“There are a lot of people who have Democratic values who may not see themselves as a Democrat,” confessed Democratic National Committee Vice Chairman Michael Blake. Someone ought to explain this to the party’s big attraction, the figure on whom Democrats have pinned their hopes for a political comeback: Bernie Sanders. The septuagenarian senator from Vermont, who narrowly missed an opportunity to wrest the party’s presidential nomination from the anointed Hillary Clinton, is a living, breathing example of the crisis afflicting the Democratic Party’s brand.
Sanders is, at the moment, at the center of the Democrats’ push to rebuild. He has joined DNC Chairman Tom Perez on a tour of the nation they’re calling “Come Together and Fight Back.” For Sanders, the “come together” part is optional. And he’s declining it.
When it became clear that the self-described socialist senator from Vermont was resonating with the Democratic electorate ahead of 2016’s first primary contests, Sanders made a feint toward changing his party affiliation. He pledged at the time to run all future campaigns as a registered Democrat. When asked if he considered himself a “Democrat for life,” Sanders’ campaign manager, Jeff Weaver, emphatically replied: “Yes.” Apparently, Team Sanders didn’t think very highly of the Democratic Party’s voters. Asked this week by MSNBC’s Chris Hayes if he identifies as a Democrat, Sanders didn’t hesitate to correct him. “No, I’m an independent,” he insisted.
In a way, it is understandable that the Democratic Party would refuse to reckon with the fact that its biggest celebrity not only refuses to associate himself with the brand but admits to boldly and unrepentantly lying to their voters. This is a party with a depleted bench of talent, but no shortage of grassroots enthusiasm. At the moment, its priority is to keep the enthusiasm as high as possible in the hopes that the talent problem will resolve itself.
So far, that strategy has not yielded much in the way of results. Democrats appear to have determined to go all-in on “The Resistance.” Professing that Donald Trump is a unique monster who must be opposed at every turn has kept demonstrators in the streets and high-dollar donors’ wallets open. It is, however, a risky bet.
What if, as has been the case so far, Donald Trump remains a relatively ineffective president? The president’s most controversial executive order has been halted in the courts. The efforts to revise and reform the tax code and ObamaCare landed with a thud. Trump has reversed several of Barack Obama’s executive orders, but he has retained some—like deferred deportation for the children of illegal immigrants—he insisted he would repeal. Conservatives soothe themselves with the appointment of Justice Neil Gorsuch to the Supreme Court, but that only maintains the status quo ideological balance on the court prior to the death of Justice Antonin Scalia. It doesn’t move the ball forward for conservatives, and the parliamentary maneuvers invoked to secure his seat ensure that this will not be a cost-free proposition for Republicans in the long-term.
Democrats have so far refused to find an antidote to their brand’s toxicity. They have performed no introspection with regard to how the 2016 election was run and lost to a former game show host, the most unpopular presidential candidate in the modern age. They have not engaged in a critical analysis of how the relatively popular Barack Obama could be replaced with a man who promised in both manner and deed to be everything the former president was not. The Democratic Party is facing a nearly 100-year nadir of its political power. Its representatives were defenestrated at nearly every level. Obama left the GOP with all three branches of the federal government and in total control of the levers of power in fully half the Union. Yet there has been no “autopsy,” and there apparently never will be. Their state of denial is all-consuming.
The out-party’s bet seems to be that they do not have to change to benefit from a pendulum swing in the American political dynamic and be returned to power. Instead, they can be cast about by the vicissitudes of political fortune and the whimsy of their base. Their only conscious effort to appeal to voters outside their urban liberal tent is one message: Donald Trump is terrible.
Democrats have convinced themselves that the GOP did precisely that after the 2008 elections—opposing Barack Obama reflexively and offering no philosophy or program as an alternative—and it paid off. But the GOP wasn’t just the party of “no.” It was a party with a grievance: The Democrats were extremely energetic in 2009 and 2010. They passed a reform of the nation’s health care and banking systems and a near $1 trillion “stimulus” bill. They restructured the nation’s automotive manufacturing industry and passed a host of social reforms, ranging from making it easier for women to sue their employers over compensation complaints to reduced sentencing for people convicted of cocaine possession. Republicans and their supporters were yelling “stop.” What are Democrats rallying around beside the disagreeable personality of the man sitting behind the Resolute Desk? What happens if that notoriously mercurial personality changes?
To borrow a line from “Arrested Development,” Democrats are pitching to voters “a frozen banana that won’t make you sick and kill you.” But what happens if the voters determine that the GOP’s frozen banana isn’t so terrible after all? What happens if, by 2018, voters recognize Democratic hyperbole only masks the fact that their brand is in crisis and they don’t seem to care?