When being anti-Trump is not enough, Dems re-brand


Clarence Page - Chicago Tribune



On a day when President Donald Trump unleashed a Twitter storm that senselessly attacked his own attorney general, among other targets, the future might seem to be so bright for Democrats that they ought to be wearing sunscreen.

But as history shows us, you should never underestimate the Dems’ ability to snatch defeat out of the jaws of victory. Just ask Hillary Clinton.

After Trump’s surprising upset victory, Democrats are left with a White House and Congress controlled by Republicans — and too many voters with a confused sense of what or whom the Democrats stand for.

So it was with the fierce urgency of next year’s midterm elections that Senate Democratic leader Chuck Schumer of New York took a group of his fellow party leaders across the Potomac to Berryville, Va., a town of 4,000 in a county won handily by Trump, to unveil a rebranding of the party.

Their big message: It is not enough to have Trump to run against; Democrats need to offer people and programs to vote for.

“In the last two elections, Democrats, including in the Senate, failed to articulate a strong, bold economic program for the middle class and those working hard to get there,” Schumer said. “We also failed to communicate our values to show that we were on the side of working people, not the special interests. We will not repeat the same mistake.”

Schumer’s declarations of party unity glossed over significant divisions in Democratic ranks that mirror the Grand Old Party’s internal divide. It is a gap between the party’s moderate, centrist establishment and the left-progressive populists who turned out for independent Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders’ maverick campaign.

Both parties have establishment leaders who want to get things done, but it is their immoderate extremes that have most of the energy and excitement that gets people to the polls, especially in midterm and other off-year elections.

For the 2018 midterm elections, a recent Washington Post-ABC News poll offers signs of hope and peril for the Dems. Only 38 percent of registered voters favor Republican control to promote the president’s agenda, according to the poll, while a slight majority of registered voters — 52 percent — say they want Democrats to control the next Congress.

Yet, despite numerous anti-Trump protests since November, Republicans still show an advantage in voter enthusiasm. A 65 percent majority of Republican and GOP-leaning independents said they were certain they will vote next year, compared to 57 percent of Democrats and Democratic-leaning independents.

To give wavering voters something to get excited about, Schumer offered a new three-point agenda and a new slogan: “A Better Deal.” It sounded like a combination of Franklin D. Roosevelt’s “New Deal,” Harry S Truman’s “Fair Deal” and Papa John’s Pizza’s “Better ingredients. Better pizza. Papa John’s.”

The party’s three-point agenda, also announced by House Democratic leader Nancy Pelosi of California, pledges to increase pay by pushing for a $15 an hour minimum wage, reduce “everyday expenses” such as rising prescription drug and transportation costs that eat away at family incomes, and use tax credits and other incentives to encourage job training and hiring in a constantly changing job market.

My first impression of this rebranding effort: It brought to mind a song from “All That Jazz” to mind: “Everything Old Is New Again.” That’s not a bad thing. Democrats have won national elections over the past half-century or so when they have offered agendas like this with a sense of clarity and conviction and, most of all, a sense that the party is on the same side as ordinary people who are struggling to make ends meet.

Bill Clinton and Barack Obama won the presidency by promising empathy (“I feel your pain”) and assuring swing voters that they were not in the hip pocket of the party’s left wing.

Today I am reminded that Obama won more than 200 countries twice that later voted for Trump. I also am reminded of how Clinton quite likely could have won Michigan, Wisconsin, Ohio and Pennsylvania, as Obama also did twice, had she only visited them more and beat back the notion that she was only the candidate of women, minorities and transgender bathroom issues.

In giving those constituencies someone to vote against, Democrats have received a valuable assist so far from Donald Trump. But, as their new slogan suggests, they need to offer a better deal, even if they don’t have a better slogan.

Clarence Page

Chicago Tribune

Clarence Page is a member of the Chicago Tribune Editorial Board. Readers may send him email at cpage@chicagotribune.com.

Clarence Page is a member of the Chicago Tribune Editorial Board. Readers may send him email at cpage@chicagotribune.com.