I Asked Some Washington Folks: Who Does the Future of the Democratic Party Look Like?
“We have not developed a bench of talent over the last eight years, or we haven’t spent enough time developing that bench of talent.” — Stephanie Cutter, Deputy Campaign Manager for the 2012 Obama campaign.
The party that controls the White House usually loses congressional seats in midterm elections, though that looks unlikely to happen in 2018. A potential portent of this occurred last night when a so-called Trump-Slayer, 30-year-old wunderkind Jon Ossoff, failed to win a majority that would’ve secured a flip in a district that’s voted Republican since the 1970s. This while Dem heavyweights outside the state poured $8 million into the political novice’s campaign.
While he still has a chance to win in the run-off, the way the demographics of Georgia’s District 6 break down makes that look unlikely. More importantly, what most articles about Ossoff don’t mention is that said demographics have drastically shifted since the 1970s. Today, it’s constituents are almost 40% minority.
While all minorities don’t vote Dem, the fact remains that this is not a red district anymore. It’s an Atlanta suburb that should be easily winnable by Dems in this day and age. That is, if they could convince independents to vote for them. Clearly, they‘re having some trouble with that.
Things are looking just as grim in the Senate. Democrats must defend 25 senate seats, Republicans only eight. Of those, only Nevada and Arizona (and maybe Texas) are in the realm of possibility for Dem usurpation. On the other side, Dems must defend their territory in five states that Trump won by double digits, as well as six freshly Trumpian states like Ohio, Pennsylvania, and Michigan. It’s clear that the wave of Western anti-globalist populism that Trump surfed to victory is washing away everything the Dems thought they knew about electability.
So what’s the solution? Here the discussion normally turns to developing some sort of “road map for success,” which inevitably boils down, first and foremost, to sorting out tensions between two opposing forces inside the Democratic Party: “progressive” versus “establishment,” Bernie Bros versus Vagina Hats, Perez versus Ellison, Ridaz versus Punks. These tensions in turn boil down to whether the party needs to change the platform — shift it left according to Bernians/Warrenians — or simply change tactics, like, I dunno, maybe visit Wisconsin next time around. I would postulate, however, that this battle is less important than Dems think it is. The direction of the party will not be think-tanked into existence. No highly detailed road map will lead them to success. The Dems will be sorted out by whoever rises to become their new leader, and this time that person will be determined by voters, not the dysfunctional party itself.
That there’s no clear answer to “which practical Dem candidate can win?” should be disturbing for Dems. Recognizing this, Obama outlined a short list of potential protégés in his final podcast interview as president. On that list were U.S. Junior Senator from California Kamala Harris, Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti, New Orleans Mayor Mitch Landrieu, Atlanta Mayor Kasim Reed, and Missouri up-and-comer Jason Kander.
While all these candidates have potential, none stand out as the one because none have, on their own, appealed to voters in the sort of impassioned Trump/Bernie way that they’d need to win. What Trump was for the Republicans, an actual leader, not someone blessed by the establishment and packaged to be digestible for voters (cough cough Clinton), seems to be missing on the left outside of Bernie. (Of course, it’s increasingly appearing that most of the things Trump took leadership stances on—infrastructure, apolitical language, Mexico-funded wall, isolationism—were total B.S. Nonetheless, they were leadership stances at the time). Unfortunately, Bernie is just too old and Larry David-like to be the president. It has to be someone like Bernie, but not actually Bernie.
So what sort of characteristics will this candidate need to have in order to solidify him/herself as the future of the Democratic party, to appeal not to the puppet masters, but to the puppets? Do we need an Obama 2.0 or Reverse Trump? Would an American Justin Trudeau work? What if you transplanted a human heart into Paul Ryan? Does it really have to not be a straight white man?
To answer these questions, we talked to three experts in the field: Alessandra Biaggi, Deputy National Operations Director for Clinton’s 2016 campaign, Josh Burstein, Director of Digital Strategy for the Department of Labor under Obama, and self-proclaimed Washington “Fixer” Michael Hardaway. They all refused to name names (which I would allege is also slightly worrying in its own right), so I asked them three practical questions about the characteristics of a new leader. What do they look like? What do they sound like? What drives them?
What Do They Look Like?
“I honestly don’t think a woman is going to be the candidate in 2020,” says Biaggi. “Don’t get me wrong, I think a successful businesswoman would be great, but I just don’t think it’s going to happen. I think the first woman will be on the Republican side.”
