Democrats Can’t Agree on How to Win Because We Can’t Agree on Why We Lost
by Sasha Stone and Ryan Adams
There are currently two schools of thought driving the Democratic primary strategy. The first, maintain appeal to the moderates, hover in the middle, win the base and don’t rock the boat too much. The second is that only real change will inspire turnout and that change has been interpreted as the Bernie Sanders economic model. Both sides continue to argue that theirs is the only way to prevail because the 2016 primary proved it.
“Bernie Woulda Won” The case for Bernie Sanders or a hard left progressive
The theory: Trump and Bernie were popular because people craved the bold change of anti-establishment candidates. Applying that premise to our current crisis, progressive voters think most Democrats made a huge mistake in choosing to “anoint Hillary” as the de facto frontrunner before the primary phase even got underway, and they say we’d be fools to go down the same road with Biden.
Why it’s wrong:
Bernie Sanders lost the Democratic primary by 4 million votes. He lost to Hillary 55% to 43%. Those numbers had nothing to do with rigging, but instead are an honest reflection of the majority of Democratic voters who resisted being yanked so hard and so fast to the far left. He also lost because Hillary Clinton had deeper roots of support in the South, a long history of building a relationship with the most reliable core of Democratic voters, and a higher name recognition.
Consider, despite relentless GOP smear tactics, the Gallup poll that for 17 years in a row named Hillary Clinton as the most admired woman in America. Bernie had burst onto the stage and expected to establish the same kind of reach, but it never quite gelled.
Did many pragmatic DNC strategists prefer to back Hillary as the more battle-tested option? Of course. A long history of beleaguered Democrats crouched in defensive clusterfuck mode has understandably conditioned our party leaders to put their full weight behind one candidate. Even though those candidate have lost, especially since candidates like Gore and Hillary Clinton won the popular vote, the DNC continues to rightfully believe the best chance we have is a unified front that minimizes far-left liberal defection and maximizes appeal to moderate independents.
Bernie Sabotaged the Right Choice — the case for Joe Biden (or a moderate)
From the moment Biden entered the race, he has trounced Bernie in the polls, often by a margin that doubles Sanders support, and that has nothing to do with the DNC, nothing to do with superdelegates, nothing to do with name recognition. It has everything to do, once again, with Biden having spent decades extending deep roots in the South and establishing a longer relationship of trust with voters.
Should Bernie ever overtake Biden, as he might do as the field thins out and realigned support tilts the scales, Democratic voters across the spectrum must of course put their full weight behind him. Even if he may be seen by many as the cause of our fracture in 2016, we have to put that behind us. The only chance we have of beating Trump is to vote blue no matter who.
As for these early polls, Nate Silver at fivethirtyeight.com makes the observation that Bernie has yet to be “punched” by the GOP. He has never been fully vetted because he was never a big enough threat, and none of the oppo research against him has ever made it into the mainstream of American consciousnesses. In fact, that sort of damage was suppressed since, for Team Trump, the better Bernie did in the primaries the harder it would be for Hillary to win over his supporters. The image manipulation conducted by Russian troll farms boosted Bernie at every turn — a coordinated stampede of reckless bucking broncos unleashed by Putin and Cambridge Analytica, with Trump himself as designated rodeo clown.
Should Bernie become the nominee in 2020 we will at last get see the avalanche of attack strategies that the GOP has in store for him and only then will we see the polls reflect his potential weakness in the electorate. Fact remains, voters already know everything there is to know about Biden, warts and all, and no matter what dry dirt they try to throw at him he still polls better against Trump than anyone else.
The Bottom line: to win the presidency you have to win the primary — The quarrel over which candidate was the right choice, Bernie or Hillary, was over before the bickering began.
Bernie could not win the nomination, because he couldn’t win the South, thus he could not win the presidency. Hillary was always destined to win the nomination. That was obvious as far back in 2015. Bernie supporters thought they could do what Obama did in 2008 and overtake Hillary on the strength of his rallies for change. But smart observers knew the 2016 election was not about change. To hold onto Obama’s legacy and build upon it, Democrats essentially needed a candidate who would embrace the Obama era with a third term, instead of deliberately trying to derail our 8-year winning streak. It should have been a slam dunk. The only way to fumble would be to make the opposite case: that Democrats had failed, and that’s the argument Bernie made. How did anyone think that was going to turn out?
