Don't Be Fooled by the Virginia Elections, Democrats Still Have Work To Do
After lieutenant governor Ralph Northam won Tuesday's gubernatorial election in Virginia by an unexpected 9 points and Democrats took control of the Virginia House of Delegates (upsetting a massive Republican advantage), Democrats were quick to celebrate "the end of Trumpism," and the news media sensationalized the victory: The New York Times ran the headline "Suburbs Revolt Against Trump," Reuters called it a "grassroots wave"; the Boston Globe took it a step further, calling the representative shift a "tsunami."
In some sense, Democrats absolutely have a right to celebrate. Many pundits were expecting a lackluster performance -- Democrats had lost 4/4 House seats vacated to fill appointments to Republicans, Donna Brazile had recently revealed serious divisions within the party over the Clinton campaign and its failures, and Tom Perez's job was purportedly on the line for the lack of a cohesive, winning message among party candidates. But, with the help of historically low Presidential approval ratings and a motivated voter base, Democrats elected the first Sikh mayor in New Jersey, the first openly transgender state representative in Virginia, and the first two Latina representatives in the same body, all while winning the Governorship of Virginia. Ralph Northam and other Democratic candidates outperformed their expectations, and for the first time in a while, all seems well in the Democratic party. So what's the problem?
Tuesday was encouraging, but I still have serious concerns about the future of the Democratic party, and the viability of it's current messaging. And looking back on the 2016 election, it seems that Democrats still have a lot of work to do.
As far as I can see, there are two basic realities that Democrats must accept if they wish to move forward with a winning message: Secretary Clinton, however qualified, was a bad candidate, and her campaign, however inclusive and politically correct, failed to energize Democratic voters. And it follows that Democrats did not lose to Donald Trump in 2016, but rather failed to galvanize a critical mass of voters.
The proof is in the pudding. In 2008, Barack Obama earned 2.8 million votes in Michigan; Secretary Clinton earned 2.2 million in 2016. In 2012, Obama earned 1.6 million votes in Wisconsin; Secretary Clinton earned 1.3 million. In both of these cases, Trump matched or underperformed previous Republican candidates, and still won. If you look at the electoral maps and vote tallies from 2008, 2012, and 2016, it is clear that Donald Trump was by no means a special candidate, uniquely able to communicate with the American working class, rather, that Secretary Clinton was a bad candidate, unable to excite Democratic voters.
And the scandals were not the problem. The lies were not the problem. The problem was the message.
In a recent article published by The New Yorker, Clinton (both) campaign strategist Stanley Greenberg relayed his experience attempting to turn the Clinton campaign to an economic message. Greenberg criticizes the campaign for "strategic errors, mismanagement, and failure to heed the advice of him and others to appeal to the Party’s traditional working-class voters in the Midwest." Essentially, that the identity politics, anti-Trump messaging, and tone-deaf management kept Democratic voters at home, and allowed Trump's electoral contingent to carry him to the Presidency.
But Ralph Northam ran a campaign with messaging identical to Hillary Clinton's, so again, what is the issue?
Clinton had already won Virginia by 5 points in 2016, the President is incredibly unpopular, and Democrats were expected to jump at their first big chance to make a statement against a Republican controlled government. It makes sense that Northam won. But across the country, in states that Clinton lost, in states that are looking at an economy with 3% annual growth, in states where voters distrust the media, or continue to see thousands of deaths from opioids (a problem commonly associated with immigrants), it doesn't seem like too much of a stretch to give Trump a chance in 2020. We afford to see Virginia as a microcosm of the national mood, at least not yet.
As of now, the Democratic party is fractured. There is a fundamental tension between an energized, super progressive base, and a moderate, older wing intent on economic centrism. Perhaps for this reason, the party has yet to move forward with economic proposals which effectively reconcile both interests, and in light of recent policy failures by the Republican Congress, the lack of concerted messaging backing a party-wide alternative has been a massive missed opportunity. Health care is also polarizing: half of the party supports fully socialized medicine, while half continues to look towards competitive market solutions. The party has yet to take a definitive stance on the matter. The party is in disagreement on social issues, as well. The left has recently been gripped by violent opposition to conservative speech, discrimination against white males and other majority groups, and militant enforcement of evolving social ideas, much of which concerns large portions of the party. As a party, we need to say clearly that we believe in free speech, that acknowledging differences in privilege should not cross the line into discrimination, and that people should not be immediately dismissed if they don't immediately accept our changing social calculus. DNC leadership has done none of those things convincingly.
On the news right now, we are all watching the American conservative movement fracture before our eyes. The President has clearly galvanized serious change on the Right, and none of it is pretty. But liberals must not forget struggles within their own party. Remember, in 2016 Democrats lost working class, Christian Americans to a New York billionaire real estate tycoon who had publicly admitted to sexual assault.
Democrats need to figure out who they are, and that means finding a middle ground on social issues and creating a concerted, attractive, economic message of change. The days of identity politics winning elections are over, if they ever started. Anything short of that, and government might very well be red for far longer than we expect.