(CNN)Democrats would be unwise to ignore Hillary Clinton’s recent assessment of the 2016 election cycle.
“If the election had been on October 27, I would be your president,” Clinton told CNN’s Christiane Amanpour at a Women for Women International event on Tuesday.
She’s right. Downplaying the impact of events, unprecedented in modern politics, last fall would send the Democratic Party on a misadventure from which it might not recover — even as it scrambles to redefine itself for the next generation.
The fight to redefine the party began in earnest when Bernie Sanders’ brand of socialism went toe-to-toe with Clinton’s moderate approach. It picked up steam, powered by shock and angst, after Clinton lost to Donald Trump in November. It grew white hot as a gaggle of party officials vied to become the next leader of the Democratic National Committee.
Now, after the first 100 days under an opposition president and Congress, the party has entered the circular firing squad phase as members fight uselessly over things like the meaning of President Barack Obama’s being paid $400,000 by Wall Street for a speech and new data showing that disaffected voters are convinced that President Donald Trump cares more about the poor and middle class than Democrats do.
In one eye-popping finding in polling by Priorities USA, a liberal super PAC, twice as many of the Obama voters who voted for Trump said Democrats’ policies favor the wealthy compared to those who believed the same about Trump.
The reality on the ground can’t be more different than what Obama/Trump voters perceive, and veering toward the “purity politics” advocated by the Sanders wing of the party will do little — if anything — to change that.
Their perceptions ignore the fact that the Democratic Party used up much of its political capital and sacrificed its control over Congress to achieve milestones for middle-class and poor Americans.
They brought health care to more than 20 million Americans, literally saving lives and offering a buffer against personal bankruptcies caused by medical emergencies. They implemented the most comprehensive Wall Street reform in a generation, a law that included a powerful consumer protection agency that has protected the poor and middle class in countless ways. They fought to increase the minimum wage, including pushing for it to be raised to $15 per hour nationwide. Those efforts yielded results. In combination with a bailout of the auto industry and the largest fiscal stimulus in US history, they helped pull us out of the Great Recession and produced the largest annual increase in wages ever, most of which went to the poor and middle class.
And it isn’t just about the past; Democrats are still fighting from their minority position. They were the first in line to beat back the proposed Trump budget, which slated major cuts for programs that help the neediest Americans while providing massive tax breaks for the already wealthy. Meanwhile, Trump’s policies have been widely cited as favoring rich men such as himself, and his first 100 days in office have included a bevy of conflicts of interest and questions about the use of taxpayer money at his personal properties and top advisers.
What’s more, there’s data suggesting many of those Obama/Trump voters were less concerned about losing the things for which Democrats have been fighting and more about making sure those unlike them don’t receive “too much.”
The question remains: What should Democrats do about it? As a party, they should redouble their efforts to help those in the lower economic and middle classes, even when it goes underappreciated, and should do so without instituting purity tests against Wall Street.
It’s natural for a party to undergo a painful, public kind of soul searching after a devastating loss, and changing nothing makes little sense. Democrats should search their souls, but not abandon who they are and what they’ve done.
It would be unwise for Democrats to overreact to what was a Black Swan of an election. As the former candidate herself reminded us, the FBI director inserted himself directly into the campaign cycle less than two weeks from voting day with an announcement that wounded one candidate and helped the other.
And Russia undermined the democratic process with well-timed leaks aimed at harming that same candidate. And still, Clinton won the popular vote by 3 million votes and would be president had 80,000 votes been different in three states, a total amounting to a rounding error, given that more than 135 million votes were cast nationwide.
The Democratic Party is far from perfect and in too many ways has allowed the corrupting power of money to influence it. A reexamination of its values and principles and message to the poor and middle class is long overdue, not just because they lost in November, but because millions of Americans believe they don’t care and have felt that way for years.
That doesn’t mean the party should be shy about highlighting its differences with the GOP on issues that affect the neediest Americans most.
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