The truth is that Bernie Sanders and his movement scared a vast swath of reliable moderate voters who aren’t ready yet to embrace an unknown concept like “Democratic Socialism” and swerve to the far left so fast.
All the same, there is an undeniably strong coalition of voters who want to buy into what Bernie is selling. They want to yank the country hard left and they believe they can do it if they can seize the reins and “be like the Tea Party.”
The problem is, of course, that the “grassroots” Tea Party was bankrolled by unseen billionaires. Republicans are blatantly unashamed to take deep-pocket donations, and their thirst for dark money has been enabled by the Citizens United decision. Progressive Democrats want the same power without any of the financial backing that makes such a coup possible. Now that we’ve lost the Supreme Court for decades, overturning Citizens United isn’t happening any time soon. We’ve now had our hands tied as Team Trump fills the federal courts — and for that alone we should have united to stop him.
A United Front Always Wins. Division Always Loses — “Vote Blue No Matter Who” if you want to get rid of Trump.
A candidate who can appeal to both the base and the new progressives will have the best chance of uniting the party and beating Trump.
We know Biden can get the moderates. He can attract Never Trumpers. He can reach millions of voters that none of the other far left candidates can. He can win in Florida and Pennsylvania. He can probably win in Arizona and Nevada. Whichever way independents may lean is always a toss-up, but Biden will look good to as many of them as he may fail to sway. Of course, as Hillary did, he could lose one or two million hardcore Bernie voters. And that would create the exact same train wreck we suffered in in 2016.
But none of these caveats mean that if the other side prevails that they can unite the party either. They can’t. Bernie’s nebulous progressive platform looks improbable to millions of Americans and those proposals will likely alienate many more voters than they would gain.
Democrats can’t agree on who we are, what we want, and who we want to be.
Right now, thanks to the way the media can only gnaw on one bone at a time, the most prominent voices of the Democratic party that America sees on TV are the champions of refugees and asylum seekers pushing in unprecedented numbers to get into the United States at the border. We look to many prospective voters like the party that is being led by Alexandria-Ocasio Cortez, and that the Green New Deal is the only action on the climate we’ll accept. If that image continues to be projected, expect Democrats to lose by a margin as large or larger than we did in 2016.
AOC’s voice is urgent, important, powerful — she is one of the few who can lead the media narrative the way Trump does. But a singular attitude like hers won’t do for an election year. If that is the only conversation we’re having it will be easy for Trump to be the only one “fighting for Americans.” Not to mention, AOC isn’t running for President. Yet she is irresistible clickbait. She is as much of a controversial figure as Trump. The media can’t stay away. How can Democrats come out from under that? Trump wants to make her the face of the Democratic Party and he’ll be happy if the press continues to stay glued to their ongoing argument.
What is our message to Americans? How can we make their lives better? How can we convince them to remove a one-term president during a strong economy?
If we’re trying to actually win over the vast middle ground of voters who are weary of uproar and just want to return to more familiar stability, we must come out from under that conversation and start selling an America that voters will believe is about them. Right now, Trump has mostly seized bragging rights to what it means to be patriotic, to look out for jobs and the economy. Democrats must make the case that they can sustain a strong economy — and an Obama successor is the best person to make that happen.
What the Bernie/Elizabeth Warren side is selling right now is that America, as it is, isn’t working. That’s a harder case to make when the economy is humming along, at least according to the only financial indicators ever trumpeted on TV. We all know that the truth is that regular Americans still have it hard — income inequality, crippling debt, a labor force with diminished union strength. But that argument is perhaps better made when the economy is in a recession or after an economic collapse. What else can Democratic candidates offer to Americans that they’ll want to buy into?
What about the other candidates, like Kamala Harris and Pete Buttigieg? Can they bring together the forces on the hard left and those folks in the middle? Maybe. We don’t yet know what the GOP will use to attack them if they rise to be a threat, so it’s hard to predict how things will come down. We only know that right now, Joe Biden and Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren are polling the highest, with Harris rising and Buttigieg hanging in. She’s a black woman — he’s a gay man. Will that make right-minded Americans feel like they’re fighting for something that matters? Will that be enough to offset the wariness of other voters? Maybe. Maybe not.
One thing we all learned from 2016 is is that no one can predict how the smallest shifts in perception can tip a tight election the wrong way. If we stick to a few fundamental rules we have a much better shot and right at the top of that list is “vote blue no matter who.”