OPINION | JOHN BRUMMETT: Democrats in disarray

The smartest newspaper column I've read recently came from Ross Douthat, a contributor to The New York Times who gets called conservative though he seems thoughtful, sensible and pragmatic, and thus can't be considered conservative in the current wingnut context.

Sometimes this paper publishes his work on the editorial page. For all I know, they're printing over there today the column of his that I am in this space citing, crediting, admiring and running with in my own words.

The essay is good enough for a double dose--the artful original and the pedestrian ditto.

A contemporary conservative doesn't explain, but instead relishes in, the Democrats' internal tension. A contemporary conservative doesn't suggest how Democrats should deal with their dilemma, but instead stomps on them when they're kicking each other.

Douthat's subject is the current congressional Democratic divide, from Bernie Sanders to Joe Manchin, over whether to leverage or separate the infrastructure bill and the social spending bill.

The foundation of the problem, he seems to be saying, is that the Democrats failed to understand and capitalize on Barack Obama's victories in '08 and '12, then failed to react properly to Donald Trump's victory in '16.

The only Democrats galvanizing from those three outcomes, he explains, were the marginal Sanders varietals. They were made to seem stronger by the illusions that Obama had produced a new, lasting and winning leftist coalition and that Trump's surprise victory could be dismissed as a bogus, corrupt aberration.

But the key, he writes, remains working-class swing voters who are largely, but not exclusively, in the industrial Midwest. Some are in suburban or exurban dots elsewhere, such as Georgia and Arizona.

Bill Clinton won them; Hillary Clinton, John Kerry and Al Gore lost them. Obama and Joe Biden got some of them back. Do you see the pattern?

Most center-left establishment Democrats judged Obama's victory at the time to invoke the lasting emergence of a new coalition of minorities and youth. But that hasn't proved lasting in fervor and turnout. It's settled back into a gradual emergence.

The swing voters that Obama partially won, Douthat writes, show up reliably. They're working-class and fearful about the effect of de-industrialization and globalization on their lifestyles and economic security.

For decades, they've been deciding things in favor of those to whom they relate. They were Reagan Democrats. Then they were Bill Clinton New Democrats. Then Gore, Kerry and Hillary Clinton left them cold.

Obama won them in part by being less cold, but mostly because John McCain lost them by having no clue about the economic meltdown and Mitt Romney lost them by seeming straight from the preppy board room.

Now, Douthat calls them Obama-Trump voters. Obviously, party and philosophy mean little to them. Personality and narrow economic self-interest mean everything.

After 2016, traditional Democrats erred by spending their time trusting that Trump was an aberration and counting on Robert Mueller to take him down as an imposter. They overlooked that Trump's message to make America great again had connected.

Meantime, progressives were running hard in winnable congressional districts based on their reading that Hillary had lost because she was more like her antique husband and less like the modern Bernie.

As Douthat theorizes, the only Democrats who were strengthened from the post-Obama miscalculation were the Sanders semi-socialists, which is, to be clear, my word. They seized a new left that has grown in size and confidence.

Yet Democratic voters have never been with them. Sanders has lost two tries for the nomination. Elizabeth Warren lost once and badly.

In 2020, moderates did far better than liberals in the Democratic presidential primary. Biden became the winner by a rout when supporters of withdrawing moderates Amy Klobuchar and Pete Buttigieg flocked to him at the very time Jim Clyburn was stirring Black voters to coalesce for him.

Biden won as the moderate default only to encounter a Democratic congressional caucus made more leftish by post-2012 blunder. He has been forced to move left to work with it at the expense of alienating a red-state senator of the center-right like Manchin and a centrist suburban Democrat like Kyrsten Sinema.

The answer is for Democrats to stop miscalculating what the swing voter will accept. It's never to want to defund the police. It's to be less woke. It's to honor the fragility of their party.

It's to accept those who run to the center in swing districts and accept those who run to the left in progressive districts. Otherwise, Republicans run Congress.

The Democrats' sweet spot of governing seeks that place where swing voters feel respected and neither Manchin nor Sanders is left out.

It won't be easy. Biden reportedly got asked last week in a private meeting why he didn't put Manchin and Sanders in a room until they came out with a compromise.

He is said to have explained that he was opposed to murder-suicide.

John Brummett, whose column appears regularly in the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette, is a member of the Arkansas Writers' Hall of Fame. Email him at jbrummett@arkansasonline.com. Read his @johnbrummett Twitter feed.

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