President Obama famously claimed that a pillar of his foreign policy would be “Don’t do stupid [stuff].” In an expanded riff on that line, I propose below policy/political positions Democrats should shy away from.

Don’t make it all about Trump — because it isn’t

Democrats in Virginia found this out the hard way when their 2021 Gubernatorial candidate tried to run against Trump rather than his opponent. That doesn’t mean I don’t disagree with almost everything Trump stands for, that his influence over the Republican party isn’t pernicious, or that proper investigations into his alleged wrongdoing are not warranted. But you can’t run on that alone, either locally or nationally.

· What to do instead: Run on your record, and on your plans. President Biden recently asked what the Republican Party stands for. No one should have to ask about the Democrats.

Don’t — EVER — say “Defund the police”

This may have been the most harmful slogan any Democrat has thought of in years. Those that really mean all funding should be stripped form police are a tiny fraction of the Democratic Party, and almost certainly don’t reflect the views of, for example, marginalized inner city populations, who want the police to be there AND HELP, not terrorize them. For anyone else who says, “well, that’s not really what we meant — then DON’T SAY IT (duh!).

· What to do instead: Perhaps use terms like “reimagine policing” or “reimagine public safety” But mostly, how about explain what you want to do — like recruit more professionals to deal with mental health issues, provide more training to police on how to de-escalate situations, reverse the militarization of police, and point out that responsible gun control helps police do their jobs better and more safely — rather than trying to use “catchy” slogans that actually end up in “gotcha!”

Don’t “cancel” our Founding Fathers

Calls to take down statues of and/or rename places named after Washington or Jefferson will accomplish nothing except cost money and lose votes. Yes, many of the Founding Fathers owned slaves. They were men of their era and were unable personally to transcend that particular evil in their society. That does not make them evil — it makes them human. And for all their personal flaws, they produced what was, for all its many systemic flaws, the most enlightened political documents, and the most representative government of its day — a system that — again, for all its flaws — has produced 250+ years of peaceful and democratic transfers of power.

· What to do instead: Point out their failings as well as their virtues (as is being done now at Mont Vernon, Monticello, and other places). When people cite the infallibility of the Founding Fathers as a case for an “originalist”/immutable interpretation of the Constitution, point out the original constitution, inter alia, allowed slavey and denied the vote to women — so maybe they weren’t so infallible after all.

o Confederate monuments? Take them down. They didn’t “found” anything, but rather tried to tear it down in service of keeping their fellow man enslaved. I don’t have a problem with them in museums (properly caveated), civil war graveyards, or private collections, but they don’t belong in public spaces.

Don’t just say “we don’t teach critical race theory in schools” and “don’t burn books”

Often Democrats explain this better, but sometimes they don’t. Those expressing concern deserve real answers.

· What to do instead: Point to actual lesson plans, including ones that talk about racism, slavery, segregation, and other evils, and don’t apologize for them. Point out that school board member are not “faceless bureaucrats” or “political activists, but, often, parents of current or former public-school pupils (for example, most of the board members in Fairfax County, VA, where I live, have or had students in the county public school system AND served on PTAs). But also, be willing to examine whether sometimes lines have been crossed.

o For example: a recent Washington Post article about a controversy in a Virginia school district showed an “anti-racist pyramid” from a lesson plan that included the words “who I vote for doesn’t matter.” If that had been written as “it doesn’t matter when I vote or not,” there could be no question about whether it was suggesting one party is better than another. The same anti-racist pyramid had “funding schools locally” as a higher form of racism. I can guess what they meant to say (if there’s only local funding, then impoverished areas get poor-quality schools), but they again said it badly.

o Be willing to have serious discussions about whether books are age-appropriate, rather than decrying any efforts to limit access as book burning. For example, while assigning the Toni Morrison novel “Beloved” (a controversial topic during the recent Virginia election) was entirely appropriate for a high school senior AP class, it’s may not be for elementary school students. The same may hold true for the graphic novel “Maus,” about the Holocaust. And be honest: removing something from a required reading list is NOT the same thing as banning the same book form a school or public library.

Don’t support blue state gerrymandering

(because “the Republicans do it”, or “we need to do it to help us keep a congressional majority for reform” or just “because we can.”). I’m looking at you, New York and Maryland. You can’t yell about the need for a new voting rights act to combat restrictions on voting and scream about a Supreme Court ruling that might result in dilution of one group’s voting power, and then consciously take action to dilute another group’s voting power by gerrymandering. That’s not called “affirmative action.” It’s called “hypocrisy.” Some old adages never [should] go out of fashion: one such adage is “two wrong don’t make a right.”

