EDITOR’S NOTE: The following piece originally appeared in City Journal. It is reprinted here with permission.
Seizing the opportunity created by a stumbling president whose White House seems incapable of fulfilling his biggest campaign promises, Democrats counterattacked last month, touting a new slogan and policies as they look ahead to the 2018 midterm elections. The slogan — “A Better Deal: Better Skills, Better Jobs, Better Wages” — was quickly derided by Twitter wags as reminiscent of Papa John’s Pizza marketing (“Better ingredients, better pizza”). And the policies rolled out a day later were retreads of Hillary Clinton’s policy positions in her failed presidential campaign. It’s tempting to speculate, given this uninspired effort, that Democrats are coasting on the assumption that President Trump is so toxic that their victory in the midterms is assured. But this is the second reassessment the party has performed on itself after devastating political losses in the last three years, and in each case the message to America seems to be: “Don’t worry so much about our ideas: Just trust that we’re on your side.”
Maybe the Democrats’ ideas really are the problem. It’s worth remembering that Trump’s surprise victory last November was not the first major setback that Democrats have suffered since Barack Obama won his historic election in 2008: other than his reelection four years later, it’s pretty much been all downhill. Democrats lost control of the House of Representatives in 2010 and the Senate in 2014. At the state level, the party faced a sustained run of bad results that included losing some 900 local legislative seats, while watching Republicans capture 31 governorships. Republicans now boast 26 state “trifectas” — in which they control the legislature and the governor’s office — compared with just six for Democrats. To comprehend the magnitude of Democratic losses, consider that Republicans hold more power in the states than at any time since the Civil War.
Democrats knew after 2014 that they had serious problems. A party task force examining that year’s election results acknowledged the stark losses. But the group’s recommendations for revival were bland at best, focusing largely on organization and infrastructure rather than on ideas that might appeal to the electorate.
Recommendations included expanding voting rights, working harder to control redistricting, and building an “open and accessible” party. The resulting document said almost nothing about policies except in the broadest terms, and ignored the fact that Republicans were winning in many states with an agenda that included fiscal restraint and a pro-business approach to economic growth. And the task-force report made no acknowledgment that the increasingly leftward drift of the party had driven away many of its traditional blue-collar constituents. As early as 2013, trade unions whose membership once formed part of the Democratic Party’s core were in revolt against the Affordable Care Act, the growing power of public-sector unions, and the increasing influence that the environmentalist, no-growth agenda had on the party. Many of those trade union members defected to Trump in 2016.
The Democrats’ latest effort to craft an electoral comeback concedes, in a new op-ed by Senator Chuck Schumer, that “Americans are clamoring for bold changes.” But the prescriptions that Schumer offers can only be described as bold if you ignore Clinton’s 2016 campaign platform. The new, “better deal” Democrats propose includes, for instance, a $15 minimum wage, a key Clinton proposal. That’s not only new packaging for an old idea but also an unusual proposition, considering that even Democratic economists worry that boosting mandatory wage floors so dramatically (the current federal minimum wage is $7.25 an hour) will undermine the economy, especially in light of a new study showing that Seattle’s $15 minimum is destroying low-wage jobs. The new proposals also include limiting the ability of pharmaceutical companies to raise drug prices — another Clinton proposal — and thwarting mergers that consolidate power among big companies, a policy that Clinton backed as far back as October of 2015.
Strikingly absent from the new agenda are any ideas that might appeal directly to the party’s defecting blue-collar voters. Trump won a majority of votes among those without a college degree, and so far he’s governing like he’s mindful of those voters. Since taking office, Trump has greenlighted construction of the Keystone XL pipeline project, an initiative that the Obama administration blocked for years. He’s touted a $1 trillion infrastructure-building program, and on the first day of his presidency, he invited union leaders to the White House to ask their support in getting it through Congress. Trump rolled back Obama-imposed regulations on coal mines that would have significantly raised operating costs for mining companies. Indeed, Trump’s outreach to blue-collar workers has been so extensive that he’s even worried many traditional Republican constituencies with his plans to rewrite trade pacts to slow the seepage of American jobs overseas, potentially at the cost of higher prices at home.
A recent poll found that only 37 percent of voters think that the Democratic party stands for anything beyond opposing Trump; Schumer acknowledged that it was the party’s fault for not coming up with a more compelling message than “Resist.” But what the Democratic agenda does offer — more regulations to rein in corporations, to dictate wages, and to restrain prices — is not necessarily what these voters want. Trump has yet to deliver on the big stuff that the experts judge presidents on — in his case, tax policy, a new health-care law, a border wall, among other items. But he has given the voters who’ve turned away from the Democratic Party more, in the form of less — less government bureaucracy blocking workers’ opportunity to earn. And that is making a difference for these voters, at least so far.
It’s going to take some innovative thinking for Democrats — a party now controlled by public-sector unions, progressives disposed to government control of the economy, and environmentalists — to appeal to voters left behind. So far, for all their show of doing so, the Democrats aren’t really trying.