The Democratic Party is in the midst of an identity crisis — but a leading Democratic senator said he has an idea of what the left needs to do in order to win at the ballot box in 2018 and 2020.
Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse of Rhode Island, speaking with Business Insider during a promotional tour for his new book, “Captured: The Corporate Infiltration of American Democracy,” outlined three planks the party needs to run on in future elections.
The first, he said, was directly related to his book, which outlined what he believes to be the negative effects of corporate influence on the political system.
“I think one of the reasons I wrote this book is that I think this issue needs to be brought out front and center,” he said. “If you have to compete with an entity that is actually a front group for a big special interest and you haven’t successfully told the story of how it’s just the end of the tentacle, then you’re going to be at a huge disadvantage. And what it says will be given more face-value credit by the public than if they knew, ‘Oh, OK, that’s the glove with the Koch brothers hand in it, with Wall Street’s hand in it.’ So I think it’s really important we focus on that.”
Whitehouse added disclosure of donations “ought to be a really, really big deal for us.”
The second plank, he said, needs to be a “really, really strong and simplified economic message,” something he said Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton did not do in 2016.
“And we love, love, love to prove our bona fides by having a really good plan,” he said. “And nobody wants to hear about a plan. They want a wall or something simple and captivating. And 10-point plans kind of go in the metal disposal bin.”
“Stuff that people can envision and we can deliver,” he added. “I’ve spent 10 years in the Senate now and the talk about messaging is making me increasingly insane. I don’t think you earn the right to a message until you’ve earned it by having a real fight, really being willing to stand up for what you believe in.”
He said Democrats’ tendency to be “constantly” moving “from message point to message point, positioning yourself on issues without ever taking a step back, deciding what the hell you’re going to do, and jamming it through as best you can, or at least making it one hell of a big fight so that everyone in the country knows that it took place,” is a major “mistake.”
The party must take a handful of issues and be exceptionally visible on them, he said, naming student-debt relief and a carbon tax as two such things.
“You can pick others, but I think having just a visible known few that become our, ‘If you elect us, this is what you will get or we will die trying,'” he said.
The third plank, he said, was making sure the party is “solid” on its national security and defence platform.
Far too often, he added, Democrats let themselves get painted as weak on both.
“I think that’s where, just not letting ourselves get painted into a soft-on-safety corner,” he said. “But I think that having a lot of respect for law enforcement and showing it, having a lot of respect for the military and showing it — and getting ahead of the big liabilities like cybersecurity are very good places to be.”
“I don’t think that’s going to be a winning hand for us, but it keeps … a winning hand from becoming a winning hand for the Republicans,” he continued.
The GOP has been extremely successful in painting the Democrats as soft in those areas, he added.
“Look at 2014 when ISIS popped up and Ebola popped up and the children from Guatemala and Central America were starting to come across the border,” he said. “And the next thing you know Fox News had turned that all into the Ebola babies coming over the borders to come slice your head off like ISIS into kind of one big panic. And our Democratic message that election was exactly zero. And we just got crushed as a result.”
“So that’s the proof that we can’t let ourselves get boxed in on it,” he continued. “Because frankly, we had just as good policies if not better in those areas. We just don’t talk about them.”
Each of the three seems to come back to one core idea: that Democrats don’t have their messaging together, or haven’t been able to effectively get their message across.
So why have the Democrats struggled so mightily with this?
“Well, I think if I knew that I would be a bigger wheel in our operation,” Whitehouse said. “I don’t know the answer to that. I think partly it comes from the sort of big-tent, check-the-box politics that can emerge from a party that has very broad but not particularly deep backing. So, you’ve got right with Planned Parenthood, you’ve got right with the LGBT community, you’ve got right with public labour unions, you’ve got right with the private labour unions, you’ve got right with young voters, and you kind of, every time you do that, there’s another added step.”
“And like the guy with 1,000 nails, nothing penetrates because there are so many nails you can actually lie on them comfortably,” he continued. “So nothing actually sank through.”
“So, I don’t know, those are some of my original thoughts,” he continued. “If we were … if it were just a few more centralised forces who ran our party, then you would say, ‘All right, these are the sort of three or four things we’re pushing on.’ And to the folks in other industries who aren’t part of those three or four, we’d just say, ‘Look, shut up for now — we’re trying to win this election. We’ll take care of you when we’re in. You know we will. So stand by. You don’t have to clamor.'”
Democratic voters must take a viewpoint that many on the right have been able to more easily embrace, particularly in electing President Donald Trump — a focus on winning.
“Everybody, to have their issue at the forefront as your measure of success — your measure of success is we get in, and then we deliver for you,” he said. “And, that simply doesn’t work on our side the way it does on the other side.”
“For us, it’s an uphill fight to get a clear, distinctive, memorable message out of the cacophony of our multiple support groups,” he continued. “For the other side, it’s actually kind of delivered to them by the organisations behind them that dominate in the Republican political background … and so I think my colleagues kind of sit on the table reading from the package. When it comes, they go out and sell it. Whereas we’re all like out with everybody making sure it’s success for us if we get their idea on the table and the platform has to have 90 different parts to it and if anybody is left out they’re all jumping up and down about it.”
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