As the Trump Administration stumbles on, Democrats’ thoughts turn to the elections of 2018 and 2020. Despite Trump’s current troubles, many of them believe that the Party faces a painful dilemma: Should it champion progressive policies that will energize its liberal base, or should it focus on winning back some of the persuadable voters it lost to Trump this past November?
Joe Biden, for one, doesn’t believe that the Party has to choose. Addressing a political dinner in New Hampshire a few days ago, the former Vice-President insisted that Democrats can promote their progressive values and reach out to economically embattled voters, including Trump voters, at the same time. “There is absolutely no inconsistency,” Biden said, “between defending the right to [gay] marriage, defining the rights of women to control their own bodies, standing up for the air we breathe, the water we drink, and demanding safe working conditions, a living wage, sick leave.”
Historically speaking, Biden is surely right. From F.D.R. to Barack Obama, the Democratic Party has prospered when it has proposed bold policies designed to improve the material well-being of ordinary people. But the modern-day split between the Democratic Party and working-class white voters who didn’t attend college can’t be ignored. In this group, according to the Edison Research exit poll, Trump defeated Hillary Clinton, sixty-six to twenty-nine per cent.
Biden said that Clinton was held to a “double standard,” and he didn’t refer directly to her controversial use of the term “deplorables” to describe some of Trump’s supporters. But he did challenge the belief, widely held by members of the Clinton campaign, that many of Trump’s supporters were irredeemable bigots—and that racism was their primary motivation in backing the real-estate mogul. Referring to Trump’s narrow margins of victory in Michigan, Pennsylvania, and Wisconsin, Biden said, “Those hundred and seventy-two thousand people we needed, or hundred and seventy-three, a lot of them wondered whether we had forgotten them, how they were being abused by the system. Just because they weren’t the poorest or the richest, they wondered whether or not we remember. They are as decent as any one of us here. So, folks, let’s go and win it back.”
Some veterans of the Clinton campaign will be tempted to dismiss this argument as wishful thinking. They will point to the race-baiting rhetoric that Trump successfully used throughout his campaign, and to polling data indicating that many of his supporters are biased against blacks and other minorities. But there was no arguing with Biden when he pointed out that Obama carried some white working-class areas in 2008 and 2012, particularly in the Midwest. And Biden was also on firm ground when he said that Democrats couldn’t afford to ignore such a big chunk of the electorate.
Much has been written about the emergence of a natural Democratic majority consisting of minorities, young people, and highly educated professionals. But, as reflected by the Electoral College, it hasn’t solidified yet. According to the Edison Research exit poll, seventy-one per cent of the people who voted on November 8th were white, and thirty-four per cent were whites without college degrees. Clinton lost this demographic by thirty-seven points. In 2012, Obama lost it by twenty-six points. If the Democratic candidate in 2020 can’t get closer to Obama’s number, he or she will be vulnerable to another defeat in the Electoral College.
Unlike some critics of Clinton’s campaign, Biden didn’t accuse her of outright neglecting Trump voters or of failing to address their economic concerns. He stressed the roles that her opponent and the media played. “Trump was pretty smart,” Biden said. “He made it all personal. It wasn’t the press’s fault, but they focussed on all of that, and we responded the same way. . . . Nobody can tell you, because of the way it was skewed, what Hillary’s positions were on child care, free education for college, on a whole range of things. Because this bile sucked up all the oxygen.”
True enough. And, given the nature of modern campaigns, it could well be true again in 2020, especially if Trump runs for reëlection. For Democrats, the question is how to reach and win over enough low- and middle-income voters.
One imperative, which Biden didn’t dwell on, is to keep up the relentless opposition to Trump. While Democrats might differ on whether boosting wages or countering racism in the criminal-justice system should be the first priority for the next Democratic Administration, they can readily agree that Trump’s Presidency is a travesty and a threat. The impressive mobilization of support for Jon Ossoff, the youthful Democratic candidate in Georgia’s Sixth Congressional District, demonstrates how this concern is reinvigorating the grassroots of the Party.
If current polling trends persist, it is conceivable that the mere prospect of ejecting Trump from the Oval Office will be sufficient to carry a Democrat to victory in 2020. But any serious Presidential candidate needs a distinctive theme to run on, too: arguably, the lack of a single overriding theme was a key weakness of the Clinton campaign. Biden said that Democrats should reassert their Party’s historical role as the defender of people of all races and creeds against abuses of power—particularly, but not exclusively, economic abuses. “Remember why you are Democrat,” he implored his audience. “We abhor the abuse of power—whether it is financial power, psychological power, physical power.”
With Trump’s kleptocratic regime busy catering to corporations and the wealthy, and some Trump family members benefitting from his presence in the White House, highlighting abuses of power could be a pretty powerful theme to pursue come the next election. To do it effectively, however, the Democrats will need to persuade voters of modest means that the Party is, indeed, on their side. And, as Biden pointed out, there is a lot of work to be done in this regard. On Monday, the Washington Post’s Greg Sargent reported on some new research that Priorities USA, a big Democratic super PAC, carried out, looking at voters who supported Obama in 2012 but who either went for Trump in 2016 or stayed at home. “One finding from the polling stands out,” Sargent wrote. “A shockingly large percentage of these Obama-Trump voters said Democrats’ economic policies will favor the wealthy—twice the percentage that said the same about Trump.”
On the basis of policy positions, this finding makes no sense. Clinton campaigned for higher taxes on the wealthy, expanded child care, free college tuition for students from middle-class families, and a higher minimum wage. Trump proposed a huge tax cut for the rich. And yet, when the researchers hired by Priorities USA asked focus-group attendees what the Democratic Party stands for today, the answers given included “the one per cent,” “the status quo,” and “themselves and the party.”
One reading of all this is that Trump’s propaganda worked beautifully. But Clinton’s highly paid speeches to Wall Street audiences didn’t help the Democratic cause. And, if Obama were to go ahead with his four-hundred-thousand-dollar speaking gig at a September conference organized by the financial firm Cantor Fitzgerald, that wouldn’t help, either. It would only reinforce the cynical (and mistaken) view that all politicians, whatever their party, are only in it for themselves.
“The deck is stacked against most Americans in many ways,” Guy Cecil, the chairman of Priorities USA, told Sargent. “Pharmaceutical companies that gouge consumers, for-profit prisons that abuse inmates and do nothing to reform them, for-profit colleges that offer false hopes and incredible amounts of debt. Democrats must take on these systemic problems and we must name names.” Biden, who is known for his modest life style, has the credibility to do this, but in 2020 he’ll turn seventy-eight. As the election approaches, the Democrats will need to find someone of his ilk.