Democrats sud­denly find them­selves at a cross­roads

Cecil Whig - - FRONT PAGE - Michael Gerso

— While the chal­lenges of the GOP — its long- term de­mo­graphic dif­fi­cul­ties, its er­ratic lead­er­ship, the bit­ter strug­gle for its ide­o­log­i­cal soul — are ob­scured by vic­tory, the prob­lems of the Demo­cratic Party are on full dis­play. Repub­li­cans suf­fer from heart dis­ease; Democrats have an ugly, gush­ing head wound.

The los­ing party would be fool­ish to min­i­mize the scale of its po­lit­i­cal fail­ure. Hil­lary Clin­ton proved in­ca­pable of de­feat­ing a re­al­ity tele­vi­sion host whom more than 60 per­cent of Americans viewed as un­fit to be pres­i­dent. It is per­haps the most hu­mil­i­at­ing mo­ment in the long his­tory of Mr. Jef­fer­son’s party. But the ef­fect is more than rep­u­ta­tional. The Demo-

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cratic can­di­date and her team could not pro­tect Amer­ica from a se­ri­ous risk to its ideals and in­sti­tu­tions by an untested and un­sta­ble novice who flirted with au­thor­i­tar­i­an­ism and made enough gaffes on an av­er­age Tues­day to sink a nor­mal pres­i­den­tial cam­paign.

Don­ald Trump was rid­ing a mod­est elec­toral wave in cer­tain parts of the coun­try, but it was not large enough to over­whelm a rea­son­ably ca­pa­ble Demo­cratic can­di­date with a de­cent po­lit­i­cal strat­egy. Trump’s vote did not burst the lev­ees; it barely lapped over the top of them in the in­dus­trial Mid­west. The “blue wall” was too low by just a foot or two.

But why was the elec­tion even close enough for bad strat­egy in Wis­con­sin, Michi­gan and Penn­syl­va­nia, or ut­ter in­com­pe­tence by the FBI di­rec­tor, to mat­ter? Trump ob­vi­ously ben­e­fited from ex­treme po­lar­iza­tion. The propo­si­tion “any­one but Hil­lary” was tested, with Repub­li­cans ( and oth­ers) ul­ti­mately ral­ly­ing to “any­one.” The Obama coali­tion — in­clud­ing young, mi­nor­ity and col­lege- ed­u­cated vot­ers — did not turn out in suf­fi­cient num­bers. And an ap­peal to racial and eth­nic re­sent­ment re­mains dis­turbingly po­tent in our pol­i­tics — the con­tin­u­ing ev­i­dence of Amer­ica’s orig­i­nal sin.

But here is the largest, long- term Demo­cratic chal­lenge: It has be­come a pro­vin­cial party. It is highly con­cen­trated in ur­ban ar­eas and clings to the coasts. But our con­sti­tu­tional sys­tem puts em­pha­sis on hold­ing ge­og­ra­phy, par­tic­u­larly in the House of Rep­re­sen­ta­tives and the Elec­toral Col­lege. It is dif­fi­cult for Democrats to pre­vail from iso­lated is­lands of deep blue. In 2012, Pres­i­dent Obama won the pres­i­dency with fewer than 700 coun­ties out of more than 3,000 in Amer­ica — a his­tor­i­cal low. Clin­ton car­ried a lit­tle un­der 500 — about 15 per­cent of the to­tal.

This is an­other way of say­ing that the Demo­cratic can­di­date for pres­i­dent can’t pre­vail — at least at the mo­ment — when she re­ceives less than 30 per­cent of the vote from the white, non- col­lege ed­u­cated Americans who live in the spa­ces be­tween the cities. Most of these vot­ers were not ex­am­in­ing pub­lic pol­icy and cal­cu­lat­ing their in­ter­ests — ex­cept in the vague sense that they don’t like send­ing Amer­i­can jobs abroad and don’t want any­one mess­ing with their So­cial Se­cu­rity. They were con­vinced that Trump has their back. Democrats have be­come sym­bol­i­cally es­tranged from white, work­ing- class Amer­ica.

What are the Demo­cratic op­tions mov­ing for­ward? First, there is the Bernie San­ders op­tion — the em­brace of a left­ist pop­ulism that amounts to demo­crat- ic so­cial­ism. This might also be called the Jeremy Cor­byn op­tion, af­ter the left­ist leader of the Bri­tish Labour Party who has ide­o­log­i­cally pu­ri­fied his party into po­lit­i­cal ir­rel­e­vance. Sec­ond, there is the Joe Bi­den op­tion — a lib­er­al­ism that makes a sus­tained out­reach to union mem­bers and other blue- col­lar work­ers while show­ing a Catholic re­li­gious sen­si­bil­ity on is­sues of so­cial jus­tice. Third, there is the op­tion of dou­bling down on the proven Barack Obama op­tion, which re­quires a can­di­date who can ex­cite rather than se­date the Obama-era base.

Democrats should not over­learn the lessons of a close elec­tion. Op­tion No. 3 is the Demo­cratic fu­ture on the pres­i­den­tial level. Clin­ton was cor­rect to ap­peal to a slightly mod­i­fied ver­sion of the Obama coali­tion ( fewer African- Amer­i­can and mil­len­nial vot­ers, but more sup­port from Lati­nos and col­lege- ed­u­cated women). She sim­ply could not pull it off. But for the fore­see­able fu­ture, Democrats will also need a dash of No. 2, in­clud­ing a more ac­com­mo­dat­ing at­ti­tude to­ward re­li­gion and as­so­ci­a­tional rights. In this elec­tion, evan­gel­i­cals and white Catholics sensed real hos­til­ity to their in­sti­tu­tions from law school lib­er­al­ism.

There is a se­ri­ous prospect, how­ever, that Democrats will choose No. 1. There would be many re­ver­ber­a­tions for our pol­i­tics. But chiefly, Amer­ica would cease to have a cen­ter- left party and a cen­ter­right party. Both rad­i­cal­ized in­sti­tu­tions would ex­ag­ger­ate our na­tional dif­fer­ences, be­com­ing the po­lit­i­cal equiv­a­lent of the hard- left and hard- right me­dia. And the cause of na­tional unity would be da­m­aged even fur­ther.

Michael Gerson is a syn­di­cated colum­nist. Con­tact him at michael­ger­son@ wash­post. com.

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