It appears that Democrats are lining up to make the same mistakes next year that cost them dearly in 2016. With the party’s decision to force out Rep. John Conyers and Sen. Al Franken over sexual harassment allegations, it is increasingly evident that party leaders hope to capitalize on the issue of women’s status in the workplace in general, and sexual harassment, in particular, as the latest social wedge issue in their quest to convert moderate-to-conservative suburban women into the ranks of the Democratic base.
It’s a fool’s errand, but it’s become the Holy Grail for the feckless Clinton wing of the party, which prefers narrow-casting to small sub-groups of voters, mostly on social and racial issues, over the traditional economic message of Democrats. As usual, the Clinton Democrats are misreading the political moment, mistaking elite opinion in the coastal media and political establishment as reflective of the views of average Americans. I’m not suggesting that many average Americans aren’t concerned about sexual harassment in the workplace, and that a national discussion on the issue isn’t warranted. But in the immortal words of former Bill Clinton campaign advisor James Carville, “It’s the economy, stupid.”
Democrats understood that in the 1930s, and in the 1960s, and they recognized it as the winning issue in 1992, and 2008, and they’ve done well as a party when they focused on the failed plutocratic economic policies of the Republican Party. But ever since Bill Clinton, and to a lesser extent Barack Obama, reversed course, after running as economic populists, and governed as Rockefeller Republicans, the Democrats have largely lost their voice on the economy, and they’ve paid the price. Donald Trump may have won the votes of racists and sexists, but he won the election because he made inroads into the traditional Democratic base, particularly in the Rust Belt. He did so because he ran on traditional Democratic economic policies, such as skepticism of the current “free” trade regime, a major push for expanded infrastructure spending, faster economic growth rates, opposition to an economic elite (Drain the swamp!), and higher taxes on the wealthy. Sure he lied about all of that, but so did Clinton in 1992.
Bernie Sanders tried to right the Democratic ship in 2016, by refocusing on the bread and butter economic issues that had served both the party and country well for decades.
Sanders was simply touting the Democrats’ old time religion, but he lit a fire under younger voters who had never heard a Democrat talk like that before.
Rather than recognizing the potential, the Clintonistas and their media allies dismissed the Sanders uprising, casting Sanders and his enthusiastic supporters as the enemy for wanting to reclaim the party’s traditional economic message and dismissing any suggestion that Democrats try to refocus their policies to reclaim rural or traditional white, working class voters.
Instead, Democrats are planning to talk about sexual harassment. Republicans are already licking their chops, knowing full well that it’s an issue with little resonance in much of middle America. And as the resignations of Franken and Conyers makes clear, it’s an issue more likely to wound Democrats than Republicans, since most GOP voters either don’t care or simply choose to believe that any allegations against their own party’s politicians are part of a media conspiracy.
You would think that the election of Donald Trump, less than a month after the Access Hollywood tape hit the airwaves, and after more than a dozen women came forward with credible accounts of actual improprieties, would have convinced Democrats that you can’t beat a Republican over sexual harassment violations, no matter how appalling. Tuesday’s defeat of Roy Moore would suggest that child molestation is a bit too much for some Republicans, but it’s fair to assume that Democrats won’t be facing many more candidates as damaged as Moore.
Sexual harassment is a very real social issue, but it doesn’t lend itself to a political wedge, particularly when Americans across the political aisles and in various parts of the country view the issue so differently. If Democrats are going to continue to take a zero tolerance approach, while Republicans are happy to ignore or dismiss the most egregious behavior, we can expect to see more Democrats forced from office, while Republicans face little or no consequence whatsoever.
If Democrats want to start winning again, they should take a lesson from the GOP, and run on “Repeal and Replace” of the disastrous tax bill that the Republicans appear poised to approve later this month. The bill, which takes money from average Americans and funnels it to the top, is already far more unpopular than the Affordable Care Act ever was, and Republicans flogged that issue for votes for four straight election cycles. Democrats, unlike the GOP, should then follow through by actually scrapping the disastrous tax bill.
Rather than tailoring a message to conservative, suburban housewives in hopes of garnering narrow electoral victories, Democrats should be focused on bringing real majorities together behind an economic message focused on expanded opportunity for the middle and working classes, real support (rather than lip service) for unions, seriously addressing income inequality, and protecting the public from the predatory impulses (think Frontier) of so much of corporate America today.
The biggest threat to the Democrats isn’t Republican voters, it’s that more and more of the Democratic base is too disillusioned with their own party to get out and vote. Until party leaders are willing to engage the 50 percent of the electorate that no longer shows up at the polls, they’ll continue to suffer at the ballot box— and justifiably so.
Reclaiming their voice and their principles on the economy, wealth and power inequality, and expanded opportunity for everyone, would be the best thing Democrats could do to advance their electoral prospects. More importantly, it’s the best thing the party could do for the country.