Politico’s headline on November 7 said it all: “The Democratic Circular Firing Squad Dodges a Bullet.” After resounding wins in Virginia, New Jersey, and elsewhere, Democrats proved that their perpetual in-fighting wasn’t necessarily a recipe for electoral defeat.
Or did they?
Within hours of the November 7 elections, the national press, as it must always do, put a face on the story, and that face was…not the white cisgender straight male face belonging to the new governor of Virginia, or, ahem, of New Jersey. Ralph Northam who? Phil Murphy what? No, the new darling of the #resistance was instantly the most famous person in any state’s legislature, Danica Roem. The national media found irresistible the narrative of the transgender woman who defeated Bob Marshall, the sponsor of Virginia’s bathroom segregation bill. To be fair, Roem demonstrated unusual grace and poise when asked about Marshall in the hours after the election: “I don’t attack my constituents. Bob is my constituent now.”
Roem has spent the last three weeks on a deserved victory lap, sending emails to Obama’s mailing list and appearing on talk shows. Her latest twitter thread got plenty of love from liberal stalwarts like Chris Hayes, who wrote, “Good thread that also cuts through a lot of the rhetorical/ideological debates (in the abstract) about How Dems Should Run.”
Roem writes that Republicans think Democratic voters are “caring too much about identity politics.” And then…she spends the rest of her twitter thread explaining how she won by emphasizing her plan for infrastructure.
There’s a message here, but I’m not sure it’s one that everyone in the Democratic Party wants to hear. It’s a message that Politico and the rest of the mainstream media can’t, or won’t, summarize in a headline, so I’ll do it for you:
To win competitive races, the Democratic Party has to run non-white-male candidates with centrist messages. That’s the secret formula they’re not allowed to say – basically, Obama’s formula. Oh yes, this will be Obama’s party for quite some time, let’s say at least another twenty years.
I know one of the kneejerk reactions: but Hillary Clinton lost. Did she though? It took the FBI and Wikileaks and 25 years of “negative oppo” and thousands of Russians working overtime to lose her just the electoral college, not the popular vote. It wasn’t a binary thing; her campaign was enough to coattail a couple of crucial Senate seats; the current 52-48 breakdown probably saved Obamacare and other legislation that saves American lives. Often, Fox News and Trump act as though Hillary Clinton is President. By November 2001, Al Gore was an unspoken name in DC. Hillary didn’t lose like that (even though she arguably “lost” worse).
“Centrist” sets off alarm bells, and it should. Longtime readers know that I do NOT advocate policies where Dems and Repubs agree but vast majorities of Americans don’t; three examples are Wall Street coddling, endless war in Afghanistan, and warrantless surveillance. If policies that support those three things are centrism, then centrism is a path to certain defeat. By “centrist messages” I mean campaigning on policies that enjoy the support of at least 51%, and preferably 60%, of Americans. “Centrist” refers to the center of opinion polls, get it? Roem’s infrastructure is a good example. Obamacare is another one. Increased minimum wage is another one. Retraining and other jobs programs are good. Prison reform and drug-war reform are also popular. A lot of Bernie Sanders’ general rhetoric against plutocrats is just fine.
Gun background checks are another consensus-builder, probably, although better when advocated by hunters and gun owners. Immigration reform would be nice, because majorities don’t agree with the Repubs de-facto Build the Wall policy or the Dems’ de-facto Open Borders policy. No current national politician has shown any ability to nuance that, though, so I would recommend staying away from it.
Yes, candidates are allowed to stay away from some issues. Or at least not emphasize them. Danica Roem didn’t emphasize immigration policy one way or the other. Nor did she take a position on police brutality. Does this make her a sellout? Nope.
As someone who has spent a LOT of space on this blog analyzing the current dominant paradigm of political correctness, let me say: identity politics are millstones for candidates. Reading Danica Roem’s analysis of why she won makes this clear: her opponent spent all his energy on defending his “bathroom bill” and Confederate statues, while Virginian voters wanted a problem-solver. I won’t exactly say Hillary lost, but it didn’t help her campaign that Fox News could portray transgender bathrooms as its only new idea. In other words, yes, in 2016 and 2017 the candidate who was perceived to over-emphasize identity politics…uh, didn’t win.
I know, I know, what some people call “identity politics,” others consider an existential threat, for example police brutality. But the issue isn’t a purple-state winner, and the Dems are ceding the country to Trump for the next seven years if they don’t figure out how to win purple states. If you’re a liberal who cares about police reform, think of that reform the same way that Republican politicians think about tax cuts for rich people. You don’t talk about it during the campaign, you just enact it after you’re elected.
However, I’m not really convinced that persons of color trust white males to de-emphasize issues like immigration and police brutality, and Dems can’t win without POC turnout. That’s why I say that the purple-state winning formula is Obama’s: populist centrism advocated by a woman or a person of color. Like Danica Roem.
That doesn’t mean there’s no place for white straight cisgender male liberals. I’m sure Gavin Newsom could become California’s next governor next year, no problem. I’m talking about the high-profile races that are coming in 2018, for example, in Arizona and Nevada and Tennessee.
I don’t love triangulation; in a fantasy world, I’d love a third and fourth party to have real teeth. But I do believe, for about a hundred reasons that would not have applied to a Marco Rubio presidency, that Trump represents an existential threat to the Republic and to many of my fellow citizens. Only a united resistance has a chance of getting him out of office. Knowing Dems, I realize that’s like putting our faith in the Dirty Dozen to knock off the Nazis. I don’t like it, but those are the cards we were dealt. And so we all need to help that Dirty Dozen to be all it can be. And in purple states, that means populist, centrist messages from non-white-guys. That’s the formula.