Hillary Clinton
Credit: Nathania Johnson/Wikimedia Commons

The Democrats seem to be caught on flypaper and unable to get out of an infinite loop of debate over whether they should focus on the needs and desires of their progressive base or the needs and desires of the more working class voters they lost in 2016 and which cost them election. You can see them flailing away anywhere you look, on Twitter or Facebook or on cable television and in newspaper columns. Cathleen Decker captures it nicely in her article for the Los Angeles Times:

Democrats essentially remain in the box where Hillary Clinton spent the general election: able to unify Trump opponents, but unable to craft a message for those not motivated by distaste for him.

“The Democrats are closer to where the electorate is headed, but have shown a tin ear and an inability to understand the groups that formed the backbone of the Democratic Party for decades,” said veteran Democratic pollster Peter D. Hart.

The deepest Democratic schisms involve whether to focus on liberal social issues or the economic struggles of blue-collar and middle-class Americans. During the presidential campaign, many voters saw the party as more intent on social issues, an image disputed by Democrats but pushed by Republicans.

“The Democratic Party, especially the presidential campaign, lost its core economic message last year; Trump sort of outmaneuvered us among Democrats and independents,” said Ohio Democratic Party Chairman David Pepper, who has spent the last few months in what he calls “kitchen conversations” with voters.

Supporting the civil rights of Democratic voter groups is admirable, he said, “but we can’t let them bait us into getting away from our core message — and I think that does happen.”

The first hint that this is all stinking thinking is that it is basically irresolvable on its own terms. It’s like choosing to squeeze the left or right side of a balloon and thinking it will make any material difference to the outcome. What the Democrats need is a fully inflated balloon, not one that is collapsed on one side.

What is needed is not an answer or a resolution to this question but a paradigm shift that transcends the debate.

But before we even get that far, one thing should be kept in mind. Since this is largely a disagreement about emphasis, it’s important that it will be a long time before the Democrats have a single standard bearer again. The leaders the party has now, whether we’re talking about DNC Chair Tom Perez or congressional minority leaders Nancy Pelosi and Chuck Schumer, aren’t really that critical or even influential in setting a national message. Even if they came up with some great talking points and a bunch of brilliant policy proposals, their influence on local, state and even federal elections would be limited. There’s a fight to be had about how resources are divvied up, I suppose, but most of us will have zero influence over that, either. So, a lot of this fighting is really premature and very unproductive.

For the time being, the focus should be on what wins elections in the districts where elections are being held. And that’s going to vary depending on whether it’s a district where Clinton did well or one in which she got her clock cleaned. There are places where a Republican won’t want to talk about Trump’s border wall or his ideas on trade, and there are areas where the Democrat won’t want to talk about transgender bathrooms and whether black football players stand for the national anthem. That doesn’t seem like a crisis for either party unless people are intent on making it a crisis.

In the end, though, the Democrats can’t succeed by choosing to double-down on what proved to be a losing strategy, but nor can they solve their problems by changing their national message to one that is designed to win over areas that they’ll never win. This is especially true if it turns off or sells-out their base.

I think it’s much more true to say that social issues failed to win the election for Clinton than that they cost her the election. The upside to that is that shifting on social issues won’t be the key to success, so it’s unnecessary. And, while I’m not entirely dismissive of Ohio Democratic Party Chairman David Pepper’s idea that the Dems were “baited” into getting away from their core messages, I think the real problem was that they didn’t have the right answers.

In other words, they had an economic message but the problem wasn’t so much that they underplayed it as that it had limited to negative appeal. What they need is an economic message that actually meets people where they’re at, not where we think they should be at. But, of course, I tried to cover this in my last piece.

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Martin Longman is the web editor for the Washington Monthly. See all his writing at ProgressPond.com