Democrats “message-less”? Not true!


There was an op-ed piece in the Washington Post the other day written by Dan Balz. His point: Democrats lack a unifying message and candidate in the 2020 presidential election.

Balz’s piece was titled “Will the Democrats Wake Up Before 2020?” and the subhead was They have no unifying leader and no clear message — yet.” To add visual texture to the alarmist wording, the piece was accompanied by a photo of a donkey—the symbol of the Democratic Party—apparently taking a snooze (on an appropriately blue blanket).

Democrats “message-less”? Not true!

Among the central tenets of the Balz case are these:

  • Joe Biden is the Big Dog. No other potential Democratic candidates will do much until they know if he’s running.
  • The Party is caught on the horns of an ideological dilemma, with “truly left progressives” squaring off against “center-left progressives.”
  • The party currently lacks “a clear and compelling message.”
  • There is thus “no obvious leader.”

I myself think things are not that dour. Let’s back up and remember 2008 (which seems like eons ago). A big election was coming up. The sitting president, George W. Bush, a Republican, was widely unpopular. Democrats smelled blood in the water. Meanwhile, Republicans vied for the nomination of their party. The leading candidates, heading into the primaries, were Mike Huckabee, John McCain, Mitt Romney and (last, and decidedly least in strength) Ron Paul. In this cast of characters, you see the ideological spectrum that the Republican Party then struggled to resolve: a rightwing evangelical (Huckabee), a moderate conservative with a reputation for independence (McCain), a libertarian conservative (Paul) and the representative of the business class, yet with moderately liberal credentials (Romney, who as Governor of Massachusetts had pushed through healthcare reform).

On the Democratic side, things were less complicated. John Edwards, Bill Richardson, Chris Dodd and Biden all flirted with the nomination, but flagged in the long run, leaving only two candidates standing. But what formidable candidates they were: Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton. Clinton at the time was portrayed as the more hawkishly conservative (or less progressive) candidate, while Obama was perceived as more liberal. But the truth was, there was very little daylight between them on any important issue. Choosing one over the other was largely a matter of which personality you preferred (or which you thought could win).

The two candidates who emerged triumphant in their respective parties were, of course, McCain and Obama, and Obama decisively won. Which brings us back to the Balz analysis.

Yes, it is true that the Democratic Party today is “split” (if that’s the right word) between moderates and progressives. But that’s hardly new. All parties, Republicans and Democrats alike, always have that ideological tug-of-war, especially in presidential election years. In 1952, Republicans had to choose between the arch-conservative Robert Taft and the more centrist Eisenhower. In 1968, Democrats had to choose between two progressive liberals, Eugene McCarthy and Robert Kennedy, over the centrist Hubert Humphrey. (LBJ had of course by then dropped out and RFK hadn’t yet been assassinated.) I could cite every election since and show how this ideological divide pervaded the primaries, but the important thing is that the Democrats’ current situation (“truly left” vs. “center-left”) is standard operating procedure.

Balz’s charge of “no clear and compelling message” also is false. I will argue that the Democratic Party does offer a “clear and compelling message” and that this message is far greater than merely “Anyone but Trump”  (although that’s a big part of it). The message consists of points that the public by now has absorbed well:

  • Democrats want to protect the environment, especially against climate change, while the Republicans don’t give a damn.
  • Democrats stand for a diverse, pluralistic America, while Republicans stand for white, rightwing Christian men (and to a lesser extent, white Christian women).
  • Democrats ardently believe in the Constitution’s First Amendment, which prohibits the establishment of an official religion, while Republicans have thrown in their lot 100% with extremist Christianity.
  • Democrats accept the findings of science. Republicans, driven by religious ideology, do not. (Democrats would do well to remind voters that Adam and Eve did not play with dinosaurs in the Garden of Eden, and they ought to press Christian Republican candidates every change they get on that very issue.)
  • Democrats believe in helping workers through higher taxes on the rich, a minimum wage, greater protections for unions, and by providing adequate, affordable healthcare insurance, whether it’s “universal” or not.
  • Democrats will protect a woman’s right to choose, and same-sex marriage. Republicans would outlaw both.

These are all “clear and compelling messages.” Americans understand them well, and they understand that the Democratic Party stands for them and with them.

Yes, Balz is right that there’s not yet “an obvious leader” for Democrats in 2020. But neither was there in 1960, or 1968, or 1972, or 1976, or 1984, or 1992, or 2000, or 2004.  That’s why we have primaries. You can say that Hillary was the “obvious leader” in 2008, but however obvious she might have been to the pundits, the electorate decided the other way, and picked Obama. Now we head into 2020. With no “obvious leader,” it’s looking like any other year when there’s no incumbent Democratic president.

I have no idea whom the Democratic nominee for president will be in 2020, but I’m convinced that Democrats will have the edge over Republicans, thanks to the disgust most Americans legitimately feel with the current occupant of the White House. They want him gone, and I believe they will get their wish, beginning with the 2018 election cycle, when we prepare the House for Impeachment.

Democrats “message-less”? Not true!
Democrats “message-less”? Not true!

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