“I am not a member of any organized political party,” the cowboy comic Will Rogers famously said. “I am a Democrat.”
Democrats fight among themselves, argue about the future of their party and display a genuine affinity for forming a circular firing squadron whenever an election looms. Joe Biden is being attacked for saying he actually believes in bipartisanship. Bernie Sanders is too old and too socialist, but even he struggles to explain what his brand of socialism really looks like. Kamala Harris was a tough-on-crime prosecutor and that is somehow a liability. I could go on, but you get the drift.
The 23 angry Democrats now running for president is all the proof required that the Democrats are no “organized political party.”
So, since no one is asking, I offer a Democratic Manifesto for both national and Idaho Democrats to impose some order on the chaos.
First, the basics: Every election is about the future. Donald Trump made the 2016 election a referendum on his version of the future, which ironically — or cynically, or manipulatively — was actually about recreating a vision of the country that never existed. “Make America Great Again” was his slogan. It’s time for Democrats to make him eat those words.
Ronald Reagan made Jimmy Carter squirm in 1980 by asking a question Democrats should be asking: “Are you better off than you were four years ago?” Trump partisans will point to a strong economy, but the micro answer to Reagan’s question is clearly: No.
Karl Rove, the politically smart but ethically challenged brain behind George W. Bush, always had a formula: Attack your opponent at his point of greatest strength. John Kerry was a decorated Vietnam veteran, while Bush arguably dodged the draft, so in Rove World the correct response was to “swift boat” Kerry with attacks on his military record and patriotism. Trump is oh so vulnerable to the same approach and, best of all, a Democrat need not distort the record as Rove had to in order to pin his ears back.
Imagine a Democrat with this line of logic: Let’s talk about that Mexican-funded wall. Is immigration better than four years ago? Trump will soon have been in office for three years. He had both houses of Congress for half his term — what’s he really done?
Well, he tweets a lot. He thinks he’s tough on immigration, but he hasn’t fixed a thing and, if anything, it’s all much worse than when he started. Trump is a failure at the border.
Trump was going to end our endless wars, but how is that going? He’s incompetent and hasn’t fixed a thing. He hasn’t Made America Great; he’s made the presidency all about himself.
Biden may be making a major mistake, as he demonstrated this week, in questioning Trump’s intelligence and morals. That cake is baked. Only Trump’s diehard 40 percent think he’s anything approaching intelligent and as for morals, well just ask Sen. Mike Crapo who said he couldn’t support Trump after the infamous “Access Hollywood” tape and then supported him. There is little margin in emphasizing something everyone knows: Trump isn’t all that bright. Everyone knows he’s sleazy and he lies all the time.
I’m not sure the young mayor of South Bend, Ind., Pete Buttigieg, will be or should be the Democratic nominee. But he certainly has demonstrated an understanding that elections are about the future. “We face not just another presidential election, but a transition between one era and another,” Buttigieg said this week in a meaty speech on foreign policy. “I believe that the next three or four years will determine the next 30 or 40 for our country and our world.”
Second, appeal to reason and understand that politics is a game of addition, not subtraction. There is not a person in the country today who voted for Hillary Clinton who is going to vote for a second Trump term. The president is defying a law of political gravity, a very simple law: Expand your base, attract new supporters and keep what you have. Trump has turned those ideas upside down. He’s hoping to win a second term by purposefully not expanding his base of support.
The only way this strategy works is if Democrats fail to reach out to the few independent voters who remain or if Trump succeeds in depressing the large and, I would argue, growing anti-Trump vote.
One way to appeal to these folks is to respond to Trump with a bumper sticker slogan, some variation on: “Time for an adult in the White House.” Even many of his supporters cringe at Trump’s rants, incoherent insults and nonstop lies.
Third, understand that the modern Democratic Party is defined by its broad coalition, while what passes for the Republican Party is an older, white ideological movement that at the moment stands only for Trump. The Democratic future in this election and the next is the demographic reality that younger Americans, people of color and women will increasingly decide American elections.
This would be the place where I throw down the gauntlet to Idaho Democrats, a beleaguered, largely leaderless group that has been operating without a strategy for more than 20 years.
Here’s the bumper sticker: Youth, Women and Hispanic Americans. Idaho Democrats don’t just need a strategy; they need a long-game strategy, one that strives for real political relevance in 10 years. Younger Idahoans, people in high school and college today, should be the core of that strategy.
Then organize, organize, organize. And aggressively bring many more young people into the political process. It would not only be the right thing to do, but it offers a path out of the wilderness.
It’s an old fashioned notion, I know, but I still believe most elections come down to a question of fear versus hope.
Trump won, as every Republican since Reagan has, by emphasizing division, despair and decline. Against a flat-footed, yesterday candidate such as Hillary Clinton it worked. In the moment of reckoning coming soon we’ll see if it works again.
Johnson served as press secretary and chief of staff to the late former Idaho Gov. Cecil D. Andrus. He lives in Manzanita, Ore.