WSJ: In Their Coastal Citadels, Democrats Argue Over What Went Wrong

Originally posted at The Wall Street Journal by Reid J. Epstein and Janet Hook.

Republican America is now so vast that a traveler could drive 3,600 miles across the continent, from Key West, Fla., to the Canadian border crossing at Porthill, Idaho, without ever leaving a state under total GOP control.

After last week’s election, Democrats hold the governor’s office and both legislative chambers in just six states—all of them on the Atlantic or Pacific oceans—compared with 25 for Republicans.

Just a few weeks ago, when Hillary Clinton was leaping ahead in the polls, it seemed as if it would be the Republicans heading for a reckoning. Instead it’s the Democrats who are plunged into a bout of soul-searching about the party’s diminishing footprint, especially among the white working class.

The moment has been years in the making, masked by President Obama’s singular ability to knit together a broad coalition of young people, women and minorities. The last Democratic presidential nominee to connect with the working class was Bill Clinton, whose most recent appearance on the ballot was 20 years ago. Al Gore and John Kerry, who each lost to Republican George W. Bush, were both seen as cerebral creatures of an economic and political elite.


“The coalition needs to be broader,” said Sen. Mark Warner, a Virginia Democrat. “The Democratic Party has a history that it’s been about working Americans. We cannot be a party of the East Coast, West Coast and metropolitan areas.”

Last week’s presidential defeat revealed a Democratic Party that agrees on core principles, but remains divided over which issues to emphasize, how steeply to oppose Donald Trump ‘s incoming administration and how best to rebuild after years of statehouse losses to Republicans, interviews with dozens of elected Democrats, party activists, and officials at the state, local and federal level show.

The party-wide debate is reaching into Capitol Hill and the Democratic National Committee, provoking discord between liberal political activists and the pragmatists in elected office. Meanwhile, Mrs. Clinton’s popular-vote victory has left some top party officials believing they still hold the keys to the electoral promised land, if only they could find the right vehicle to take them there.

For decades, Democrats have been losing support from the white working class. In presidential elections of the 1990s, those voters split evenly between the parties. By 2012, white voters without college degrees favored millionaire Republican Mitt Romney over Mr. Obama in all but one competitive state, Iowa. This year, 67% of non-college-educated whites nationwide voted for Mr. Trump, according to exit polls.

The Democratic Party’s white working-class base has deteriorated with the diminishing ranks of organized labor. Even within that typically reliable voting bloc, fissures emerged. Exit polls show that 43% of voters in union households went for Mr. Trump, just 8 percentage points behind Mrs. Clinton.

The coasts and cities are home to the core coalition of women, minorities and young voters that powered Mr. Obama to two presidential victories, and had been expected to buoy the party for years to come. But without Mr. Obama on the ballot, the disparate elements of the party have lost elections in 2010, 2014 and 2016.

Democratic losses have come at all levels of government since Mr. Obama took office and his party controlled Congress. In Washington, it has been relegated to minority status with at least 60 fewer seats in the House and 12 fewer in the Senate.

The casualties have been worse in state capitols. Before the 2010 elections, 54.5% of all state legislators were Democrats, giving the party majorities in 60 of 99 chambers. Democrats controlled both legislative chambers and held the governor’s office in 17 states.

Now, the party has majorities in just 31 of 99 legislative chambers, having lost 958 seats since Mr. Obama took office. Just 43% of elected state lawmakers will be Democrats when the new state legislatures are sworn in.

The geographic shift is clear in the political map of the House: When the new Congress takes office in January, about one third of all House seats held by Democrats will come from just three states—California, New York and Massachusetts.

“The challenge we have is that partly because of geographic distribution, there are big chunks of the country that just aren’t hearing us,” Mr. Obama acknowledged Monday during a Democratic National Committee conference call. “They won’t hear us if we’re not showing up and if we’re not there fighting day in, day out for those ideas.”

Democrats lost the presidential contest, many say, because they ceded the economic issue to Mr. Trump.

“There was an over emphasis on Trump’s personality and not enough emphasis on what the country could be,” said New Hampshire Democratic Chairman Ray Buckley, who leads an organization of state Democratic leaders and is weighing a run to become the party’s national chairman.

Peter Hart, a veteran Democratic pollster, said the red-and-blue map of presidential election results spoke to the legacy of the party’s neglect of working-class concerns.

“You stop listening to those people, and 30 states from the Eastern Seaboard to the Western Slope go red,” said Mr. Hart, adding that Mrs. Clinton “never had an economic message. And without an economic message, all that was left was experience which is like a pair of twos in poker: A winner until any other hand comes along.”


Much of the intra-party debate in the coming months will be viewed through an ideological lens: Liberals loyal to Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders, Mrs. Clinton’s stubborn primary opponent, are arguing the party needs to move to the left and away from a discredited establishment that is too close to big, wealthy donors.

These Democrats argue the time Mrs. Clinton spent fundraising with major donors left her disconnected from people who either voted for Mr. Trump or sat out the election.

“We’re not going to fool people any more by telling them we are with them and we want to work for them and at the same time holding so many fundraisers with people who are not working people,” said Erika Andiola, the political director for Our Revolution, a political organization sprung from Mr. Sanders’s supporters.

Mr. Sanders, at a post-election breakfast Thursday, said the party is in need of “soul searching.”

