from the desk of H. Bowie...

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The Challenge for Democrats: Playing the Long Game

Ladder leading to target
image credit: iStock/masterzphotois

Right now Democrats are focused primarily on two things happening in 2020:

  1. Beating Trump.
  2. Regaining control of the Senate.

These would both be great accomplishments for the party, and for the winning candidates.

For the country, not so much.


To answer that question, we need only look at the history of divided government in the US.

If we scan backwards for periods in which Democrats held the presidency and the majorities in both houses of congress, here’s what we find, going all the way back for nearly seventy years, to 1953:

  • 2 years from 2009 - 2011
  • 2 years from 1993 - 1995
  • 4 years from 1977 - 1981
  • 8 years from 1961 - 1969

Now Republicans have no better record in this regard, so you might wonder why I think this is such a big deal.

Two reasons.

  1. The Democratic agenda is forward-looking and inclusive and progressive, and it takes time, persistence, focus and unity to make headway on this sort of agenda.
  2. The Republican agenda is backwards-looking, divisive and destructive, and all it takes to advance this agenda is money, media, confusion, and a ruthless bent on defending the interests of those on the top of the heap, while demolishing or disabling every governmental protection for those on the bottom.

Are you starting to get the picture?

When control of our federal government seesaws back and forth every couple of years, with large periods of time in which control of the government is divided, that doesn’t mean the two parties are doing equally well.

It means the Republicans are winning.

First, because, given equal periods of time in control, the Republicans are able to tear down a lot more than the Democrats are able to build back up in their comparable periods of dominance.

Second, because this sort of perpetual deadlock, combined with continuing back-and-forth changes in leadership, have the overall effect of creating the appearance – and in some cases, the reality – of a weak and ineffective federal government, which plays right into the hands of Republicans.

So winning in 2020 would be a good start.

But it’s not nearly enough.

Consider all of the issues that are important to Democrats right now: civil rights, healthcare, rights for workers, rebuilding our middle class, strong support for a free press, education, environmental protections, inequality, LGBTQ rights, systemic racial bias, prison reform, climate change, tax reform – just to name the headliners that occur to me off the top of my head.

Now how much real and lasting progress do you think we can make on any one of these vitally important issues – let alone all of them – if Democrats only end up in control for two years, as happened in 2008, when Barack Obama became our president?

No, the Democrats need to be strategizing and planning right now for a 20-year reign over our federal government.

Not because Democrats have all the answers, or because we are morally pure, or because we don’t believe in a two-party system: I think a two-party system is vitally important in order to keep any one party from becoming complacent and greedy and bureaucratic.

No, the Democrats need to control our federal government for a couple of decades because our current Republican party has become morally and intellectually bankrupt. We need to thoroughly expose them for what they have become, grind them down into political irrelevance, and then give our second party time to transform themselves into something that will be meaningful for the 21st century. I don’t think anyone knows what that will look like at this point. But it’s going to take a while.

So how can the Democrats acquire and retain enough control of our government to actually advance the important causes I listed above?

Here are a few suggestions.

Always be thinking at least one election cycle ahead.

Like a good pool player, it’s not enough to sink the ball you’re aiming for, you also need to position the cue ball so that you can drop the next one as well.

Aim for Democratic majorities in 38 of our 50 states.

Whether we like it or not, and whether we think it fair or not, both the Senate and the electoral college confer structural advantages on the Republicans. Montana, Delaware, South Dakota, Alaska, North Dakota, Vermont and Wyoming each have under a million residents, but the votes of their senators count just as much as those from California, which represents over 37 million. Whining about this won’t change anything. Approval of constitutional amendments requires approval from 38 of our states, and there are cases where such amendments might be needed, especially in light of a Supreme Court now likely to be stacked in favor of Republicans for years, if not decades to come.

Discredit Republican leaders and candidates, but not those who voted for them.

You can’t achieve the sort of political unity we need if you start out by demonizing everyone who has voted Republican during their lifetimes. (If you don’t believe this, just think back to Clinton’s “basket of deplorables” remark in 2016, and reflect on how well that turned out.)

The approach we need to take – with all honesty and forthrightness – is to identify the very real and important issues that have motivated people to vote Republican in recent elections, and then communicate clearly and consistently that we understand those issues and are willing and able to address them.

This means we can’t go for urban voters to the exclusion of rural and suburban ones. We have to reach out to both.

This means we can’t appeal to college graduates while ignoring those with fewer academic credentials. We have to appeal to both.

This means we can’t tailor our approach to favor people and communities of color, while passing over people and communities of paler shades.

If we can’t muster the will and resources to be this inclusive and unifying, then we should just go home now, and hand the reins over to someone who can.

Focus on the obvious.

Voters have the right to expect their government to have their best interests at heart. But the modern Republican party, under Donald Trump, has become nothing more than a group of shameless con artists willing to do anything, to cross any line, in order to retain and consolidate their power, solely for the purpose of funneling ever greater shares of American wealth to the richest 1%.

Just look at the tax bill that they passed, their single significant legislative accomplishment during the Trump era.

So just persuade voters that we’re better than that. We don’t have to be perfect. We don’t have to be all-knowing. We just have to get higher than this incredibly low bar set by our opponents.

We must have the best interests of American citizens at heart, and we must be willing to roll up our sleeves and work tirelessly on their behalf.

If we can convince voters all across our country on these points, then we should be able to achieve our goals.

Avoid overreach.

Overreach plays into the hands of Republicans, and is part of this vicious cycle of never-ending whipsaw changes in leadership.

This doesn’t mean we have to be centrists. What it means is that we have to avoid getting ahead of ourselves. We have to keep things in the right order.

  1. Pick forward-looking candidates capable of appealing to a broad swath of voters in the current election cycle.
  2. Unify our resources to actively and unreservedly support the selected candidates.
  3. Run winning campaigns.
  4. Undo Republican gerrymandering and voter suppression.
  5. Reduce the power of lobbyists, large corporations and large donors to influence future elections.
  6. Educate voters on the issues. Arm them with facts.
  7. Invest in development of the next generation of legislators, executives and judges.
  8. Pass legislation that will have unequivocally positive benefits on at least 2/3 of voters before the next election cycle.
  9. Advance longer-term interests (such as reductions in carbon emissions) while avoiding immediate and perceptible harm to the majority of voters in at least 3/4 of our states.
  10. Pay attention to things small as well as large. The federal government is the nation’s largest employer. As always, there’s a lot of devil in the details, and if you can’t get the small things right, it will trip you up when you try to slay the dragons.
  11. Work incrementally. Take agile precepts to heart. (Everywhere you see the word “customer,” think “voter”. When you see the word “software,” think “legislation and government services.” When you run across the word “developer,” replace it with “legislators and political leaders.”)
  12. Listen to our critics and take them seriously. Practice inclusion. We’re not perfect. We can always do better. Admit our mistakes. Avoid NIH (Not-Invented-Here) syndrome.
  13. Rinse and repeat.

So let’s not just focus on the 2020 elections for the next eighteen months. Sure they’re important, victory is not assured, and we need to do what it takes to put those behind us.

But at the same time, let’s think strategically and be smart about our future.

We’re in this for the long haul.

Let’s start playing the long game.

April 25, 2019