Little Rock, 1992. James Carville hangs up a sign in the Clinton campaign headquarters declaring the three keys to the White House: “Change vs. more of the same. The economy, stupid. Don't forget health care.” 15 years later, President Trump’s lack of respect for presidential norms fills in the first box. His honing in on middle-class Americans with economic nationalist ideas checks the second. The GOP’s frizzled promise to repeal the Affordable Care Act knocks out the third. And there you have a Presidency gone amok. Democrats were more of the same and the economic recovery had left many in its wake. They were on defense with healthcare the entire election. This, compounded with Russian meddling in the election, brought down one of the most prepared candidates in US presidential history.
In Trump’s wake, Democrats have struggled to gather themselves. Seven months into the already infamous Trump presidency, liberals are searching for a unifying message. Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer has been able to hold together the democratic coalition, which includes those straddling the crevasse between the Resistance and moderates (Joe Manchin, Heidi Heitkamp among others). But, unfortunately, the party’s “mission to build an America in which working people know that somebody has their back” has somewhat flopped. Coined “A Better Deal,” the democratic message is economic only in its name. According to the Senate Democrats' website, the deal spans from promising apprenticeship programs to “aggressively [cracking] down on unfair foreign trade and [fighting] back against corporations that outsource American jobs" – a page out of the Trump-camp, perhaps? The deal also mentions raising middle-class Americans' wages (which have stagnated as the economy has boomed), lowering prescription drug prices, and prioritizing small businesses (although no specifics are given). But it fails to capture the genius simplicity of Carville’s 1992 message.
“A Better Deal” attempts to throw every coalition a bone, which enmeshes the deal into a tangled web of promises. First, most of its promises aren’t remotely possible without a Democratic White House. Democrats should instead focus their energy on succeeding in the 2018 election – nothing else matters if the House remains Republican. Nonetheless, the horrible election map that Democrats will face in 2018 doesn’t make matters better. Second, voters usually don’t base their decisions off of a promulgated block of text about what politicians would like to do. The average voter decides on one or two stances, which can be observed through the example of Trump’s infamous goal to build a wall. Voters considered the wall to be a simple solution to a perceived problem, as well as a strategy that would lead to broader views on immigration and nationalism. An extreme example, sure, but Democrats need a similar umbrella idea under which they can package and market their other platform goals.
Among all of the problems that have hindered the Democratic party’s progress, identity politics is a root issue, such that it may be to blame for Hillary Clinton’s 2016 loss. Mark Lilla, a professor at Columbia University, analyzes this in his New York Times Op-Ed, “The End of Identity Liberalism.”
"Hillary Clinton was at her best and most uplifting when she spoke about American interests in world affairs and how they relate to our understanding of democracy. But when it came to life at home, she tended on the campaign trail to lose that large vision and slip into the rhetoric of diversity, calling out explicitly to African-American, Latino, L.G.B.T. and women voters at every stop. This was a strategic mistake. If you are going to mention groups in America, you had better mention all of them. If you don’t, those left out will notice and feel excluded," Lilla writes.
This issue of identity politics has only compounded itself in the recent months, as President Trump’s various racist outbreaks have garnered bipartisan denouncements. The dilemma for Democrats is understandable: how do you deal with a president who shifts blame from White Supremacists to those who were protesting them? Ignoring his behavior would be accepting it as status quo – a tactic many Republicans in Congress have taken. But prolonged focus on it leads to political rhetoric branding Democrats as whiners rather than leaders. These dilemmas prove that finding a good balance between appealing to the liberal base/minorities, whilst also attracting moderates with an economic message, is extremely difficult – but we must find it. As hyper partisanship carves its way through the 50 states, unifying people under a common belief in government is more crucial than ever. After all, at it’s core, Liberalism is a belief that government exists to solve everyone’s problems.