· What to do instead: Support state legislation that puts (ideally) nonpartisan, or at least bipartisan commissions in charge of the redistricting process.

Don’t try to pay for everything for everyone

We can’t afford to and it’s not politically possible, so to do so only makes the party look incapable of governing. The U.S. national debt has passed the stage where economists typically said “oh it looks big, but as a percentage of GDP it’s small in global terms. That’s no longer the case. As a percentage of GDP, US net national debt has climbed from 34% in 2001 to 101% in 2021. As a diplomat economist in developing countries, I learned that 100% of GDP is the “danger level” at which the International Monetary Fund has started to worry about indebted countries becoming insolvent. Having the dollar as the world’s “reserve currency” gives us a cushion — but how much of a cushion? People — not all of them conservatives — are right to question the value of doing things we are are not prepared to pay for, and politically, the US does not seem ready to pay for all these things.

· What to do instead: Just like our progressive income tax, people who call themselves “progressives” should focus on progressive policies, meaning people who can afford more should pay more; those who can’t, should pay less. Means test, means test, means test! Apply that to proposals regarding free junior college (or free four-year college), student debt forgiveness, and child tax credits. Don’t give me a COVID stimulus payment I don’t need (I donated 100% of mine BTW) — save it for those who do, based on a means test the government can do. And couple that approach with things that that we know will lift all boats, like infrastructure and universal pre-K.

o And “Oh Yeah” — Hell, yes, the top income tax bracket should be way higher than it is now. Bezos, Gates, Musk, Buffet, Trump, etc. should all be paying at LEAST 50%, and capital gains (at least at some level of income) should be taxed at the same rate as earnings.

o And “Oh Yeah II”: If the IRS and/or other USG statistics are not good enough to do the means testing required in the time required, then throw some more money at the issue — I guarantee it won’t cost as much as the cost of giving those benefits to everyone.

Don’t uniformly label concerns about transgender students in bathrooms, locker rooms, and athletics as “Transphobia”

This is a complicated issue that involves the rights and well-being of transgender and cisgender students alike. As such, it deserves serious rather than simplistic thinking. Saying that only the rights of the transgender student matter, while dismissing those of the cisgender students and their parents, is both morally wrong and politically self-destructive. Taken to the extremes now being considered and/or implemented in many blue states, such policies are likely to push a significant number of voters who otherwise support Democratic Party positions into the arms of the Republicans.

· Bathrooms and (especially) locker rooms: High school and (to a much lesser, but still significant extent) college is a time when many students are confused, unsure, and/or embarrassed about their post-puberty bodies and their sexuality. Undressing among those with similar physiognomies can be uncomfortable for many. Undressing with those whose bodies physically are those of the opposite sex might be overwhelming.

o What to do instead: To my mind, there is middle ground to be found. Transgender boys can be allowed in a boys’ bathroom and will use the stalls out of physical necessity; transgender girls will use stalls in a girls’ bathroom because there are no urinals — no intimate body parts are on display in either case. Alternate changing and showering arrangements in locker room situations — far less frequent occurrences — will assure the well-being of the far larger number of cisgender students at the expense of some emotional discomfort for the transgender one. Here I will go with a lesson from Star Trek (Wrath of Khan): “The needs of the many are greater than the needs of the few — or the one.”

· Athletics: This is really about transgender female athletics. Science and statistics do not lie. Puberty gives males major advantages in height, bone and muscle mass, and lung capacity, and those advantages do not dissipate quickly (some may not at all) in transgender females, even with hormone therapy. Some pertinent performance examples: The best-ever performances of the female 2020 (2021) Olympic champions at the running distances of 100 meters through 1500 meters (all of whom rank very high on the all-time performance lists for their events) would not come close to making the 2021 top ten performer list — for U.S. High School boys. The US swimming federation reported that the best female times in each event annually would rank somewhere between 300th and 500th best for male swimmers. University of Pennsylvania transgender female swimmer Lia Thomas was only the sixth best 200 freestyle swimmer on the U Penn team (NOT known as a swimming powerhouse by any stretch of the imagination), but ranks first among collegians in the country in that event as a female swimmer — yes, with a slower time than as a male, but only by two seconds/2%, in a sport where the difference between male and female performances is typically 10–15% and a difference of 1% in either a male or female event can be the difference between a national or even international champion and an also-ran.

o What to do instead: There is no easy answer that supports unfettered access by puberty transgender females who transition post puberty in their chosen gender and sport. Competition without hormone treatment over multiple years, including testosterone suppression, is inherently unfair to cisgender athletes. Even with such treatment, it is not clear the advantage every goes away. In this case again, the “Star Trek” rule seems to apply.

