News & Politics

Can Democrats Ever Matter Again?

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If Hillary Clinton’s legacy, beyond becoming the first woman to capture a major party nomination, is now failing to keep Donald Trump out of the White House, she may at least be remembered for unintentionally spurring the rebirth of the Democratic Party.

I say “unintentionally” because the Clinton regime and their loyalists undoubtedly dreamed of an endless reign of the Right Kind of Democrat, those who never strayed far from a milquetoast consensus serving fewer and fewer regular people. The culmination was supposed to be the glorious slaying of Trump, unleashing patronage for the thousands of professionals who had been queueing up for goodies since the sun set on the 1990s. Instead, the inner ring of Clinton cool — Huma Abedin, John Podesta, Jennifer Palmieri, Robby Mook, and Cheryl Mills, just to name a few — are exiles in the new order, and deservedly so. They failed spectacularly. Barack Obama, who enabled this coterie and steered Clinton to defeat, will have a lifetime to ask himself why he never learned the lessons of his first presidential campaign.

But the Trump presidency, as disastrous and chilling as it may be in the short term, could be a gift to progressives — if the damage he is about to do can be mitigated or negotiated away. Like an ungainly space rock snagged in a gravitational field and doomed to hurl Earthward, the second Clinton presidency was so inevitable that everyone forgot to ask why she was running and what she had to say to an anxious country. With artificial momentum for a Clinton campaign building since at least 2013, a generation of viable Democrats were forced to put their plans on hold out of deference to Obama’s anointed successor. Now that Clinton and her regime are officially a very large historical footnote, new Democrats can step forward, compete in a healthy and open Democratic primary and let the best candidate win.

I won’t handicap any odds or tell you who runs. That is a long four years away. A trio of new female senators in California, Illinois, and Nevada is a start. The next nominee should be under the age of sixty and free of baggage. Anyone with a net worth north of $1 million, a dubious foundation, or a history of supporting reckless military invasions needn’t apply.

The presidency, though, is beside the point. As of today, the Democratic Party is at its nadir. It controls virtually nothing. Beyond the White House, Republicans have Congress and most statehouses, where the real policy-making happens. Anyone who declared the Republican Party dead was disastrously wrong and should be less forgiven than those (like me) who doubted the electoral strength of Trump. The GOP will probably have a full four years to impose its will on the United States of America. Get ready.

What will emerge in the face of this Republican front is a party that may finally pay heed to its grassroots. Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren are already emerging as de facto leaders. Chuck Schumer, for years a Clintonian centrist, is backing Rep. Keith Ellison — a liberal who supported Sanders early and was laughed at for saying Trump could be president — to lead the Democratic National Committee. Bill de Blasio is unshackled from Hillary. The burden is gone. He burned his bridges with her and now it doesn’t matter. He is freer to criticize what progressives are doing nationally. After Sanders, Warren, and Schumer, there’s a huge vacuum of national leadership, and he can, in theory, assert himself.

The irony is that Trump may allow Democrats to gain back seats in Congress faster than if Clinton were in the White House. Midterms were a bloodbath for Obama, who showed little interest in party-building, and normally disengaged voters may see higher stakes for showing up in 2018. Democrats are set to lose ground in two years as they defend far more seats in the Senate than Republicans. But if Trump is halfway as erratic a businessman as he is a president, the next two years will not make it easy for Republicans running on the status quo. Obama as a foil is gone. Even state legislative races, with the right messaging, could be fertile ground for Democrats again. If Trump is a one-term president, the 2020s could look something like a renaissance. Remember, the Democrats captured the House in 2006 as George W. Bush’s presidency teetered toward ruin.

More importantly, a new generation of activists won’t leave the streets anytime soon. In 2011, touring Zuccotti Park, I naively believed the protests would continue once winter set in. Though the ideas of Occupy lived on, the movement itself fizzled. Trump, however, is a new and concrete threat, a person and not an idea. Organizing against him will be easy. Expect the resistance to be broader and more long-lasting than Occupy. The energy of Black Lives Matter, Occupy, and general revulsion towards Trump will coil together; new and powerful alliances will be formed. The 1960s will no longer be the golden age of activism.

The Democratic Party has all but burned to the ground. The rebuilding effort will be painful and necessary. If a better party doesn’t come out of it, at least one will emerge with an inkling of what its most disenfranchised constituents actually need.

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