It’s a very, very important question for Democrats going forward, now that Republicans are in firm control in the nation’s capital, having won a national magic trick of historic proportions with Donald Trump’s surprise victory over Hillary Clinton. Since President Obama was first elected in 2008, Democrats have lost 63 House seats, 10 Senate seats and 14 governorships.
In Ohio, where Trump beat Clinton by 8.7 percentage points, resulting in a reversal of about 11 points from 2012 when President Barack Obama won Ohio again by 3 percent, one of Ohio’s four remaining Democratic congressman out of 16 has launched a campaign to challenge his party’s long-time House leader Nancy Pelosi in a vote scheduled for this week.
Of Messages And Messengers
Rep. Tim Ryan, 43 years old, first elected to the House in 2002, argues that to regain majority party status again requires a “new message and a new messenger.” That someone, he says, must be able to “connect with voters in the middle of the country who abandoned the party in this month’s elections.”
Rep. Ryan thinks he has a “shot to win” when House Democrats meet Wednesday to choose their leaders for the new session of Congress that opens in January, the AP reported. “We’re making a hell of a run at this thing,” Ryan told “Fox News Sunday.” “People are saying, ‘Look, this has been a change election. We want change,'” Ryan said, according to the AP. “And there are a lot of members of Congress who now are understanding that we need to make a change.”
In addition to pivoting away from Nancy Pelosi, now 76-years-old and always described as a “liberal from California.” Rep. Ryan has proposed a number of reforms at the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee (DCCC) that would help get “back to our grassroots in how we find and support new candidates and how we integrate all members of our Caucus in that process.” The reforms focus on recruiting and retaining good candidates, a Congressional Mentorship Program and appointing a Freshman Advisor to the DCCC Chair.
Mr. Ryan and others are frustrated with election results that seemed all but locked for Hillary Clinton up until independent voters broke for Trump, and Obama voters either failed to show up at all or failed to vote for the first female presidential candidate. Mr. Ryan, whose name is floated as a possible candidate for Ohio governor in 2018, has an uphill climb to Minority Leader, as reports by the AP say two-thirds of the House Democratic caucus will again give Pelosi leadership duties.
With the crumbling this year of the so-called Blue Wall composed of Midwestern states like Michigan, Wisconsin, Pennsylvania and Ohio that elected elected President Obama twice, Rep. Ryan attributes the crumbling to the failure of his caucus to not focus on economic issues. Representing Ohio’s hard-hit areas where manufacturing and steel jobs once flourished, Rep. Ryan wants a “robust, economic message” that resonates with all voters, but especially with those in Rust Belt and rural areas where Democrats used to perform better.” He hopes a majority of his caucus will agree with him. Getting back on top for Rep. Ryan means working the middle of the country. “They know that if we don’t get the middle of the country, that we’re never going to be back in the majority,” he said.
Other Democrats of note are also sounding the alarm that a better message is needed for rural America. Former Iowa Gov. Tom Vilsack, who’s held the post of Secretary of Agriculture in the Obama Administration since 2009, said Democrats “didn’t make enough of an effort to talk to rural voters and failed to counter powerful Republican themes of less regulation and lower taxes,” the AP reports. Exit polls showed that about 17 percent of voters in this year’s election hailed from small cities or rural areas, with 62 percent of them said they voted for Trump.
Flies In The Ointment
But a couple flies in the ointment could turn Rep Ryan’s and Sec. Vilsack’s round of remedies into so much chest-beating rhetoric. One review of the situation confronting Democrats says it’s not the message or the messenger that needs to change, but the configuration of legislative districts themselves. The authors of “Why the Democrats won’t win the House in 2018” argue that, regardless of Trump’s surprising victory over Clinton, the fact that Republicans retained control of the House of Representatives was completely predictable.
“Republicans would have retained the House almost regardless of who voters supported for president, barring an improbable landslide,”said authors Anthony McGann, Strathclyde University; Alex Keena, University of Richmond; Charles Anthony Smith, University of California, Irvine and Michael Latner, California Polytechnic State University. Not only will the GOP win the house again in 2018, they argue even though Rep. Ryan thinks a new messenger with a new message is the answer, Republicans will win the House again in 2020.
