The Democrats’ Way Forward
US News & World Report
Thomas Jefferson Street Blog

(Bryan R. Smith/AFP/Getty Images)

By Peter Fenn | Opinion Contributor

Jan. 13, 2017, at 4:15 p.m.

I have not written in this space since mid-November when I published a post-election letter to my granddaughter, my first grandchild. For Democrats, and many Americans, it has been a rough couple of months. Grand understatement.

But I think it is time for us, or at least me, to come out of the fetal position. So many people are concerned. “What can I do? What should I do?” they ask.

Some of us are old enough to remember the tsunami of the 1980 election. The conservative movement and the nation’s problems swept Ronald Reagan to a resounding victory over Jimmy Carter and flipped the Senate, unseating 12 Democratic senators, including my boss. Many of us who worked for those senators found ourselves standing in a special unemployment line in what is now the Kennedy Caucus Room in the Russell Building. Joining us were other Democratic committee staff members, also unexpectedly out of a job. And, of course, there were thousands of people who worked in the Carter administration who were also ousted from their positions.

Dejected. Depressed. Scared. Angry. Plenty of emotions for a lot of young, idealistic, committed people. Some left Washington to look for jobs, some went home to the states from whence they came, and some stayed.

I was lucky. I was offered a job with a political media firm in New York and, also, offered a job as the executive director of Democrats for the ’80s, a new political action committee started by Pamela Harriman and an impressive group of political luminaries, including a young Bill Clinton. I chose to stay in Washington and direct the PAC. The goal was to help rebuild the Democratic Party and to work across the country to elect Democrats at all levels. Juice fundraising, help with messaging, bring together those in the political wilderness to inject a sense of hope and confidence — those were our hopes. I learned a lot from that experience that may be relevant now.

Of course, Pamela and Averell Harriman could get almost anyone to come to the issue dinners at their home, to participate in a salon to discuss the way forward. Anyone in Washington would take their phone calls. Some people even took mine, a 30-something, invisible, former Hill aide.

Here are some of the things I learned from that experience long ago, in a galaxy far, far away:

Focus. As former Sen. Russell Long said at one of the issue dinners where there was intense hand-wringing: “Y’all don’t seem to understand – the job of the minority is to bethe minority.” What he meant was, you’re not in charge now, get over it, and take the Republicans head on. Fight with your ideas, work with them if it works for the country, but it’s time to bring a message to the American people that wins elections. And organize, organize, organize.

This Trump presidency and his appointments, plus the Republican Congress, provides Democrats the chance to be the minority and take them head on. Fight with the confidence and conviction necessary to stop what is wrong and destructive and propose solutions that work and galvanize voters.

Listen. After 1980, the noted pollster Stan Greenberg did ground-breaking work in Michigan, listening to what became known as the “Reagan Democrats” – those working class and disaffected voters who switched their allegiance. We face similar problems today with voters who are angry and frustrated with government, Washington, power elites in general, and their personal lives, in particular. Read “Our Kids” by Robert Putnam or “Hillbilly Elegy” by J.D. Vance and you get a pretty good picture of the state of our union. Democrats need to listen to and communicate with their natural constituency – working class voters.

Fight back. After the election of 1980, Democrats wallowed in their misery for a while but we fought back. We took on right-wing groups and aired ads against those who tried to take down Democrats such as Paul Sarbanes in Maryland. We produced a factual guide to what the other side was doing, including quotes from the leaders of New Right groups, exposing the hateful rhetoric and attacks against our basic institutions. We used the press, worked with state parties, sent out speakers and engaged in direct mail to get out our message.

We brought together, at Democrats for the 80s, the leading experts in issue areas from agriculture to the environment, from job creation to education, from foreign policy to infrastructure. And we created, for the 1982 elections, a Democratic Fact Book that highlighted the Republican record, the Democratic response, the way forward and speech ideas for our candidates on the stump. These experts wrote chapters and each chapter had the same format and was easy to digest and use by the Democrats, not just in Washington but across the country. We paid for thousands of these books to be printed and distributed. (Now we could just send them electronically!)

Recruit candidates. The Democrats need to expand their efforts to recruit candidates for state and local office, as well as the Senate and House. For years, many of us have worked with some fine state parties that have strong caucus operations, recruiting and training strong candidates. But not enough time and effort has been spent to fund and support local efforts to build up our farm team. To be honest, the other side, especially the far right, has spent much more on their state operations to great effect. If we ignore the grassroots and local activity, we do so at our peril.

Money, money, volunteer. Money is not the only answer but it sure helps! Donations to progressive causes such as Planned Parenthood, the Southern Poverty Law Center, Sierra Club, the ACLU, NARAL, Emily’s List, Human Rights Campaign and so many others have surged since the election. This happened after Reagan was elected: People were willing to dig deeper when the threat was clear. Not only are they now ready to contribute but many are willing to volunteer and work for grass roots organizations, lend their legal and policy expertise, join online groups to share information and work for candidates for office. But if there was ever a serious threat, this is the time; if there ever was a moment to ratchet up fundraising and volunteering, now is the time.

