The writer is a political strategist and worked on Bill Clinton’s victorious 1992 presidential campaign
Political parties do not exist for factions to gain power over them and lose elections so long as the faction maintains its grip. They exist to win elections. Without power, they are nothing.
In 2016, Senator Bernie Sanders told the House Democratic caucus: “The goal isn’t to win elections.” Maybe the stakes involved with Donald Trump weren’t crystal clear then, but by God they should be now. Winning this election is all that matters — and the way to do it is not running some rat race to the furthest reaches of leftwing zombie land.
Never in my life have I seen the Democratic party suffer a case of political amnesia this bad. A little over a year ago, the party stormed the House of Representatives in the midterm elections with the largest winning margin ever.
And how did we do it? By running a diverse coalition of candidates — young, black, brown, women, gay, straight — with one basic message: while the president gets things done only for himself, we are going to get real things done for you. While the president targets your protections for pre-existing medical conditions, we are going to lower the cost of prescription drugs. While he marches to the orders of the National Rifle Association, we are going to protect your child’s life. We care about climate, infrastructure and broadband — it goes on.
Our margins with suburban women shot into the stratosphere. We elected Democratic governors in Michigan and Wisconsin. But barely had the dust settled than Democratic candidates for president started ripping that playbook apart, competing to see who could promise to spend the most on healthcare, or who was most brazenly outspoken on letting criminals vote from jail.
In what universe are those policies going to give us the numbers we need to defeat Mr Trump? Why are we not running a candidate who is building on the playbook that won us the previous election?
Here are some more metaphors. It’s time for the Democratic party and presidential candidates to jerk this train back on the rails and pull their heads out of the sand. There is only one moral imperative right now, and the very fate of American democracy depends on it: defeating Mr Trump. And I am scared to death we are about to blow it.
In the last few days, the president’s approval rating has shot up to their highest levels, while enthusiasm for the Democrats has declined. If the Iowa caucus results showed anything, it’s that running on electorally risky policies — like abolishing private health insurance — is not going to magically turn out large new constituencies. The caucus didn’t attract the record turnout Democrats were expecting. Sirens should be screaming.
The party is desperately praying for a candidate to pull it out of the woods, and bring the rest of the country along with us. We are going to need everyone. Politics is about power, and winning elections is simple addition. To win this election we need to bring along as many supporters as possible from all corners — suburban women, those who voted for Barack Obama or Mr Trump, people of colour, you name it.
We win all these voters by being relevant; we win by running on real issues we know we can deliver on. We win by contrasting ourselves with the highly unpopular policies of the Trump administration. That’s how we cleaned up in 2018. We don’t win running on mile-high fantasies that are likely to lose swing states and unlikely ever to pass through Congress. And if we lose those swing states, we also don’t win back the Senate, condemning us to four more years of majority leader Mitch McConnell. Do you know what the US Supreme Court will look like in 2024 if we have that?
So we’ve got a choice to make. Do we want to be an ideological cult that alienates large swaths of America? Or does the Democratic party seek majoritarian dominance?
I can tell you right now that I do not want our party to become like the British Labour party, dashing off its own version of the “longest suicide note in history”. In case you hadn’t noticed, that’s not going so well. If we don’t win this election, no policy on the progressive spectrum has a shot of becoming reality. How about that for a purity test?
It is plainly clear to me that Mr Trump is the most dangerous president in modern American history. He is odious and has called on female Democratic lawmakers to “go back” to where they came from. I believe the Senate should have removed him from office and he should be shackled in a prison cell. But this is exactly what has made Mr Trump the weakest president in recent history. His approval ratings are underwater in Michigan, Wisconsin and Pennsylvania — he’s struggling in Texas. The divisiveness that keeps Mr Trump afloat is also what constrains him.
The way the Democratic party unites a majority against Mr Trump is by nominating a candidate for president, and candidates up and down the ballot, who build on the 2018 playbook, and runs on a realistic platform that will have an impact on the lives of ordinary Americans. And if you don’t want to hear it from me, just listen to Michigan governor Gretchen Whitmer’s response to the president’s State of the Union address this week. I’d say she knows a thing or two about winning Michigan in the age of Trump.
I will vote for the Democratic nominee, whoever it is. The US is strapped to a respirator. Nato is in intensive care. White supremacists have been allowed to crawl out from under their rocks. And the planet is on fire.
With democracy on life support, we cannot afford to lose this election. The Democratic party is the only thing separating the US from the abyss. We had better get this right.