Democrats must save them­selves

The Washington Post Sunday - - SUNDAY OPINION - KATH­LEEN PARKER kath­leen­parker@wash­post.com

Ijack­sonville, ala. f the Demo­cratic Party is ail­ing af­ter los­ing the pres­i­dency to Don­ald Trump, state par­ties are on life sup­port. Here in the long-ago Demo­cratic strong­hold of Alabama, the party is all but dead, say some of its dis­heart­ened mem­bers. Con­sider: Not a sin­gle statewide of­fice is held by a Demo­crat; the state leg­is­la­ture is dom­i­nated by Repub­li­cans with just 33 Democrats out of 105 House seats and eight of 35 Se­nate seats.

Democrats haven’t won a U.S. Se­nate elec­tion in the state since 1992 or the gov­er­nor­ship since 1998. There are no Demo­cratic ap­pel­late judges, nor any Demo­cratic mem­bers of the state’s Pub­lic Ser­vice Com­mis­sion. Democrats also are be­com­ing scarcer in county of­fices.

“The Demo­cratic Party in Alabama is on a crash-and-burn track un­less some­thing dras­tic hap­pens to stop this run­away train,” said Sheila Gil­bert, chair of the Cal­houn County Democrats, who hand-de­liv­ered a let­ter out­lin­ing the party’s prob­lems fol­low­ing a speech I gave at Jack­sonville State Univer­sity as the Ay­ers lec­turer.

The let­ter was signed by Gil­bert as a leader of the Alabama Demo­cratic Re­form Cau­cus (ADRC) and 17 other mem­bers in at­ten­dance. The group, which formed two years ago to try to help re­vive the state party, wasn’t coy about its rea­son for ap­proach­ing me.

“We need a spot­light on Alabama and some out­side ef­fort to avoid be­com­ing a to­tally one-party state,” Gil­bert said.

I didn’t bother to men­tion that the cur­rent U.S. at­tor­ney gen­eral, former Alabama sen­a­tor Jeff Ses­sions, was shin­ing quite a spot­light on their home state. Whether Ses­sions is forced to re­sign af­ter al­ready re­cus­ing him­self from in­ves­ti­ga­tions re­lated to the 2016 elec­tion cam­paign, in­clud­ing Rus­sia’s pos­si­ble role, re­mains to be seen. The fall of such a high-pro­file Repub­li­can could be use­ful to Democrats back home try­ing to de­fib­ril­late the party.

But Gil­bert’s group has been crit­i­cal of state Demo­cratic Party of­fi­cials for miss­ing an op­por­tu­nity to re­cruit can­di­dates when other Repub­li­can politi­cians were in trou­ble, in­clud­ing the gov­er­nor and House speaker. A re­cent meet­ing of county and state party lead­ers re­port­edly be­came heated when state Chair­woman Nancy Worley of­fered to call po­lice to es­cort one county chair­man from the room — and may be em­blem­atic more broadly of the party’s dis­in­te­gra­tion from within.

The GOP went through this same sort of in­fight­ing and navel-gaz­ing on the na­tional level sev­eral years back. Af­ter los­ing the pres­i­dency to Barack Obama in 2008, it re­grouped, re­formed it­self and be­came dis­ci­plined. Now it has taken the House, Se­nate, White House and most of the na­tion’s gov­er­nor­ships, while also suc­cess­fully ger­ry­man­der­ing con­gres­sional dis­tricts that have given Repub­li­cans the ad­van­tage in many states — at least un­til the next re­dis­trict­ing af­ter the 2020 Cen­sus.

Democrats are ready­ing them­selves for that fight, but they’ll need to do more than try to re­draw the map. While Democrats were bask­ing in Obama’s sunny smile, Repub­li­cans were busy build­ing benches of fu­ture lead­ers, es­pe­cially at the state at­tor­ney gen­eral level, where they are now in the ma­jor­ity. The strat­egy has been to re­cruit and help elect strong at­tor­neys gen­eral who could be groomed to be­come gov­er­nors, sen­a­tors — and pos­si­bly pres­i­dents.

What, mean­while, can Democrats do, a fel­low in the au­di­ence asked me. There was a plain­tive tone in his voice and I wanted to help, though the truth is, I’m not ac­cus­tomed to Democrats ask­ing my ad­vice. But in the spirit of “it takes two to tango” — and the fact that I’d rather not live in a coun­try ex­clu­sively run by either party — I’ll give it a fresh, morningafter stab.

What’s re­ally ail­ing Democrats is they’ve fallen in love with ab­stract prin­ci­ples, as re­flected on an ADRC handout, with­out build­ing a foun­da­tion where such goals as fair pay, trans­parency, di­ver­sity and such can be played out. Trump may have been coarse and loose at times dur­ing the cam­paign, but he spoke in plain lan­guage with plain mean­ing: jobs, jobs, jobs.

Whether Trump could fix trade, cre­ate jobs and make money for the rest of us was a gam­ble peo­ple were will­ing to take. Fix­ing the econ­omy was Obama’s man­date, too, but he de­cided to fo­cus on health care in­stead. This is where lust for legacy in­ter­feres with good gov­er­nance. Obama did man­age to help turn the eco­nomic steamship around — the mar­ket bounced from just un­der 8,000 when he took of­fice to nearly 20,000 — but Wall Street’s re­cov­ery didn’t trickle down to the mid­dle class, where Trump planted his flag.

When in doubt, look to the vic­tor.

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