Democrats need a majority — here’s how to get one
“Governor,” someone once told Adlai Stevenson, the cerebral 1956 Democratic presidential candidate, “every thinking person in America will vote for you.”
Stevenson’s almost certainly apocryphal answer: “But I need a majority.”
For Democrats, winning a nomination often means moving left to win largely liberal primary voters. But does that leave them unable to win the more moderate middle in November?
Tuesday night’s debate put left v. middle on full display: Sens. Bernie (“No Middle Ground”) Sanders (I-Vt.) and Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) against the moderates.
The left won. But by winning the battle, did they risk losing the war? Would the Democrats wind up with a nominee unable to move beyond their base?
Going into Wednesday night, that question revolved around former Vice President Joe Biden. In June, he’d been woefully unprepared, unable to muster more than a feeble defense when Sen. Kamala Harris (D-Calif.) ambushed him. Yet he still led in the polls afterward.
How would he do this time?
Flanked by Sen. Cory Booker (D-N.J.) on his right and Harris on his left, targeted at different times by everyone else, Biden survived.
Resembling the solitary pigeon on the phone line being pelted with rocks by all the kids in the street, he fended off questions — not always accurately. He was more energetic, found time to smile, and defended his own programs with energy.
But he stumbled a few times. He looked down too much. He reflexively defended stances he might have been better off conceding. He did not regain the anointed status he had a month ago. You can still bet on Biden — but not with all your chips.
To understand why, let’s take a step back and look at the larger picture.
It begins with a clear-eyed view of the candidate not on the stage. Donald Trump is not what many of us held in 2016: an ignorant lout, catering to white nationalists, and so disgraceful in his private life he could not possibly win. Really, Trump is a compelling candidate beloved by a steady 40 percent of Americans who will not desert him.
Moreover, Democrats face two other obstacles that won’t go away, no matter who becomes their nominee.
The first is the Electoral College. Devised as a way to favor the rural, slave-holding states in the Union, it discriminates, not just against Democrats but against democracy, in part because of its winner-take-all system. For example, Trump won Wisconsin by 47.2 to 46.4. In a democracy, you’d think Hillary Clinton’s supporters might deserve at least five of Wisconsin’s 11 electoral votes. But Trump got them all.
Well, didn’t Clinton get the same benefit in states she won? Yes, but the candidate with supporters in small states benefits more. One example: In 2016, states with the lowest 4 percent of the population gave Trump 8 percent of the electoral vote, doubling their influence.
That’s why no matter what the popular vote is in 2020, there is a very good chance — sorry, Democrats — that Trump will win the Electoral College and another four years as president.
The second obstacle for Democrats is ideology. Polling shows what Americans want least in a president: socialism; 48 percent of independents will never vote for a socialist. That is why the Democrats will never nominate Sanders, who defiantly proclaims himself a democratic socialist, staying true to principle and providing Trump a cudgel he already has used. During last night’s debate, Republicans were running ads about Democrats equating them to socialists.
Warren cleverly insulated herself against that charge by making it plain that she is a “capitalist.”
Still, the 2020 election will not turn on labels. More alarming than the overblown differences that listeners heard between Harris and Biden on health care plans was what debaters didn’t do — use stories, examples and policies appealing to those on the other side.
In the American University speech writing class I co-teach, we show students that the interplay of political tactics and language offer many ways to do that, especially with some techniques of repetition speechwriters can recite in their sleep. Just two such examples:
Reach out. Be more persuasive by finding common ground with the other side, and reach across the aisle. This year, there is no more appealing example than to pledge willingness to compromise. One 2017 Gallup poll found three times as many Americans believe in “compromise” as those believing in “sticking to principle.”
Yes, Biden trapped himself in June by pledging to work with the GOP, but he did not “celebrate segregationists” as Warren insinuated. He said he’d compromised with those he couldn’t stand, calling segregationist Herman Talmadge “one of the meanest men I ever knew.” He should make that pledge again. The other candidates know it is right—because they do it themselves. In 2017, Warren compromised with lots of hidebound Republicans on a bill to get veterans jobs.
Urge policies for those who are not poor. Political speeches have several audiences. They should appeal to more than one. Much of the last debate focused, for example, on poor Americans and race — not the same thing. But to win a state such as Michigan, Democrats must make a broader appeal.
Harris has offered one excellent example. Her equal pay plan requires corporations to post wages by race and gender. In that way, companies would have no choice but to eliminate discrimination by race.
But why not go a little further? It’s well known that companies insist on college degrees for jobs that don’t need them. Why not make companies post that data, too, appealing to white, non-college educated women who last time went overwhelmingly for Trump?
In 2020, Democrats must appeal to more than other Democrats. Politics, after all, is not just the art of the possible; it is the art of the practical. Adlai Stevenson’s family knew that. When his grandfather became U.S. assistant postmaster general in 1890, this firm believer in the patronage system is supposed to have said, “The first thing I did was fire 30,000 Republicans. The next thing I did was hire 40,000 Democrats.”
Whoever becomes the Democratic nominee must offer a blend of the practical and principled. The intertwined language and history of presidential politics offers Democrats many ways to offset the Electoral College and win a majority. That way, they won’t have to fire 30,000 Republicans. With a better approach, firing one would do just fine.
Bob Lehrman, former chief speechwriter for Vice President Al Gore, teaches speech writing at American University. He and fellow teacher Eric Schnure have co-authored the soon-to-be-released second edition of “The Political Speechwriter’s Companion” (SAGE, 2019). Follow him on Twitter @RobertLehrman1.
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