FEB. 14, 2017 — The reason American politics is so unsettled right now goes well beyond Donald Trump. It also involves the state of the major parties.
Although the new president’s administration is like none other in living memory and has yet to find its footing in public approval ratings, the White House is justified in doubting that either established Republicans or established Democrats can soon seize the upper hand.
The GOP has a head start on adjusting to the new reality. To recover their own footing, Democrats must catch up.
A new caucus among House Democrats offers a chance to do that. Pennsylvania Rep. Brendan Boyle and Texas Rep. Marc Veasey have pulled together an update to the bygone alliance of moderate “Blue Dogs” — a Blue Collar Caucus that boasts 26 members and counting.
“Boyle says people laughed at him when he made a big deal out of an Oreo plant in his district moving jobs to Mexico,” Politico reported. “Then a few months later, an even bigger Oreo plant closed outside Chicago.” Who promptly turned the issue to political advantage? Trump.
Boyle and Veasey hope to keep the pressure on Republicans who aren’t comfortable with Trump’s agenda and style. But they recognize that the discontent and sense of betrayal Trump tapped into is hardly confined to the right of center. These two dynamics aren’t unrelated. Popular disapproval with bipartisan business as usual has caused GOP lawmakers to fear crossing Trump — and caused Democrats to struggle in a two-front war against Trump on the one hand and their own insurgency on the other.
Although demonizing Trump can mobilize some of the base, another chunk is more concerned that minority-mobilizing identity politics is flawed on principle and a failure of a strategy.
The clear path out of that predicament is for Democrats to abandon the progressive vanguard model of party leadership and shift toward a more diverse one, where different constituencies, including working-class Americans, can look for options. It may take some effort to let go of the Clintonesque idea that mainstream voters will ultimately embrace a message of being “Stronger Together,” but the sooner Democrats stop papering over their internal disagreements with enforced enthusiasm, the better.
That doesn’t mean they can regain public confidence with an agonizing reappraisal of what it means to be a Democrat. Although their party has faded in most parts of the country at the state level and below, nationally most Americans now share a general cultural view that isn’t hostile to big-tent Democratic politics. Ironically, Trump’s election helped prove that.
Although pro-life politics has grown more popular over time, most formerly hot-button social issues are now relatively settled in Democrats’ favor. To be sure, fringe activists have pushed too far and too fast on culture war controversies, but liberals make a mistake if they think the clock will wind back to 1950 if and when their radical vanguard is benched.
Still, even a thoughtful and overdue turn toward addressing the concerns of patriotic working Americans could come up short. Democrats quick to dare Trump to produce successful policies will get a taste of their own medicine. Americans need more than larger entitlements. They’ll soon see if Democrats can deliver.