The Working-Class Kid from Scranton
Democrats are relieved and delighted that Biden is almost certain to win: beating Donald Trump was considered by many of us to be among the most important accomplishments of our lives. But there are also lots of questions on why it has been so close, and why we didn’t win back the Senate.
In the weeks to come, there will be a lot of us, myself included, who will be chewing over questions such as, is the polling industry truly broken? (Seems likely.) What could have the Biden campaign done better on its Latino strategy? Was it a good decision by the Biden team to forego door knocking until the very end of the campaign? Should Biden have hit the campaign trail more often? And what the hell happened to the much hyped Lincoln Project-led strategy of winning over more Republicans? There will also be the inevitable analysis by Democrats from various segments of the party suggesting that (a) the Biden campaign, the DSCC, and DCCC were all run perfectly and everyone should just STFU about it, (b) if only Biden had run more to the center he would have picked up all those extra centrist votes, and (c) if Biden had made more gestures to the young progressives and people of color out in the streets, he would have done better.
I have my early takes on all those topics, but before we get into all those debates, I want to encourage everyone to breathe deeply, and in the immortal line from “Desperately Seeking Susan,” "take a valium like a normal person." Wait for the actual data to come in. There is always such a rush to judgment after an election, but exit polls tend to be a pile of crap, and what actually happened in a race like this is way more nuanced and complicated than most partisans with an axe to grind want to admit.
Why was it so tough to beat Trump and his loyal minions?
So instead of weighing in IMMEDIATELY like I really want to, instead, today I am going to focus on a couple of closely related topics that I think are profoundly important to the future of our country and the Democratic Party. First, why is it that the Democratic Party has had such trouble, in two presidential elections in a row, dispatching the creepiest man in the world and his band of sycophants to the trashcan of history where he so desperately deserves to go? And second, given the current lay of the political land, how do we make Joe Biden’s first two years the kind of political success we need it to be to win big in 2022?
On the first of those: we can thank our lucky stars that we have beaten this man. And thank not just our luck, but even more so, all the hard work done by millions of people around the country from the top of the campaign, to all those independent progressive efforts out there by hundreds of national, state, and local groups, to the millions of activists who made calls and texts, wrote postcards, knocked on doors, and had conversations with their friends and family about getting out to vote. Thank goodness for all of you, because we needed everyone to pitch in to pull this off. The Democratic Party and progressive movement were united in our efforts to end this terrible man’s terrible presidency, and we can all look back on this effort the rest of our lives and say, “I was part of one of the most important political efforts in history.” Makes me proud.
But we also have to look at the closer-than-expected results, and the fact that the rest of the Republican Party paid no price for backing Trump’s bullshit these last four years. We need to squarely face the fact that in spite of the horrendous job he did on managing the coronavirus; in spite of his overt racism and sexism and all-around narcissistic insanity; in spite of his out-in-the-open corruption and links to foreign dictators; in spite of his leaked tax returns, attack on health care, denial and exacerbation of climate change, in spite of all his rottenness and all our great efforts; we almost lost to this guy again. We should be happy and proud that we won, but that fact should also shake our party to its core and cause us to take a genuine reassessment of our standing in this country.
I don’t have all the answers for sure. Part of it, as I said above, needs to wait until we really have a chance to look at the data. But this goes beyond data to something deeper and more profound: why is our country so dysfunctional that more than 68,000,000 and counting voted for this abject failure? I think the party needs to look closely at two big things. First, how do we penetrate the media bubble that the right wing propagandists have built up? In small towns and blue collar neighborhoods around the country, how do we get heard, how do we get listened to, how does our message penetrate? We need answers and I suspect it is not running another billion dollars of “Trump is an asshole and we are the nice people” TV ads.
Second, we really do need to take an honest look at ourselves: why do we have so much trouble relating to working-class people? And not just white working-class folks, by the way, although of course that is where our biggest problem continues to be. But we lost more young African-American men and Latinos than we have in a long time. Are we too obsessed with well-to-do people in the suburbs? Are we too worried about what big donors think, softening our message enough, so that working-class folks don’t believe we are really going to fight for them?
Do those working-class folks in the exurbs and small-town America who feel forgotten by their government think that “well, Trump may have a lot of faults, but at least he stands up to the establishment in DC and fights for me?” Have those people out in middle America decided that all politicians are corrupt and on the take, but at least Trump flips the elites the bird enough to shake things up?
And yes, absolutely, race has a whole to do with Trump’s appeal: the politics of resentment is still powerful in a dysfunctional system.We need to figure out how to reach across racial lines and build a truly multicultural, multi-racial movement that can effectively challenge Trumpian race baiting.
Again, I’m not claiming I have all the answers, but until we as a party do some deep self-examination, we are going to keep losing elections we should have won and barely escaping when we should have blown them away. Too often, when parties win the presidency, the leaders of those parties proclaim themselves geniuses, and the people who want something from the new administration suck up to those in power rather than asking questions. But I am convinced that in order to survive and thrive in the future, Democrats need to break that usual pattern and do some soul searching right now.
What does all this mean for a Biden administration?
The last two times a Democrat won the presidency, we lost the next midterm by a crushing margin and -- even after winning re-election -- spent the rest of that presidency in the minority in Congress. We can’t afford to repeat that pattern, especially with McConnell probably still in charge of the Senate.
Democrats need to learn one important lesson from Donald Trump: how to be an outsider while still being the president of the United States.
Many will say that is impossible for the ultimate DC insider, Joe Biden. But what Biden needs to do is to resist the temptation to be the insider, establishment president, and embrace instead his working-class roots as that kid from Scranton whose beloved dad lost his job. The campaign’s best message had the theme of Scranton economics vs Park Avenue economics, and that is what we need from Biden over the next two years.
The economy is going to be in serious trouble and McConnell, except for the occasional business bailout, is going to resist any efforts to rebuild it -- both because he doesn’t want Biden to get the political credit for an improving economy, and because of his and his caucus’ right-wing economic policy views. What Biden and our party must do is to lead a campaign to make McConnell the poster child for nothing getting done. Rather than repeating the insider-oriented playbook from 1993-4 and 2009-10 that led Democrats to political disaster, we need to repeat the playbook from 1996 and 1998, where we made Newt Gingrich, with his right-wing policies and all-around arrogance, the poster child for everything that was wrong with the Republican Party. For those of you who don’t remember, we in the Clinton campaign spent far more time in the 1996 cycle attacking Gingrich than attacking our actual opponent Bob Dole, and it worked. It worked again in 1998, where in spite of the Lewinsky scandal, the president’s party picked up seats in Congress for the first time since 1962 and only the second time in the last 90 years.
We are going to need that kind of campaign, because if McConnell remains in charge of the Senate, DC is going to look like a pretty dysfunctional place with nothing much happening to rescue everyday Americans from a sour economy.
We must make Scranton economics vs Park Avenue economics our theme. New jobs with an infrastructure package focused on roads and bridges and schools and green jobs, taxes on the super wealthy, as Biden’s ads talked about. Taking on Big Tech, Big Pharma, the insurance industry, Wall Street, and the billionaire monopolists who get richer and richer at the expense of the little guys and the real economy.
We need to make 100% clear who we as Democrats are fighting for: those working families from Scranton and Flint and Houston and Atlanta who are fighting to survive in this screwed up economy. If Joe Biden channels those families’ anger at dysfunctional DC, we can win a strong victory in 2022, and again in 2024, and finally, finally start to change this country for the better.