This is not the first time I’ve heard this from a prominent woman in politics. Hillary’s defeat was just too traumatic. In the short term, anything resembling her campaign is likely to cause unbearable post-traumatic stress. But that leaves an important question: in the age of the triggered SJW, is it even possible for the leader to be white male without a substantial chunk of the party protesting him off the stage?
“In terms of genetic makeups, I hope that there’s a woman. I hope there’s a trans Muslim!” says Burstein. “However, I think white straight man still plays well, unfortunately.”
“Don’t get me wrong, I think a successful businesswoman would be great, but I just don’t think it’s going to happen. I think the first woman will be on the Republican side.”
On the reverse side of the coin, have the Dems become inclusive enough to accommodate a non-Christian? A number of the candidates in the conversation — Kander, Bloomberg, and of course Bernie — are Jewish.
“I think absolutely,” says Biaggi, “When JFK ran for president, people went insane because he was Catholic. I think we’ve evolved from that point.”
The overall bottom line from our sources is that the candidate doesn’t have to be any one identity. “Diversity is not an issue,” says Biaggi. This marks a subtle shift, perhaps a lesson learned from the Clinton campaign in which gender and ethnic identity were at the core of every conversation. Now, there’s a recognition that Dems are free to be diverse, but it need not define them.
Biaggi: “HRC was overly inclusive, as many factions as possible represented, but a lot of those factions ultimately broke off and put themselves in silos. I think post-election we’re seeing people coming together to support each other’s issues, as we saw with the Immigration Ban Protests and Women’s March. Now it’s more like, I’m a woman, but I’m also going to go to the Black Lives Matter march and other marches. I think whoever the candidate is going to break walls down, not put them up.”
In other words, it’s likely that the ethnic and gender identity of the Trump-beater will be irrelevant, and that’s more of a shift from the Dem status quo than you might think.
What Do They Sound Like?
The Trump and Bernie phenomena proved one archetype of a successful candidate in our troubled, establishment-hating times: the authentic outsider. Someone who understands social media, uses it to communicate directly with voters in a way that seems unrehearsed, and is not afraid to stand out on party-defying limbs.
“Millennial candidates aren’t as clandestine as the others,” says Biaggi. “Bernie is a good example of this, even though he’s not a Millennial.”
“To reach people nowadays you have to pierce a Breitbart newsfeed or else you’re preaching to the choir,” affirms Burstein. “Ultimately Dems need to serve the whole big tent,”
Thus, someone who knows how to employ cutting populist slogans is probably mandatory, and probably leaves out the Kamala Harrises, the Eric Garcetti’s and the Mitch Landrieus (I lived in New Orleans under Landrieu and live in Los Angeles under Garcetti and Harris, and to call them bland is an understatement). Both Trump and Bernie, for example, effectively weaponized the fiery slogan “the system is rigged.” Slogans like this would’ve been considered far too controversial and negative in pre-Trump politics, where people-pleasing candidates with huge staffs of message-testing Ivy Leaguers eschewed the power of intuition and celebrated the power of data.
“Hillary’s platform was the old playbook, which was part of the reason why we lost,” says Biaggi. “And by the time we realized, it was too late to move the mountain.”
This is not to say, however, that some Washington insiders don’t still believe in the “old formula.” Obama’s pragmatic centrist approach is far from off the table.
“President Obama created the blueprint for the Democratic leader of the future,” says Hardaway. “Barack’s ascent should be credited to his refusal to allow partisan ideology to interfere with good solutions. Barack has core beliefs, but he wasn’t an ideologue. That’s what Democrats need.”
The belief in this sort of Democrat isn’t going to die, and really, should it? As we are reminded constantly, Clinton won the popular vote and lost the electoral college by a narrow margin. Is it really time to scrap the whole playbook? Perhaps not.
“There was something missing, something that people didn’t connect with that I think a business leader has.”
It is undeniable, however, that Hillary was grievously harmed by voters’ perception of her as an elitist. By choosing her, the Dems somehow lost their connection to the “common person.” If Trump showed us anything, it’s that common people are yearning for someone who understands the business world, but is not controlled by it. Thus, a perfect sort of political outsider, in both Biaggi and Burstein’s opinion, is a businessperson. More specifically someone tech-y, with a cooler vibe than Trump, but with the same proven ability to build vast networks of profit and manage people in the cutthroat corporate environs.
