10 September 2017

The Virginia Strategy

Yes, the Democrats are still there

by J.R. Thomas

You may be thinking that this is a review of a thriller, perhaps by one of those slightly forgotten but talented authors such as Anthony Price or Eric Ambler.  But sadly, perhaps, no.  The time has come to redress the balance of the emphasis of current media coverage of American politics, that it is all just about Donald.  It often feels that way, with the new President and his party seemingly forming both government and opposition, with scarcely a peep from the minority party.  That can be the nature of politics in the USA, where the constitution does not give much of a role to any official opposition, and where that role, such as it is, gets split between the leaders of the minority in the Senate and the House, and any likely to be nominated Presidential candidate.  This soon after a presidential election, there generally isn’t one of the latter of course.

And in 2017 there is a greater than usual vacuum on the Democrat side.  Whatever the Democrats think of Mr Trump, they do feel that he has stolen, if not their clothes, a good chunk of their traditional voter base.  The Democrat heartlands in industrial America tended to vote for the Trump brand of Republicanism last November, and the Democrats are still not sure what to do about it.

That is not helped by the lack of popularity garnered by their candidate in the presidential contest.  Mrs Clinton has things going for her, it is certainly true; she is hard working and her connections to key people in her party have been carefully built up over many years.  But part of her popularity was because she was seen by the party machine as a winner.  That was not generally the feeling about her among the electors, who saw her as part of an establishment which had failed to deliver a new vision of America.  It is one of those fascinating questions as to how the Democrats might have fared if Bernie Sanders had been the nominee.  Bernie tends to be represented in the British press as a Vermont version of Jeremy Corbyn, but, with all respect to Mr C, Bernie is a very different operator indeed.  He may have been the only independent Senator, and a self-described socialist, but he is an extremely astute political operator who commands considerable respect in the Senate.  He is a chairman of many key Senate committees and that is not a role one is selected for unless one’s standing and political savvy is of the highest order. He managed to combine that with a folksy radicalism which appealed to a lot of voters who had their doubts about Hillary’s “business as usual” presentation.   It does not matter now – especially as Bernie is most unlikely to run again, simply because of the age factor – he will be 78 by the next election.

Hillary is also unlikely to run again, though she has not so far ruled herself out (she will be 72, so not out of the question on age grounds), but there is a growing feeling that the Democrat Party needs to reinvent itself, and that must mean passing the possible presidential baton to the next generation.

To that end the party’s leadership quietly gathered in Virginia on 26th July to consider campaigning and candidate options for the approaching contest for the Governership.  They also took the opportunity to decide a theme and tone for the 2018 mid-term house elections. And deeper than that, they took the first steps, faltering and hesitant first steps, to a philosophy, a platform, and a candidate for 2020.  What emerged was hardly impressive.  The programme for 2018 is to be called “Better Deal”, with a back handed reference to FDR’s New Deal.  But the New Deal was original, bold and brave.  Nobody would describe Better Deal as any of those.  It is a platform designed to offend as few people as possible but with some measures thrown in that would directly help the underpaid and struggling middles (as somebody might have described them not so long ago).

So there is nothing in there about gun control, or climate change, or foreign policy.  But it promises to double the national minimum wage (that one plucked straight from Senator Saunders’ campaign last fall), controls on drug pricing, promises for greater regulation of powerful businesses, and some obscure wording on healthcare.  It is a classic case of looking to win not hearts but pocketbooks.   Even so, in normal times it might have engendered some good publicity and positive notes, but these are not normal times; Mr Trump was having a busy week attacking his Attorney General, calling for further investigations of Mrs Clinton’s actions in office, and banning transgender people from the military.  And working the revolving door of the White House.  The publicity was negative for the President – but the excitement still drowned out the Better Deal.

It also suffered damaging flak from Vermont.  Mr Saunders was not at the gathering but called for stronger measures such as cartel break ups, especially of the big banks, and free healthcare and university education (he has obviously read some of Mr Corbyn’s speeches but not the most recent ones).  The Democrat leadership might be advised, when it comes to Mr Saunders, to revisit that old adage about persons inside and outside tents.

The Democrats are also engaged in much polite shoving and pushing  – not so polite, some of it – on Capitol Hill.  Nancy Pelosi has been Democratic Party leader in the House since 2010.  Before that she was Speaker, which means that she, so far, has had the distinction of being the most senior elected female politician in the US, third in line for the presidency.  She has a formidable grip on the Democratic machine, but is now catching (or trying to avoid) much of the blame for the loss of the presidency last November.  As she is 77 she is not a presidential hopeful and now it is more a question of who her mantle might pass to.  Perhaps it will be Elizabeth Warren, senator for Massachusetts, who was seen as a possible alternative to Hillary, then as a possible vice presidential nominee, and must be a contender for the future.  The two ladies are on different wings of the party, Ms Pelosi being of the Hillary tendency, and Senator Warren leaning to the Bernie persuasion.  There are Democrats, Joe Biden, Presidents Obama’s vice President, for instance, who would say, though not in public, that both are out of touch with the aspirational working class blue collar voters that the party needs to win back.

There is trouble also for the Democrats on Capitol Hill.  Much attention has been paid to the troubles of the Republicans in the Senate, and in particular their failure to roll back Obamacare.  But in Congress it is the Democrats that have the problems.  Mr Trump’s spending bill went to Congress last week.  That was a spending package of $790bn on defence, the bulk of it to keep the lights on in the Pentagon.  But $1.57bn was to build that famous wall along the Mexican border.    Five Republicans voted against their own party as it proceeded.  But no coconut for the Democrats – five of them voted for it.  Not that either group of dissenters made much difference – it went through 235 to 192.  Yes, you read that right. The Wall has its first stage of funding approved.  By end of September it must also go through the Senate and there the math is different.  The Democrats may well have a moment of glory, but will winning that vote be a bad step in the war?  Voting against defence appropriations rarely plays well in the heartlands and this is one area where Mr Trump polls quite well.

The Democrats ought to be looking forward to a good autumn, with an opportunity to seize the spending agenda and score some victories on the Hill.  But with their tired and bickering leadership, a weak programme, and lacking any sort of voter enthusiasm, Mr Trump may continue to make the waves for quite a while yet.


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