“It is time for the Democratic Party to reassess what it stands for and where it wants to go,” he said. “The Democratic party has to make a fundamental decision. Which side are you on?”

Yet the party remains divided on much more than ideology. Black and Hispanic activists hear laments about Mrs. Clinton losing white working-class voters as a signal that future Democratic campaigns won’t focus on the growing minority populations.

“The future of the Democratic Party lies in Georgia, Arizona and Texas and places that are going through this demographic revolution,” said Steve Phillips, the co-founder of Democracy in Color, a group vying to energize more minority voters. “It does not lie in rural Wisconsin.”

On some issues, Democrats say their differences in the 2016 campaign were not about substance but about emphasis. Mrs. Clinton’s focus on pay equity for women rang hollow in the Rust Belt because so many blue-collar workers had seen manufacturing jobs vanish. Her vow of “equal pay for equal work” was seen as a message for professional women, not working-class voters, they add.

“Folks from rural counties and people from urban centers have different living conditions but they are dealing with the same issues, but people don’t see that right now,” said Symone Sanders, a top aide to the Sanders campaign. “They’ve lost trust in the party.”

To fix that, Connecticut Sen. Chris Murphy argued Democrats need to put forth the sort of bold yet simple-to-understand populist proposals in the mold of those that powered the insurgent campaigns of Mr. Sanders and Mr. Trump—regardless of how difficult they would be to put in place.

“Changing the interest rate on a student loan is not changing anybody’s life, but free college or debt-free college would,” Mr. Murphy said. “Our party has generally been attracted to very wonky ideas that move the economic needle by inches, not feet.”

Centrist Democrats warn about moving too far to the left, lest the party lose all hope of wooing the more conservative white working-class voters.

“I don’t want us to become like the British Labour Party, where they almost won, lost, went farther to the left and now is farther from the majority,” said Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel.

Democrats are also divided over how to deal with Mr. Trump, with some showing willingness to work with him and others calling for a more confrontational approach. Charles Schumer of New York, newly installed Senate Democratic leader, quickly signaled a willingness to work with the Trump administration on infrastructure legislation.

Others are taking a harder line, insisting that the party not work with the White House until Mr. Trump rescinds his hiring of Steve Bannon, the conservative media provocateur he named to be a senior White House strategist.

Markos Moulitsas, the founder of the liberal website Daily Kos, wrote Wednesday that Mr. Schumer should act more like Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell of Kentucky, who rallied Republicans to oppose all of Mr. Obama’s proposals from the first day of his administration.

“While they weren’t able to make him a one-term president, they swept pretty much everything below the presidency,” Mr. Moulitsas wrote. “And now they control everything.”

Though he is new to the top leadership post, Mr. Schumer, 65, is one of an array of aging Baby Boomers leading the party on Capitol Hill—an indication of how a series of heavy election losses has left the party with a thin bench of political talent.

The top three Democrats in the House are in their 70s. In the Senate, Mr. Schumer is replacing the 76-year-old Harry Reid. Even the darlings of the party’s young activists are old enough to qualify for Medicare—Mr. Sanders, 75, and Massachusetts Sen. Elizabeth Warren, 67.

A restive younger generation is rising up in the House for a possible challenge to Democratic Leader Nancy Pelosi, 76, who this week agreed to postpone a vote on her re-election as leader. Rep. Tim Ryan of Ohio, who is 43, announced Thursday he will run against her, arguing the leadership needs more Rust Belt lawmakers who understand the region Mr. Trump has largely snatched from the party.

That stands in contrast to the Republican Party, which fielded a full slate of fresh faces for president in 2016, including Florida Sen. Marco Rubio and Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker. They were defeated, of course, by Mr. Trump, a 70-year-old outsider, but they remain poised to run again.

Howard Dean, the former Democratic National Committee chairman who is seeking his old post back, said the party needs to cultivate and activate its young supporters who were apathetic in this year’s election.

“The future of the party is in 18- to 40-year olds and we need a new generation of leadership,” said Mr. Dean, who is himself 67 years old.

Among the contenders he will face: Rep. Keith Ellison of Minnesota, who has won the backing of the self-described progressive wing of the party, including Mr. Sanders. The fact that Mr. Ellison is a Muslim African-American adds to his appeal to Democrats who want to showcase their party’s embrace of diversity.

In a search for ways to return to power, the party is studying the campaigns of Democrats who won in places also carried by Republicans.

In the recent DNC conference call with Mr. Obama, the party turned the spotlight on Democrat Josh Shapiro, a bright spot in the party’s dark election night in Pennsylvania, and let him introduce the president.

Mr. Shapiro won his race for attorney general by about 155,000 votes while Mrs. Clinton lost the state by 67,600 votes and Senate candidate Katie McGinty lost by 99,000. In Luzerne County in northeast Pennsylvania, where Mrs. Clinton lost by more than 26,000 votes, Mr. Shapiro managed to run almost even with his Republican rival.

Mr. Shapiro, 43, said his lesson from 2016 is to spend more time listening to the concerns and anxieties of voters and less “offering rhetoric.”

“I ran in a way where I listened to the voters across Pennsylvania, even in communities where often times Democratic leaders don’t go,” Mr. Shapiro said.

Read more at The Wall Street Journal.

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