Trump, who came before supporters to declare victory early Wednesday morning, but a tide of conservative voters swamped Democrats at other levels, as well.
Given unified Republican control of Washington, the damage will include President Barack Obama’s signature achievements, such as the health care plan Trump and congressional Republicans have vowed to repeal.
“That’s got to be a huge wake-up call for the inside-the-Beltway Democratic Hillary Clinton gives her concession speech, with Bill Clinton beside her. She urged her followers to offer Donald Trump “an open mind and a chance to lead.”
“I think you can … look at things like the New Deal, specific policy measures that impact workers and their families. I think that connects people across the country.”
the industrial Midwest. “I think you can look at history — look at things like the New Deal, specific policy measures that impact workers and their families,” she said. “I think that connects people across the country.”
A generation ago, facing a similar impasse after losing five of six presidential contests, Democrats moved to the center. That benefited Bill Clinton, helping him win the presidency twice. That shift formed Hillary Clinton’s political DNA. But now there are fewer voters in the middle as Americans have gravitated to the poles.
That — and the strong primary challenge by Sanders — suggests that the party this time will have a strong impulse to hew to “We have some people upset with the the left. cultural direction of the country,” Mellman Tulchin argued Tuesday that the Versaid, “and to win Democrats have to find a mont senator’s template could be used by way to advance principles and causes that the party now. Sanders’ campaign criticized we believe in, while not angering those Clinton’s alliance with Wall Street and her people in quite the same way.” receipt of hundreds of thousands of dollars
Clinton avoided picking sides in her in payments for speeches to financial firms. concession speech Wednesday, talking The senator made clear that he thought her about issues on which Democrats should proposals on the minimum wage, college take a stand. tuition and health care were too in
“Let’s do all we can to keep advancing the cremental. causes and values we all hold dear; making “There’s a clear path forward for us — our economy work for everyone, not just we’ve got to put an end to the corporate, those at the top, protecting our country and Wall Street end of the party,” Tulchin said. protecting our planet and breaking down all “We’ve got to put it in a trash can, and light a the barriers that hold any American back fire, and burn it.” from achieving their dreams,” she said. Tulchin said that he had not talked to
Some argued that, as bad as things were, Sanders since the depth of Democratic the long-term prospects for Democrats losses became evident. But he argued that as remained rosy. Clinton suffered from dethe surviving titular figure, Sanders should, pressed Democratic turnout in some areas. if he chooses, be able to re-organize the That proved fatal when paired with DNC. Trump-heightened Republican turnout in That is a tender subject for Sanders’ usually Democratic states like Michigan, partisans: In hacked emails, party officials Wisconsin and Pennsylvania. were seen as helping Clinton defeat Sanders.EvenwithwhathappenedTuesday,one argument went, Democrats remain poised For that matter, Tulchin left open the to benefit from the decreasing strength of chance that Sanders might challenge white voters and the increasing numbers of Trump from the Senate and potentially, nonwhites, the young, and women. despite being 75 already, in a future
“The reality is the country is changing presidential bid. demographically and those demographic “Bernie’s economic message resonated changes do work in our direction,” Mellman with anyone not in the top 1 percent,” said. Tulchin said, referring to one of the
But if Tuesday offered any lessons, it was senator’s top targets during his campaign. that, unless deftly done, trying to appeal to “He does well with middle-class voters as those ascendant voters risks offending the well as working-class.” party’s thinning ranks of white voters. After their sobering defeat in 2012,
The upside of the Democratic ethnic Republicans wrote a post-election report appeals was demonstrated in Nevada. detailing how to succeed in 2016. Trump Driven by the political muscle of retiring ignored it, and won anyway. Now, it’s the Sen. Harry Reid and Culinary, a potent labor Democrats’ turn as they seek to figure out union, Nevada Democrats won the state for what could have kept voters who sided with Clinton, seized a U.S. Senate seat and two Obama in 2008 and 2012 from abandoning House seats and flipped the Legislature. them this year.
Cancela said a Democratic message “As a party we have a lot of listening to do could be crafted that would unite Latino and a lot of discussions to have with voters,” workers in Las Vegas and factory workers in Cancela said. establishment. They fundamentally failed,” said Democratic pollster Ben Tulchin, who worked for Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders’ presidential campaign.
Democrats already seemed to be split over how to regroup. Some argued for a more aggressive effort to move the party to the left, hoping to drive up turnout among younger and minority voters. Others stressed a need to reach out to the disaffected, white working-class voters who had so conspicuously deserted the party this year.
The debate is made even more difficult because Tuesday’s defeat was agonizingly close. Clinton won the popular vote — the second time in 16 years that the Democratic candidate had gotten more votes than the Republican but lost the Electoral College. A switch in three states of about 50,000 votes out of 120 million nationwide would have been enough to give her the victory.
The narrowness of her defeat made keeping to the same path and striking out in a completely different direction appear equally plausible.
In the meantime, however, Democrats were left searching for the basics: a message, messengers, and a structure to defend their goals, since the Democratic National Committee was a handmaiden to Clinton’s defeat.
Essential, all sides say, is a compelling jobs pitch.
“There’s no question that Democrats have to figure out an economic message that resonates with working families who are still devastated by the Great Recession,” said Yvanna Cancela, political director for Culinary Union Local 226, which represents workers at Las Vegas casinos and hotels.
“And I think that message extends beyond the minimum wage and goes deep into income inequality and affordable health care. It has to be an economic message that really helps people imagine a better life for them and their families.”
Veteran Democratic strategist Mark Mellman, who served as the pollster for John Kerry’s unsuccessful presidential campaign in 2004, said the party also needs to find a way to talk with white voters.