There are many possible explanations for Hillary Clinton’s loss last month. Perhaps it was her failure to resonate with white working class voters, her inability to generate excitement among younger non-white voters, or simply a case of political overreach as her campaign put resources into states that she had little chance of winning, like Texas, rather than in must win states like Michigan or Wisconsin. These competing explanations have led to spirited discussions about the future of the Democratic Party. The fundamental challenge for the Democratic Party is how to win even slightly more of the lower income white vote without compromising its core positions on issue of equality, tolerance and civil rights. Below are six concrete recommendations for how to do that.
Spend time in working class white communities. American voters of all demographic groups like candidates who court them and ask for their votes, and do not like candidates who they only see a few weeks before the election. Any Democrat who wants to run for President in 2020, must start spending time in places like Akron, Ohio or Kenosha, Wisconsin in 2017. Visiting union halls, community centers, churches and speaking with local media in places like that will help any Democrat win votes in these communities, but will also help them understand the people in those communities and how to address their concerns and problems. This is much better than lecturing these voters from afar, or in the waning days of the campaign, about how Republicans are selling them a bill of economic goods.
Don’t talk about public service and sacrifice. If you are a normal American, a life in politics complete with good salary, great health care, ample opportunities to cash in afterwards and, in many cases, nice public housing does not exactly qualify as a sacrifice. The fact that many in politics could have made more money in the private sector is not exactly relevant to the experience of most Americans. Every time a Democratic politician uses this language-and Hillary Clinton did a lot-it is a reminder of the elitism of the Party, and the candidate.
Move beyond the Clintons. For a few aging Democratic insiders, the Clinton name is still magic, but for everybody else, for better or for worse, the brand is strongly identified with scandal and ethical shenanigans. Additionally, thanks to this recent campaign, there are probably many female voters younger than 40 for whom Bill Clinton is primarily viewed as a sexual predator. Despite this, there are some in the Clinton’s world who think Chelsea Clinton should run for Congress, presumably as the first step in a more ambitious political career. The main reason, however, that the Democratic Party must move beyond the Clintons, is that the brand of center right politics on which Bill got elected and reelected in 1996 has no place in today’s Democratic Party, or for that matter in Trump’s Republican Party. The sooner the Democrats can finally get beyond the Clintons, the sooner the Party will stop having to defend what a decade of Democratic governance that looks much more problematic from 2016 or 2017 than it did from 1999 or 2000. For this reason, the only Clinton who should even appear at the next Democratic convention is George.
Sell the foreign policy ideas. During the campaign, Donald Trump’s foreign policy pronouncements were neither nuanced nor well-informed, but they were effective because they made sense to an electorate that was tired of being talked down to to by a bipartisan foreign elite that seemed to have made a mess of the world. Hillary Clinton, of course, epitomized that elite. This does not mean that Trump’s foreign policy ideas were better, just that he did a better job of selling them to the American people. The Democrats may choose to embrace the more progressive isolationism of Bernie Sanders, but if they continue to be the party of internationalism it is absolutely essential that they explain to the American people why that is the best approach. If not, they will continue to be viewed by voters as responsible for every failed intervention and foreign policy crisis around the world.
Focus on impact of what Trump does, not just his outrageous behavior. Trump is an easy person for educated elites to mock. HIs personal brand, while laughable to many, is broadly viewed as a synonym for luxury, even class, by many of the lower income white voters who supported him in such big numbers. Thus continuing to mock him, his lack of understanding of presidential protocol, vulgar behavior or his unsophisticated use of language may make Democrats feel good about themselves, but will only make his supporters like him more. Democratic criticism of Trump should focus not on what he says, but how his presidency effects people’s lives. For example, few voters are going to change their view of Trump based on his position on flag burning, but hammering away at the orthodoxtrickle down economic views of his insider financial elite cabinet appointments just might, particularly after the GOP congress helps him pass these damaging policies.
Don’t be afraid to Tweet. Trump’s Tweets are a steady source of embarrassment and semi-scandal for the President-elect. They are also why he is President. During the campaign, every other candidate from both parties Tweeted as if every Tweet was the product of a focus group and aimed at being as bland as possible. As a result, they all missed the opportunity to communicate genuinely and in real time with millions voters. Trump, on the other hand, understood what Twitter could do for him. Obviously, Trump’s uniquely combative and crass style works particularly well on Twitter. Democratic politicians don’t need to bring those characteristics to their Tweets, but they must be genuine and spontaneous. If, as occurred with Clinton, the primary goal of Twitter is not to make any mistakes, Twitter will be an underused resource. This applies to communication more broadly. Democrats can learn from Trump the lesson that if the benefits of being bold and saying what is on your mind, particularly on a medium like Twitter, will outweigh the damage from a few, or in Trump’s case may more than a few, regrettable Tweets.