By Frank Bruni | The New York Times News Service
In one of many recent forums for the politicians vying to lead the Democratic National Committee—and, ideally, the party—out of the wilderness and into better times, the candidates were asked to distill the importance of fighting Donald Trump to 10 words or less.
I heard clichés: “Power to the people.” I heard fancy words: “Anathema.”
I heard answers over 15 and 20 and even 25 words.
Only one of the seven candidates onstage at this particular event—which took place in Washington just two days before Trump’s inauguration—came in under the limit, with a reply that was more upbeat than downbeat and more assertive than reactive.
“Freedom, fairness, families, future,” said Pete Buttigieg, mayor of South Bend, Indiana, using four words. “I got six left?”
He did. And the party has problems, underscored by its general inability to be as succinct and blunt as Trump is. Even Buttigieg’s alliterative bouquet of nouns lacked the muscle of “Make America great again,” a darkly coded, dopily elementary slogan that nonetheless did the trick.
Have Democrats learned and implemented all the right lessons from Trump’s victory and from the party’s brutal fade during Barack Obama’s presidency? As the race for the DNC chairmanship lurches toward its conclusion later this month and as Democratic lawmakers sweat the smartest strategy against Trump, I wonder. I worry.
The good news is that there’s an outrage among Democrats that’s commensurate with the outrageousness of Trump’s behavior. You saw this at the Women’s March. You see it in the way that protesters storm the town-hall meetings that Republican lawmakers hold in their home districts.
You see it in the unprecedented volume of “no” votes against Trump’s Cabinet nominees by Democratic senators, whose opposition reflects a flood of impassioned appeals from constituents. You see it in Elizabeth Warren, who is taking full-throated advantage of the gift that Mitch McConnell handed her last week.
But the bad news—or, rather, the danger—is that this doesn’t automatically translate into successful opposition. It’s no guarantee that Trump will be contained and, after four years at most, forced to live out the balance of his fuming, fibbing days in the lavishly marbled cloisters of Trump Tower and Mar-a-Lago.
Yelling has an impact, but it takes you only so far if you don’t choose your battles, marshal your fiercest energy for ones that can yield concrete results, and buckle down to the nitty-gritty of electing legislators who can actually vote against Trump’s worst initiatives in numbers that exceed those of his abettors.
Betsy DeVos has been confirmed, heaven help us; I’m not sure what good protesters did by blocking her entry into a Washington public school on Friday. It was cathartic, theatrical and less important than blocking any unwise legislation hatched at her bidding. Save the fire for that.
Practicality is crucial. Proportionality, too. When you treat every last tweet of Trump’s as if it’s the botched operation in Yemen, voters lose sight of the botched operation in Yemen.
Trump provokes ire by the minute, but the response needs to be fashioned by the day or even week, lest everything blur. Resistance is a dish best served with discernment. Too much salt and you can’t taste the food itself.
That’s the trap with Trump, and Democrats fell into it during the presidential election, either not realizing how thoroughly he became the reference point for every conversation or not figuring out a way to mitigate that. Opposition to him crowded out support for anything else. Every negative moment came at the expense of a positive one.
“The Democratic National Committee and Hillary Clinton pretty much communicated what was bad about Trump but failed to communicate what was great about Hillary Clinton and the Democratic Party,” said Sally Boynton Brown, executive director of the Democratic Party in Idaho. She, too, is running for the top job at the DNC, and we spoke in late January in Houston, the site of another of the candidate forums.
I also caught up there with former Labor Secretary Tom Perez, one of her rivals for the post. “What voters heard from Clinton,” he told me, “was not ‘I feel your pain’ but ‘Vote for me because he’s crazy,’ and that’s not a message.”
By the time of the Houston event, the field of contenders for the DNC chairmanship was up to 10. I sat down with more than half of them, and noticed a contradiction between their rightful worry about focusing too much on Trump and their continued focus on…Trump.
That dynamic was reflected in a recent poll showing that while 41 percent of Democrats were unfamiliar with their party’s Senate leader, Chuck Schumer, only 29 percent were unfamiliar with Trump’s apocalyptic guru, Steve Bannon. Democrats at all levels are clearer on their enemies than on their agenda.
And they’re constantly swerving from vision to process: It’s a tic they can’t control. In Houston I was told that the party needed a more transparent presidential nominating system. And better voter-registration drives. And increased coordination between the DNC, the DCCC and the DSCC. I supped on an alphabet soup.
“We didn’t make house calls,” said Perez.
“We abandoned the 50-state strategy,” said Keith Ellison, a Minnesota congressman also running for the chairmanship.
All of that’s true. But none of it gets at larger challenges that were much less frequently mentioned, if at all: the necessity of grooming and rallying behind candidates who can forge an emotional connection with voters and are in sync with the moment; the imperative of studying the map, identifying every Senate and House seat that could possibly swing to Democrats in 2018 and playing a ruthlessly pragmatic game of chess; the articulation of a down-to-earth, visceral message that resonates with as many voters as possible. “I’m with her” didn’t cut it.
Another of the DNC candidates, Raymond Buckley, chairman of the Democratic Party in New Hampshire, acknowledged to me, “Sometimes we try to impress ourselves too much by talking about issues that are overly complex when the populace really wants you to boil it down to a much more simplistic message.”
What might that message be? “Hope and opportunity,” he said. That’s Obama’s old mantra, with “change” swapped out for a word with more syllables.
And what about change? Voters in 2016 made clear their hunger for it, and then the top three Democrats in the House—Nancy Pelosi, 76, Steny Hoyer, 77, and James Clyburn, 76—stayed put in their positions.
Three weeks after the election, I happened to attend a meeting of Democratic up-and-comers from around the country in Washington. Hoyer addressed them, using his remarks to wander through a dense fog of economic statistics that, he said, proved the superiority of Democrats in managing the US economy. It was the antithesis of a Trump speech, and even his audience of political nerds fidgeted.
Listening to him that night and to the DNC candidates over the following months, I found myself thinking that maybe Democrats didn’t do badly enough in 2016. They routinely remind me and reassure themselves that Clinton won the popular vote and that if you subtract James Comey, Julian Assange and Vladimir Putin, she might have triumphed as well in the Electoral College, where Trump prevailed because of just 77,000 votes in three states.
“That’s an operational failure rather than a message failure or a candidate failure,” said Jaime Harrison, chairman of South Carolina’s Democratic Party and another contender to lead the DNC.
But it’s all of the above, because someone as preposterous as Trump should have been too far behind to benefit from tiny margins and lucky breaks. And operational failures alone can’t explain the Democratic disadvantages in the Senate, House, governor’s offices and statehouses.
This is no moment for mere tinkering, and the party can’t afford the internal divisions on display in the DNC race. After Joe Biden endorsed Perez last week, Bernie Sanders, who supports Ellison, shot back, “Do we stay with a failed status quo approach or do we go forward with a fundamental restructuring?”
You don’t wage 2016 all over again. That’s what brought us 2017, a year that—so far—I don’t care to repeat.