Divided Democrats?

There was a “This American Life” episode last week that was really good, yet, went way overboard in making the case that the Democratic party is hopelessly riven and chaotic.  Honestly, that strikes me as a way to score cheap pundit points.

There’s this idea that the only thing Democrats can agree on is that Trump is bad and that, rather, Democrats need to present a affirmative message.  I’m totally with Paul Waldman in believing that this is wrong on all counts:

That notion is wrong on both counts: they don’t need a “positive” message as it is often defined, and anger at the president is not just sufficient, it’s the most morally and politically appropriate message for 2018.

As a way to think about this, I’d like to look at the Democratic response to the State of the Union, which was delivered last night by Rep. Joe Kennedy (D-Mass.). Put aside the stupid questions about him — Should the Democrats be promoting the scion of a royal family? Was he wearing too much lip balm? — and focus on the content. Kennedy’s speech mentioned policy issues, but mostly it was an attack on Trump and the Republicans, delivered through a contrast of values. Here’s a key passage:

This administration isn’t just targeting the laws that protect us — they are targeting the very idea that we are all worthy of protection. For them, dignity isn’t something you’re born with but something you measure. By your net worth, your celebrity, your headlines, your crowd size. Not to mention, the gender of your spouse. The country of your birth. The color of your skin. The God of your prayers. Their record is a rebuke of our highest American ideal: the belief that we are all worthy, we are all equal and we all count. In the eyes of our law and our leaders, our God and our government. That is the American promise.

You might say: “That won’t persuade the fellas in MAGA hats the New York Times keeps interviewing down at that diner in West Virginia!” And you’d be right. It is an appeal to liberal values of equality, inclusiveness, and common fate and purpose. It won’t convince conservatives to vote for Democrats.

But that’s not what Democrats need right now. What they need, more than anything else, is for their base to get energized, excited, and yes, angry. They need to feel that both their values and their interests are under attack by a reckless, impulsive, cruel, infantile president and his enablers in Congress, and that there is no more urgent task than stopping them. Because that is the truth.

Centrist pundits will insist Democrats have to stand for something apart from Trump. But they already do. Ask a Democrat running for Congress what she would like to do about health care, the minimum wage, environmental protections, taxes, or anything else, and she’ll have answers, roughly the same answers as most other Democrats would give. She might not have a bumper-sticker-ready phrase to wrap it all up with, but if you think that’s her problem, then your argument isn’t that Democrats don’t stand for anything. Your argument is that their marketing ought to be better. [emphasis mine]

And what’s the problem with “I’m against Trump” as a message? It seems to be darned persuasive right now. When people say that Democrats (or anyone else) need an “affirmative” message, what they seem to mean is that the party needs to come up with a bunch of innovative new policy ideas no one has ever thought of before. But why?…

As for being against Trump, what could possibly be more important right now? If Democrats do manage to take back the House or the Senate, their primary task in the subsequent two years — their only task, really — is going to be thwarting, constraining, and investigating this president and his administration.

Meanwhile, Slate’s Osita Nwanevu makes the case that Democrats are hopelessly riven because Joe Kennedy III is pretty dumb about marijuana policy (I’ll give Nwanevu that) and has not endorsed “single payer” health care.  As I’ve argued before and will argue again, the key is affordable, universal health care.  Single payer is just a means, not an ends.  He also hits him for not providing a bunch of policy specifics (sure don’t think that’s a usual think in SOTU responses).  If you’ve got to try this hard to make the Democratic party hopelessly divided, maybe it really isn’t all that divided.

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About Steve Greene
Professor of Political Science at NC State http://faculty.chass.ncsu.edu/shgreene

4 Responses to Divided Democrats?

  1. R, Jenrette says:

    The best part of Kennedy’s speech was his youth and the sheer energy and passion of it. The message was straight from his grandfather, Bobby, the best of the Kennedys so far, a message of American idealism that connected with most segments of our society.
    Keep it coming, Bobby #3.

    • Nicole K. says:

      In all honesty, Kennedy is only remembered so fondly because he was assassinated. He was early in his administration and barely had won the presidency. An argument can be made he only won the election because of political corruption without using crazy conspiracy theories. He was a serial sex addict. And he made very Trumpian statements like telling America he was “the healthiest candidate for president,” when he had Addison’s disease, a serious debilitating medical disorder of the adrenal gland. And he was getting cocktails of painkillers injected by his physicians in order to function. He never got any of his legislative initiatives passed, and he was the architect of a failed policy in Cuba.

      His only great achievement was the Cuban Missile Crisis. Most historians (almost always liberals) consider him the most overrated president in history. I agree with that assessment completely. His shine never faded because he died at 43 tragically and was followed by LBJ, racial unrest, and Vietnam.

  2. R, Jenrette says:

    You are wrong – just review the scenes as his funeral train made its way through the countryside. Look at the many people who stood by the tracks in respect for what he promised them and so inspired them.
    It’s true he had a checked past. I believe he responded to the shock of his brother’s assassination by becoming a man dedicated to the people. He already had pressed his brother into acting on civil rights. I was there watching my TV as he campaigned for the Democratic nomination, for news of his murder and then his burial.
    In case you are too young to have seen this transformation, you should read Chris Matthews’ book on RFK.
    Robert Kennedy should not be confused with JFK.

    • Nicole K. says:

      As Attorney General, RFK pressured the CIA into ongoing failed attempts to assassinate Fidel Castro, even enlisting the aid of organized crime. He was just as much of a sex addict / womanizer as JFK. Both RFK and JFK were tragically murdered. Their early deaths are part of what makes inflating their accomplishments so easy. I’m not going to argue that people feel very strongly about RFK/JFK, but their actual deeds do not live up to the mythology that continues to this day.

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