Golis: What in the world happened to the Democratic Party?

MIKE SMITH / Las Vegas Sun



Six months into his presidency, people have stopped talking about Donald J. Trump.

I’m kidding. Six months into his presidency, people still can’t stop talking about Trump. Whether the daily news involves alleged collusion with Russians, various business entanglements, contradictory statements about almost everything or weird handshakes, Trump and his family continue to take up all the air in the room.

Democrats have spent the first six months in a dither, in turns angry and depressed. Of late, however, there are signs that rank-and-file Democrats at least want to move on. The question I hear every day from my Democratic friends is this: What the hell is wrong with the Democratic Party? These Democrats want to know why their side can’t produce new ideas and a new generation of leaders.

It is easier in hindsight to recite all the mistakes made by presidential candidate Hillary Clinton and the people who ran her campaign. It’s worth remembering that if you flip 80,000 votes in three states, Clinton is finishing the first six months of her presidency.

Still, anyone not living on an iceberg knows that national Democrats couldn’t be bothered with the problems facing white working-class folks in Rust Belt cities and rural towns. Once upon a time, this was where the Democratic Party lived, where the party found its greatest strength. Not anymore.

Trump’s not going to help these people, Democrats complain. He’s just blowing smoke. (They don’t say “blowing smoke,” but you get the idea.)

It’s true that all the president’s promises can’t change the basic laws of economics. Consumers won’t be lining up to pay $2,000 for the iPhone assembled by workers earning Ohio wages. In the face of a changing energy market, no one is going to be reopening coal mines in West Virginia. And if union members in Michigan think Trump is going to be their friend, they can look forward to new disappointments.

Trump, however, did reach out to these voters. Focused on the demands of identity politics, Clinton and the Democratic Party managed to recite a long list of aggrieved Americans without mentioning working people — except when Clinton described some among them as “deplorables.”

One would think the Democrat Party now would be committed to re-inventing itself, rewriting the messaging that lost the last election, offering up alternatives to Trump’s rush to reverse course on health care, immigration, business regulation, trade, taxes, strategic alliances and more. Until now, however, there has been no evidence of that.

Democrats don’t have do anything, the argument goes, because voters can see that Trump is such an objectionable person. You will recognize here the same presumption that lost the 2016 election.

In the litany of complaints from rank-and-file Democrats, Nancy Pelosi, the embodiment of the status quo in politics, remains minority leader in the House. Most Americans couldn’t name Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer. And people still talk about Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders — 79 years old by the time the next presidential election rolls around — as a presidential hopeful.

In the latest issue of the Atlantic (“What’s Wrong With the Democrats?”), Franklin Foer argues that success in the cultural wars “created a measure of complacency, as if those wars had been won with little cost. In actuality, the losers seethed. If the Democrats intend to win elections in 2018, 2020 and beyond, they require a hard-headed realism about the country that they have recently lacked — about the perils of income stagnation, the difficulties of moving the country to a multicultural future, the prevalence of unreason and ire.”

The Washington Post columnist Dana Milbank reported — see Friday’s Press Democrat — that Beltway Democrats are finally wising up. This week, he said, Democratic congressional leaders will roll out a new plan that means to spell out what Democrats believe.

Milbank noted recent polls that show only 37 percent of voters believe Democrats “stand for something,” and 52 percent believe the party “just stands against Trump.”

The newest promise — “A Better Deal: Better Skills, Better Jobs, Better Wages” — could turn out to be more of the same, just more talk and window dressing. Time will pass before we know whether Washington Democrats’ self-proclaimed reawakening represents an earnest change of heart, or merely a reflexive response to the latest opinions polls and what is available in plain sight for everyone else. When it comes to identifying the obvious, political insiders in Washington are often the last to know.

A longtime supporter of Democratic candidates told me he now fields requests for donations to the party with a standard response: I’ll make a donation just as soon as you show me that the Democratic Party stands for something.

Pete Golis is a columnist for The Press Democrat. Email him at