Don’t dismiss immigration enforcement and border controls as “racist”

“No human is illegal” may sound virtuous, but this is probably a more complicated and emotional issue than any of those above, with multiple constituencies. Once again, simplistic answers do not serve us well. Our laws — legislated and enforced by both Republicans and Democrats over the decades, do in fact lay out what constitutes legal (and illegal) immigration. Ignoring that reality and its practical consequences has impacts both economic and political. The economic consequences of people working illegally in the country may be that they take work from some American workers. The political consequences include: a) those American workers are also voters and may vote their opinions about it; and b) other people may also turn their backs on the Democratic Party if they feel “following the rules” is simply no longer important to the party.

· What to do instead: Articulate a comprehensive approach to immigration reform and related legislation that includes (I know I will have missed some important elements, but here goes):

o Common-sense measures to beef up border security where needed, including manpower, remote surveillance/detection, and yes, even some wall building as needed to replace deteriorated infrastructure or fill important gaps.

o Regularization of status for the “dreamers” and at least a sizable proportion of other long stayers who have felony-free records (illegal immigration should not count as a felony in this case).

o Replacement of some family reunification aspects of the current immigration priority system by a more balanced approach that considers things like education, language skills, work qualifications and financial resources along with family ties. Immediate family (spouse, mother/father, children) preferences should remain untouched, but sibling and perhaps even adult children could be accorded lower priority than is currently the case.

o Expanded temporary work permits for guest workers, based on well thought-out estimates of labor gaps, and coupled with clear provisions on labor standards.

o Increased funding and personnel for Asylum determination procedures to ensure that those who have a legitimate fear of persecution are not turned back.

o Expanded foreign assistance for the countries (particularly) of Central America to counter the drivers of migration, including, but not limited to, corruption, gang violence, climate change, and lack of economic opportunity.

o Continued and expanded access for Central American goods and services to U.S. markets. If these countries are to develop, they need to be able to sell their goods, and we are the logical market. The frequently anti-free trade approach of many in the Democratic Party is counterproductive in this case.

And finally,

Don’t label every red state change in voting procedures as “voting suppression

I find the new Georgia prohibition on providing food or water to people standing on-line to vote execrable, but at least some of the new “restrictions (in, for example, Georgia and Pennsylvania) are simply a return to pre-COVID procedures (Georgia did not have drop boxes pre-COVID; Georgia, Pennsylvania and other states dramatically expanded access to vote-by-mail and early in-person voting during the pandemic. In similar fashion, a recent Washington Post article noted that many requests for absentee ballots were being rejected in Texas under a “restrictive new law.” But the rejections were because applications failed to include required voter ID information — either from a state-issued ID (like a driver’s license) or the last four digits of their Social Security #.

I am pretty sure I am not the only Democrat (in fact, I know I am not even the only Democrat in my own family!) who thinks that sort of requirement should not be a problem — OR who thinks that allowing someone to vote simply by showing a utility bill that has a name and address that matches with a registered voter (the case in many blue states) conversely is rather troubling. And what is even more troubling to me is the fact that there are a significant number of Americans out there who DON’T have a photo ID, something that is critical for so many other things in our society. Why can’t Democrats say “hey, we’re in favor of a secure voting system too”?

· What to do instead:

o When you register new voters, ask if they have a state-issued photo ID; if not, offer to help then get one. Do the same thing when canvassing.

o In the same situations, explain when voting procedures have changed. (Give people a stamp if they need one!).

o Offer to provide refreshment stations for local election officials to set up at voting locations in Georgia or anywhere else such restrictions are instituted. And if they refuse, make sure every voter in the country hears about it.



Jim Martin is a retired diplomat and foreign policy professional who has worked on three continents and traveled to over 70 countries

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James Christopher Martin

Jim Martin is a retired diplomat and foreign policy professional who has worked on three continents and traveled to over 70 countries