Coordinate. One of the most effective tactics we used after the Reagan election was to bring together every few weeks various political and progressive groups to share information, coordinate messaging, divide up the workload and focus our energies. Labor, women’s groups, liberal PACs, environmental groups, gay rights, civil liberties, etc. would meet at our offices next to the Harriman house. For over 20 years Grover Norquist, head of Americans for Tax Reform, has convened a Wednesday morning group to coordinate his conservative groups. It is time for regular, disciplined meetings to strategize and plan even more so than has been done in the past. Given the proliferation of organizations these might be divided up by issue area or political focus into smaller meetings, but still share strategy and tactics with one another.

A mid-term June 2018 convention. Democrats have tried mid-term conventions in the past (’74, ’78 and ’82) with mixed success. My guess is 2018 will be quite a different time. We will surely have to deal with what is likely to be a disastrous two years of Trump. Such a gathering could focus the party on the upcoming mid-term elections and set the stage for a presidential race in 2020. Voters will be looking for a reset from the Democrats and ready to listen to solutions for the upheaval that the Trump administration will have wrought.

Messaging. It is hard to conceive that Democrats have lost the message war to a tweeting P.T. Barnum, devoid of a moral compass and severely lacking in basic policy knowledge. One of the difficulties during the campaign, and even now, as he prepares to become president, is that we are so appalled and perplexed with his nasty and unrestrained tweet-storms against individual people and events – Arnold Schwarzenegger, Meryl Streep, Russian hacking, the intelligence community, whatever – that we take our eyes off the ball.

Harnessing anger, cynicism and distrust of politicians is easy, and sadly, quite effective. Offering grand, sweeping promises is also a traditional, simple strategy to win elections. But Trump took all this to a whole new level and convinced many voters that he would be the champion of the working class, the disaffected, those in rural towns and those who resented the social change that was taking hold in America. He carried the pitchfork and many rallied to the outsider message of economic populism. It sounded absurd to Democrats that their hard work on education, health care, the minimum wage, family and medical leave, saving the auto industry and lifting America out of the great recession would be overtaken by a charlatan with a “Make America Great Again” hat.

But his message was simple and ours was complex; his rhetoric was hot, ours was lukewarm; his promises, however absurd, were simple and easy to grasp, ours were wonky and hard to communicate. And Trump had the advantage of being the change candidate, someone who never had to get his hands dirty worrying about what it meant to actually govern. And Democrats were the status quo party, with an anti-status quo electorate.

As most in politics know, you can have all the data and money and metrics in the world, but if your message is weak, you are in deep trouble.

So, do we need to get back to our roots and our rhetoric on “fighting hard for hard working families”? You bet we do. Is this about a clear contrast between those Republicans whose policies and programs fight for the wealthiest in our land and those Democrats who battle for everyone else? It sure is. Do we, as Democrats, need to get our heads out of the clouds and realize it isn’t just about white papers on the issues but about connecting with those people who are yearning to hear that we care about them, their plight and their predicament, and that our prescriptions are the right ones to truly improve their lives? No doubt about it.

Fundamentally, we can see from Trump’s cabinet appointments and his decisions thus far that he is the wrong guy, with the wrong party, ready to do the wrong things for working people who trekked to the polls and voted for him. We just witnessed the most issue-less election in modern memory and we failed to draw the right contrasts on what it means to be a Democrat versus a Republican.

All across the board, Democratic policies and priorities support working families, while Republicans consistently side with the 1 percet. Sen. Bernie Sanders, and to a lesser extent Hillary Clinton, made this point. But not strongly or effectively enough. This makes it all the more important that we understand and empathize and help those who feel helpless – those whose jobs have been lost or incomes remained stagnant, those 29 percent of American over 55 who have neither a pension nor retirement savings, those who cannot survive without a strong Social Security and Medicare backstop.

Republicans in Congress are ready to not only destroy the Affordable Cafe Act and throw our health care coverage into chaos, but they are setting their sights on Medicare, Medicaid and even Social Security. Their plans for tax cuts only further exacerbate the problems the middle class faces and reward the wealthy with more tax breaks. Ever since FDR, we have seen a fundamental and historic difference between Democrats and Republicans on the social contract, on standing up for working people, on the role and responsibility of government to create and maintain a safety net that makes our nation stronger. Democrats must rekindle and reinforce that message in the years ahead.

It’s true that there is a debate within the party about whether Democrats made a mistake by talking too much about women’s rights, LGBTQ rights, rights of Muslim Americans, racial and ethnic inclusion, etc. Many believe, sadly, that it is an either/or proposition – you focus on the rights of these Americans or you make a general case to the working class. I do believe very strongly that this is a false dichotomy and that a strong, viable, inclusive Democratic Party must do both.

If the message is created and conveyed properly, they are mutually inclusive and persuasive, one supports the other; it is not about pitting one group against another or one sacrificing their future while the other prospers. It is about, as Barack Obama said in 2004, one America. And melding that proverbial melting pot with a future we can truly believe in is still possible in America. That should be the Democrats’ cause, that should be our message.