Politics & Policy

The Back to the Future Democrats

House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi gestures at the State of the Union address, January 30, 2018. (Reuters photo: Jonathan Ernst)
The party of Pelosi is trapped in identity politics.

The Democrats are like characters in a Bill Murray movie. They keep reliving the same day, trapped in the rhythms and routines of campaign 2016. They persist in the rhetoric, tropes, gestures, figures, and policies that delivered the presidency, the Congress, and the bulk of statehouses and governor’s mansions to the Republican party. What they can’t escape is identity politics — the slicing and dicing of the electorate by race, sex, orientation, gender identity, country of origin, dietary preference, what have you. Meanwhile President Trump has run off with the most salable of the Democrats’ old issues and the foundations of their coalition. You’d think they’d notice.

Instead the Democrats are too paralyzed by disgust with Trump to care. They are too in love with their newly created self-image as the vehicle of the Resistance, too possessed by the codes and nostrums of the literary-theory courses they took as undergraduates, too beholden to the ludicrous iconography of Hillary Clinton as feminist martyr. Clinton is undoubtedly one of the worst major-party nominees in the history of the United States, a public figure whose tin ear, ineptitude, defensiveness, corruption, and privilege cost her not one but two presidential contests. Her dogged and egregious self-fashioning into a “protector of women” has again and again been exposed as false, from her days laughing off her defense of a child rapist, to her decades-long role in demeaning and undermining her husband’s victims, to her “reassignment” of a spiritual adviser credibly accused of sexual misconduct during the 2008 campaign.

That last bit of news came out only recently. Days later, a bizarre clip of Clinton thanking “activist bitches supporting bitches” went viral on Twitter. Then she appeared on the telecast of the Grammys, reading a portion of Fire and Fury. The audience whooped and cheered as if they were in Philadelphia two summers ago. No one in the crowd seems to have wondered why this two-time loser, whose approval rating is at an all-time low, feels driven to remain a semi-constant presence in public life. Nor has her handling of press relations improved. Hours before President Trump began his State of the Union address, Clinton released a clumsy, cynical, lengthy, self-serving, and dodgy explanation of why she allowed Reverend Harasser to keep his job nine years ago. “If I had it to do again, I wouldn’t,” Clinton wrote, in a typically confusing and mealy-mouthed non-apology apology that went out of its way to attack the New York Times for having the temerity to report on her critically. (Remind you of anyone?) Of course, the reason for Clinton’s inaction is the same for all of her missteps. She didn’t think she’d be caught.

Right now you might be thinking that I am wasting time criticizing a non-factor in American politics. If so, you are wrong. Clinton remains an essential part of the landscape despite nearly everyone but celebrities and Madeleine Albright wanting her to vamoose. Nor is it only her Selina Meyer–like desperation for relevance that makes Clinton worthy of attack; one can’t help wondering if, after her laps and alone with her Chardonnay, she imagines what it would be like to run against Trump in 2020. Clinton is no longer in government, but her campaign strategy continues to guide the Democrats’ actions and messaging.

Joe Kennedy III’s response to the president was a case in point. His speech hit the same notes as Clinton’s a year and a half ago, with emphasis on the Dreamers, who apparently speak only Spanish, and a fillip suggesting that trans causes are equivalent to a drug epidemic that killed 52,000 people in 2015. Kennedy mentioned neither the word “job” nor the word “terrorism.” He said the word “trade” just once. There was the suggestion, if not threat, that future generations will remove obstacles along the southern border, and there were shout-outs to the social justice cause du jour: “You bravely say, me too. You steadfastly say, black lives matter.” This was the same identity politics that emboldened Clinton to label Trump supporters “deplorable,” to assume that Wisconsin and Michigan were safely behind the nonexistent “Blue Wall,” and to lose whites without college degrees by 31 points. You go, Joe.

The fate of working-class people in the country’s interior is a defining domestic issue. For the Democrats to win nationally, they must stanch their losses among this key voting bloc, just as Clinton’s husband and Barack Obama did. “If Clinton could simply have reduced the shift toward Donald Trump among these voters by one-quarter, she would have won,” Ruy Teixeira wrote a few days ago on Vox.com. Even more remarkably, Teixeira found that Doug Jones’s victory in the Alabama special election “was not attributable to his strong showing among black voters alone, or even a combination of black voters and white college graduates. My analysis indicates that Jones benefited from a margin swing of more than 30 points among white non-college voters, relative to the 2016 presidential election in the state.”

Trump’s State of the Union was well crafted and moving, but what made it especially important was the ease with which the president took the Democratic economic message of a few years ago and pocketed it without protest. If Bill Clinton had M2E2 — Medicare, Medicaid, education, and the environment — then Donald Trump has T2I2: terrorism, trade, immigration, and infrastructure. He has framed these issues in ways that leave the Democrats in the cold, and oh, by the way, he’s taken family leave away from them too. He’s for tight labor markets within the original free-trade zone, the United States, and all the Democrats have left is virtue signaling and grievance mongering. Maybe that’s why Nancy Pelosi looked so unhappy Tuesday.

READ MORE:

Hapless in Democratland

How the Democratic Party’s Polarization Led to Trump’s Rise

The Missing Democratic Agenda

— Matthew Continetti is the editor in chief of the Washington Free Beacon, where this column first appeared. © 2018 All rights reserved

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