“Successful in what he’s done, ethical, but with minimal character flaws. A leader in his community as well as the world,” says Biaggi. “A lot of people felt very disconnected from the Clinton campaign, and I don’t think it’s gonna be Harris or Gillebrand for the same reason. I think that the strongest candidate is going to be who plays to Trump’s weaknesses. There was something missing, something that people didn’t connect with that I think a business leader has.”
Someone like this will also solve, in part, what Biaggi perceives to be issues with efficiency and accessibility in the current DNC.
“DNC feels very slow progressing. It took them three-and-a-half months to get the election going. We don’t have time to waste. We are in a crisis, and the party needs to be led,” says Biaggi. “People who work in tech and digital communities with great platforms have offered their services, but the DNC is lagging in response. You don’t want entropy, when there’s all this interest and it disappears because of lag. You have to be open to change and take risks. And be willing to turn away what’s been done in the past, for the sake of progress.”
What Drives Them?
So, in terms of their rhetoric, the next Dem leader is likely to be someone who knows how to both talk the talk and walk the walk of Silicon Valley. But they can’t be Mark Zuckerberg, because, well, no one likes Mark Zuckerberg. They need something else — to have been shaken out of their capitalist stupor by a need to do good.
“Someone not just with business success, but with management success,” says Burstein. “And, in terms of decisions, have they made decisions that are hard? Or did they always take a route that seemed most convenient?”
The authentic outsider is driven by a genuine urge to change things, to leave the comfort of their successful career and join the political fray.
“Characteristically, these are people who have been comfortable, but have been jolted out of that comfort,” says Burstein. “The people who realize they weren’t doing enough.” He dubs them the “freshly pissed.”
“As democrats and as progressives, comfort means you can go a little more extreme into ideology instead of reality.”
Someone drawn from the “freshly pissed” satisfies another pressing need: combatting “snowflake” syndrome. Somehow, Republicans have managed to hijack the narrative that liberals are the party of the working man (which, historically, they very clearly are) and paint them as silly ideologues who have no idea what real life is like. This is absolutely lethal when trying to appeal to voters who are suffering economically.
“As democrats and as progressives, comfort means you can go a little more extreme into ideology instead of reality,” says Burstein. To fight this, he believes that a new class of outsider-leaders will emerge not from traditional political incubators, but from the electorate. Those that are more closely connected with reality outside of Washington.
In this sense, an Obama-style pragmatist could still very much be in the picture.
“He never let partisan traditions get in the way of the best solution. He wanted the most effective answer to every problem — irrespective of whom it belonged to,” says Hardaway, who is clearly committed to the idea of Obama 2.0. “The next leader of the Democratic Party must also embody those qualities.”
However, Obama rose to power during a time when the economy was still decent enough to justify making identity issues front-and-center, while being free to creep right on fiscal issues.
As Hardaway explains, “Barack was a clear-eyed moderate with core beliefs that are traditionally liberal—equal rights for women and people of color, increased funding for education, protection of programs that uplift the poor—but he was also a reasonable policymaker who put forth policies that are traditionally conservative, Trans Pacific Partnership, significant deficit reduction, reluctance to interfere unilaterally in the affairs of other nations.”
The mass-acceptance of this sort of globalist approach is dying rapidly, and I don’t think we’d have President Trump if that had been acknowledged earlier on by the DNC. Thus, while Obama may have been driven in large part by breaking race-and-gender barriers and by helping Americans at the very bottom of the socioeconomic food chain, it’s likely that, in our current context, the motivating drive of the new candidate will not be social justice for the disenfranchised as much as economic justice for the commoner. At least it will be if they want to win.
“I’m a believer that people vote with their pocketbooks. When you talk to people from an economic standpoint, you unify everyone,” says Biaggi. The candidate’s central narrative should thus connect directly to money, as it did with both Trump and Bernie. Bernie Sanders is, after all, the most popular Senator in the United States.
“You can say you want to unify identities, but you should focus on how to make people’s lives better. How do you do that? Focus on money. There was too much focus on the factions. No one wants to feel like they’re on the outside.” says Biaggi.
In sum, it’s likely that any future Trump-beater is going to be an authentically outspoken, economically-driven political outsider with a strong understanding of business and particularly tech. They will have been shocked out their successful and comfortable career in a non-political field (again, probably tech) by an inability to ignore injustice any longer. They might be a white male, they might not, though whatever they’re identity it won’t be central to their narrative. This could of course describe a Dem version of Trump, or it could describe his antithesis.