As things stand, Democrats don’t have a prayer of retaking the White House in 2020. Unless they make a sharp course correction, they will continue to be defeated by the Electoral College, the bane of coastal elites. Voters in pesky swing states like Ohio and Pennsylvania will rule, and they aren’t buying what Democrats are selling.
A recent piece by Frank Rich in New York Magazine is instructive. He wonders how long Donald Trump will survive in office. Margaret Sullivan, The Washington Post’s media columnist, formerly of The New York Times, predicts that Trump will make it through his first term but then decide not to run again. (This is not entirely implausible; who would choose four more years of relentless left-wing demonization?) Mike Pence, Sullivan suggests, will run for the Oval Office instead, but will be beaten by Kirsten Gillibrand.
Seriously, Kirsten Gillibrand? The junior senator from New York, ranked 5th most liberal member of that august body and 6th least bipartisan? She’s the candidate who will win back all those blue-collar workers who traditionally vote Democrat but who crossed the line to elect President Trump? I get it that Sullivan is a displaced New Yorker, and perhaps doesn’t stray much beyond the Beltway, but her forecast is as delusional as expecting $100 billion to buy Iran’s friendship.
The reality is this: Trump supporters still support Trump. That includes members of the white working class who voted for Trump by a margin of two to one. They are certainly not dissuaded by the liberal media, whose bias has utterly undermined its credibility. That’s a change; were Walter Cronkite shaking his sorrowful head and telling voters that Trump had colluded with Putin, they might be paying attention. But Chuck Todd? Bill Maher? I don’t think so.
Democrats need a tune-up. They need to change leadership and change their message. After failing to hoist one female New Yorker into the Oval Office, the last thing they need is to double down with another.
Not that Gillibrand isn’t eagerly positioning herself for that opportunity. According to a GovTrack.us 2016 report, she has been a busy bee in the Senate, trying to raise her visibility. Gillibrand cosponsored 457 bills last year, the second-highest of any member. To her credit, she ranks high on showing up and voting.
But simply showing up doesn’t account for much; her impact has been underwhelming. She introduced three bills last year that became law; all three resulted in the renaming of post offices in New York State.
Gillibrand’s more noteworthy causes include leading the charge to overturn the military’s “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” policy and more generally embracing women’s and gender issues. Those positions are one reason that Gillibrand's stock has risen; some 58 percent of Democrat primary voters in 2016 were women, and they will probably turn out again for a female candidate.
But embracing women’s causes won’t be enough to win the White House. If it were, Hillary would be in the Oval Office. Democrats need to broaden their appeal to the white middle class, and to men.
A recent poll by Public Religion Research Institute contains the not-so-stunning revelation that those lost Democrat voters were not driven by economic anxiety, as the talking heads on CNN have so patiently explained. Rather, many, especially in the Midwest, felt culturally alienated.
They are not transgenders or minorities or illegal immigrants, but rather white working-class Americans who constitute one-third of the country – far more than the 22 percent of whites who have earned a college degree. They are the blue-collar men and women who pay their taxes, get married and have children, go to church and rarely watch the Sunday political shows. In all their clever slicing and dicing of the population in the past few election cycles, Democrats have not shown much interest in those folks, and they resent it.
They resent what they perceive as discrimination against whites, which they think is as problematic as discrimination against blacks. They resent that a growing number of immigrants threaten the American way of life. They resent that the country is on the wrong track, and think it can only be put back together if a strong leader is willing to shake things up.
Enter Donald Trump.
How can Democrats address these concerns? First, by selecting a candidate in 2020 who might appeal to this group. Someone from a working-class background, who is sympathetic to their interests. A candidate who can take a middle road, balancing concerns about law and order with the need to reduce our prison population and ensure racial fairness by police officers. A Democrat who will embrace the reasonableness of secure borders, while also advocating for compassionate treatment of immigrants. A person who will work with businesses to create jobs, while demanding fair treatment of workers.
Related: Trump Will Allow Young Immigrants to Stay: Here’s a Rundown on DACA
These are centrist policies and issues – the kinds of positions that a chastened Bill Clinton adopted when rebuked by midterm losses. They are not the kinds of positions that Democrats today, hunkered down as they are in resistance mode, dare talk about. Many are concerned that they will be toppled by challengers on the Left -- in some districts, that will be a real threat. But with today’s playbook, they do not have a path to the White House, which invariably travels through states like Wisconsin and Michigan.
A recent piece in The New York Times noted that there is a large field of potential Democratic candidates gearing up for 2020; as many as one-quarter of the Democratic caucus in the Senate, along with various mayors and governors, are eyeing a bid. Most are self-described progressives in the mold of Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren. And then there is Joe Biden, who seems wistful about returning to the White House.
The big crowd is convinced that Donald Trump will be out after one term. They’re sure his low approval ratings will stick, and that his brand has become toxic. As focused as they are on Trump’s missteps, they have not yet revealed any understanding of why he won critical states like Pennsylvania and Ohio in November, or how they might defeat him next time round.
Here’s a safe prediction: it won’t be with Kirsten Gillibrand.