Three words: Michigan, Pennsylvania, Wisconsin. This has become my stock answer to the question countless people here have posed since the 8th of November. “How did Trump win?” Conventional wisdom held that these were the three biggest and hardest bricks in Hillary Clinton’s big blue wall that the GOP nominee couldn’t break, no matter how well he did elsewhere. Wisconsin hadn’t voted for a Republican presidential candidate since 1984; George Bush Sr. was the last to win Pennsylvania and Michigan when he defeated Michael Dukakis in 1988. The collective complexion of the country, and of those three states, has darkened since then. Hillary Clinton was said to have a much better ground game than Donald Trump. She led in all the polls. Translation: she would win all three, perhaps easily, and therefore become the 45th President of the United States.
But that’s not how it played out. There was a political earthquake which left an awful lot of egg on an awful lot of faces. Both complex theories and more straightforward claims as to why and how Donald Trump won abound, and the events of 2016 will keep political scientists busy for the foreseeable future.
Meanwhile, the Democratic Party has to evaluate its current standing in light of a truly terrible election outcome. Much has been made of the crisis in the Republican Party. It certainly has myriad issues that will need to be worked through, yet the party now controls Washington, DC, as well as a considerable majority of governorships and state legislatures.
I wrote here in August that the Democrats “may have little to cheer other than (a) Trump defeat in November.” Trump’s stunning triumph and the Republican hold of the Senate, however, mean that the picture is far worse than had been anticipated. Following are three things the party should do in response to their overwhelming rejection at the polls.
1. Work with President Trump where possible
The constant lament of left-wing observers over the past two weeks has been that the Republicans, given that they will control the legislative and executive branches, can pursue and implement a far-right agenda. That overlooks the reality that many of the things Donald Trump said on the campaign trail – and resonated so deeply with millions of men and women across “Middle America” and beyond – are at odds with his party’s platform and with mainstream conservatism.
Trump asserts that he will spend a tremendous amount of money on rebuilding America’s infrastructure and put many people to work in so doing; that he will revisit trade deals and decline to enter new agreements; and that he will only use military force as a last result and bring thousands of troops home from military outposts abroad.
These are not conservative ideas. They are ideas that those on the left should embrace. Congressional Democrats should indicate to President Trump that they will work with him to achieve these objectives. This would exploit the gulf between the president and his party’s establishment. Additionally, it would cause serious head scratching and division among grass roots Republicans, the vast majority of whom “came home” and voted for a presidential candidate whose views they mightn’t necessarily share.
Finding common ground with the president on some things would, at the very least, precipitate an identity crisis in the GOP. It could even lead to a civil war between the leadership and the rank and file. Simultaneously, fighting for jobs and against globalism and military interventionism would find favor with millions of disaffected and former Democrats who believe their party sold them down the river.
2. Elect Tim Ryan leader
Nancy Pelosi has been the leader of the Democrats in the House of Representatives since 2002. She is a prodigious fundraiser, a formidable political operator and an inspiration for young women. But the party has struggled under her leadership. It is time for a change.
Fully one-third of House Democrats come from California, Massachusetts and New York. This, coupled with having a very liberal congresswoman from San Francisco as leader, makes for horrible optics. As I wrote in August, “the Democratic Party has become a party primarily of the East and West coasts.”
Into the breach has stepped 43-year-old Irish American Congressman Tim Ryan, who represents a district in Ohio that has felt the harsh consequences of the trade deals that the establishments of both political parties endorsed. It is near impossible to dispute the point that an ethnic Catholic moderate from the Rust Belt would make sense for the Democrats at present.
Most say that he has very little chance of winning enough support from his colleagues when the vote is held on November 30th. One of the oft-cited obstacles to his election is his having maintained a solidly anti-abortion stance until just last year.
But this actually could be his greatest political strength. That he can see both sides of a complicated, vexed issue might appeal to the vast swathe of Americans who are repulsed by the Democrats’ extremely liberal positions on cultural matters. Indeed, the margins in states like Michigan and Pennsylvania were so tight that a credible argument could be constructed that Hillary Clinton’s ardent pro-choice view was the final nail in her political coffin.
3. Stress “bread and butter” issues, not “trendy lefty” ones
What is gospel at cocktail parties in Manhattan is vomit at bars in Youngstown. Democrats need to emphasize their historic advocacy for the “little guy” and contrast it with the Republicans’ long-standing allegiance to business interests. This will require repudiating some of what the party’s leadership has done in recent years, yet the strength of Bernie Sanders’ primary challenge to Hillary Clinton suggests that ordinary Democrats want the party to change course.
Democrats must outline reasonable, comprehensive plans for making the “American Dream” attainable again. Simultaneously, they must highlight just how unrealistic the promises made by Donald Trump are. They have to stay focused on and lead with economics, and not with cultural liberalism. Moderates like Louisiana Govenor John Bel Edwards and Senators Joe Manchin and Bob Casey (from West Virginia and Pennsylvania, respectively) should be given far more prominent roles in order to recapture some of the hearts and minds that the party has clearly lost.
Will the Democratic Party take any of the foregoing on board? It’s hard to know. But there is a very real crisis. It requires decisive action.
* Larry Donnelly is a Boston attorney, a Law Lecturer at NUI Galway and a political columnist with IrishCentral.com and TheJournal.ie.