Then there’s healthcare, which threatens to divide the Democratic party. The healthcare schism is deep and abrasive in the left – the pragmatics, who want to fix the ACA, clash with the Berniecrats, who will not settle for less than single-payer. Other options for healthcare are seldom mentioned, and even less so debated. However, a quick trip across the Atlantic provides a possible alternative to this ideological discordance.
Germany utilizes a multi-payer system that consistently grants Germany a higher ranking than the US in healthcare. The German system has two markets: a compulsory insurance market, where payment is determined by income, and a private insurance market, where age and health are the main factors for payment. It also offers choices to those who would like it, and provides coverage for every German. The system allows private insurance companies to exist, unlike in France and Canada, where the government employs single-payer systems. Although a multi-payer system is a possibility for the US, the shift to multi-payer will prove to be a complex and risky task for any party to undertake, and thus an impractical move. Additionally, the US system is massive and intertwined with countless regulations and private companies. Throughout the years, a version of Germany’s healthcare system has been proposed by various healthcare professionals to varying degrees of exposure. To come to a conclusion as to how pragmatic the multi-payer option would be for the US, we need to debate and discuss it publicly. Multi-payer should be a part of the discussion on healthcare, if not at the forefront. Americans are finally coming around to the notion that everyone deserves access to affordable healthcare, and it’s up to Democrats to seize the opportunity through expanding the healthcare debate effectively.
Democrats have already won the first battle: the fight for ACA repeal took up much of the GOP’s first legislative year. The irregular – and frankly dishonest – attack on the ACA proved futile by the GOP. However, wars are fought across many battles, and this is only one of the many battles that Democrats must win. Alone, healthcare will not pave the way for seizure of the House in 2018, nor the Presidency in 2020. Rather, the ACA debate stood the test of time, allowing us to get a glimpse of what is possible, given that we have a united front. Through this trial, we learned that taking away healthcare is much harder than providing it, and that the ACA is gaining popularity. Democrats cannot afford to make the mistake of disregarding healthcare on the campaign trail.
In order to win back Obama-Trump voters successfully, Democrats must also appeal to the economic woes of the middle class. These voters overlooked Trump’s countless misogynistic and racist remarks on the campaign trail, as did so many others, what’s to say they won’t do it again? Thus simple, economic message must be at the forefront of the democratic platform.
“A Better Deal” sets out to be this simple, economic message – but it lacks simplicity. Republicans answer this with their main unifying point, tax cuts. Their plan consists of poorly veiled tax cuts for the wealthy, however it makes for a great campaign promise. Democrats could take another page from Clinton’s 1992 campaign here. Clinton’s economic rhetoric put skills training at the center of the campaign. Skills training is a great way to capture voters who feel left behind economically. The future is renewable energy, and coal workers know this. Mining towns have been left behind in today’s economy, but jobs training and subsidies to shift these towns industries to be geared towards tomorrow’s economy may bring them up to speed.
If there is anything to take away from the 2016 election, it’s that every vote matters. The Washington Post calculates that the election was “decided by 107,000 people in [Michigan, Wisconsin, and Pennsylvania].” Relatively speaking, that number is incredibly miniscule – only about 0.09 percent of the electorate. Obama ran on an economic message, but black voter turnout was what really secured his ‘08 and ‘12 victories. That isn’t to say that a black or minority candidate is necessary in order to achieve Obama’s turnouts; a candidate with charisma, paired with an energized base, can achieve the same results. And through grassroot initiatives, the Democratic base is certainly energized. This energy has spurred many new candidates in state and federal elections for Democrats, which may blossom into a wide arrange of presidential candidates in the future. Sustaining and carrying this energy into midterms is vital for Democrats.
Despite the dismaying electoral map for Democrats, President Trump’s failures provide an opening for a new era of Democratic politics, as long as we can shy away from identity politics. 15 years later, Carville’s sign still deserves to hang in every campaign headquarters across the country. Democrats must constantly and vocally remind the country that they are the change – that they are fighting for those who have been forgotten, that they are the ones who defended the people’s right to healthcare, and that they will be the ones do it again.