The authors say that when one party controls both houses of the state legislature and governor, drawing congressional districts in such a way that their party keeps winning congressional elections to hold onto power is easier. Not a surprise. The four authors then determined, likely to the consternation of Rep. Ryan or Sec. Vilsack, that Democrats would need to win between 54 and 55 percent of the popular vote nationally to have a chance of retaking the House. Once they calculated the degree of partisan bias in the post-2010 House districts for all 50 states, they found that there is no significant bias in favor of either party in 32 states. But in the 18 states where there is a partisan bias, including Ohio, the bias can be extreme. In 15 of the 18 states where there is significant partisan bias, they found only one state, Maryland, controlled by Democrats while the rest are controlled by Republicans.
Meanwhile, others born and raised in the ranks of the angry, white working class who went for Trump in a big way this year still won’t veer from him to a Democrat who might align with campaign messages from Hillary Clinton or Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders. In his book “Expendable America,” author Charles Simic offered a view of those barely surviving, and why they went for Trump. For the poor left-behind white working class, those who are not just underpaid and constantly in debt, they “know in their hearts that they and their children are expendable.”
Simic says of the people Rep. Ryan says Democrats need to connect with again, “Understandably, they are angry. When Democrats proclaimed that the economy was doing well and that we were still the greatest country in the world, they started listening to Trump, who told them what they could already plainly see, that we are in decline. These unfortunates, who’ve been cheated and swindled by bosses, mortgage banks, loan sharks, health insurance companies, and both political parties, have put all their hopes in a billionaire who has a long record of not paying taxes, cheating his workers and contractors out of their pay, and seemingly using his own “charitable” foundation as a slush fund. They voted for a buffoon who doesn’t care whether they live or die.”
J.D. Vance’s “Hillbilly Elegy” is all the rage to read to explain why the poorly educated voted for Trump, but Republicans who feed them what they want to hear but deliver little to nothing when in office is their real problem. Simic makes his point, saying, “it took years of deliberate effort by vested interests to create this ‘proudly ignorant populism,’ as someone called it, know-nothing voters who are easily led by the nose, incapable of distinguishing lies from truth, or an honest person from a crook. Easily duped, they can be depended on to act against their own self-interest again and again. Throw into the mix racism, misogyny, hatred of immigrants, gays, and other minorities, the dumbing down of the population by inadequate education, suspicion of learning, rejection of science and history, and dozens of other things like guns and violence, and you have the kind of environment in which people chose their next president.”
Another thesis that could befuddle Democrats thinking a new message from a new messenger is the panacea to winning back Trump voters may be all but impossible if changing their horses means changing their fundamental belief systems. In “An Insider’s View: The Dark Rigidity of Fundamentalist Rural America,” Forsetti’s Justice doesn’t agree with the analysis that “Democrats failed to understand white, working-class, fly-over America.”
“Trump supporters are saying this. Progressive pundits are saying this. Talking heads across all forms of the media are saying this. Even some Democratic leaders are saying this. It doesn’t matter how many people say it, it is complete bullshit. It is an intellectual/linguistic sleight of hand meant to throw attention away from the real problem. The real problem isn’t east coast elites who don’t understand or care about rural America. The real problem is rural America doesn’t understand the causes of their own situations and fears and they have shown no interest in finding out,” Justice writes.
The Rub For Democrats
It could, therefore, be a real challenge for Rep. Ryan in particular and Democrats in general to come up with a new message that’s really different from their old message without turning traditional Democratic party values and themes on their head that would entail capitulating to long-held GOP standard talking point goals. The challenge to recapture Reagan Democrats who jumped ship to Donald Trump this year, according to Justice is this: “They don’t want to know why they feel the way they do or why they are struggling because they don’t want to admit it is in large part because of choices they’ve made and horrible things they’ve allowed themselves to believe.”
Republicans enjoy new majorities in both the House and Senate in Washington and in Columbus after the Nov. 8 General Election. A new Census will take place in 2020, the next presidential election year. Any new redistricting for Ohio and the other states won’t be known and tested until 2022. Can Rep. Ryan and others cast a new message or a new messenger that can reverse course in the next six years?
Whether Rep. Ryan is the new messenger or someone else, the new message will ultimately be a reworking of old messages Democrats have campaigned on since the days of FDR: After almost 40 years of flat wage growth, workers’ wages must rise; Working harder and more productively must be rewarded; Working Americans need a stronger voice in Congress and in board rooms; Stronger unions and collective bargaining must make a comeback. If these old messages mad new doesn’t work, a GOP Congress teaming up with President Donald Trump to enact draconian economic laws will fleece the angry, left-behind white working class more than ever as lack of progress for them will again be due to the wealthiest and most powerful getting their way.
That’s the rub for Democrats, dear Hamlet would argue, about dreaming the impossible dream to take back what’s been lost over the last eight years, specifically, and decades in general.