A Call to Action for the Large, Cacophonous Mess That is the Democratic Party
The Co-Host of Pod Save America Lays Out a Plan for the
Future of Democracy
The Democratic Party is a broad, diverse coalition that agrees on little more than Trump’s general terribleness. Their individual interests often conflict. In 2018, for example, Nancy Pelosi and the DCCC were focused on defeating Republican incumbents in blue and purple districts that Trump lost. This strategy depended on drawing sharp contrasts with the Republicans. Chuck Schumer and the DSCC were defending Democratic incumbents in red states that Trump won, which sometimes called for blurring distinctions with Trump. The left hand and the other left hand were sometimes moving in opposite directions.
To make matters worse, the post-Citizens United campaign finance laws dramatically reduced the influence of the traditional party organizations. Under current law, an individual can give a maximum of $35,500 a year to the DNC. This is far from a paltry sum, but it pales in comparison to the unlimited amounts super PACs and political nonprofits can raise from individuals and corporations. The outside groups have exponentially more resources than the inside groups with little of the accountability to the public or traditional political stakeholders.
The Democratic Party has never been particularly hierarchical or orderly—especially when we are out of power. No one has the power to convene all the players, and everyone has the power to veto any sort of collective action. The whole process tends to work (a little?) better when there is a Democrat in the White House. When Obama was president, his team helped convene a weekly meeting among all the progressive stakeholders under the banner of something called the Common Purpose Project. It was an opportunity for the White House to brief the groups on our agenda and strategy and plot out plans to enact and defend our shared agenda. It didn’t always work. We didn’t always agree, but getting around a table together was ultimately invaluable. The passage of the Affordable Care Act and the defeat of GOP budget cuts to education, food stamps, and Medicare wouldn’t have happened without it. That level of coordination is much harder when Democrats aren’t in the White House, which is a cruel twist of fate because it’s when we need it the most.
In other words, the whole thing is a large, cacophonous mess.
Before you put this book down, pack your bags, and move to Denmark, keep in mind that the Republican Party was an epic shit show when Obama was in office and very well may still be. Nothing like winning to hide all the warts. The primary function of the Republican National Committee is to employ Trump’s flunkies, pay the legal bills of other Trump flunkies, and hold fundraising events at Trump properties, thereby funneling money from Republican campaigns into the pockets of Trump and his dilettante children. The Republican chair is Ronna Romney McDaniel—Mitt’s niece and someone with so little dignity that when President Trump told her to stop going by Romney because of his distaste for Mitt, she agreed.
But . . . before you relax and soothe your nerves with Trump’s idiocy and endless grift, the Republicans are better organized and much better funded. They have an easier task come election time—they simply need to turn out a group of mostly homogenous very reliable voters. The Democrats have to turn out a larger, more diverse group of people who vote less reliably. We have to overcome voter suppression laws, while getting massively outspent by the other side.
Defeating Trumpism requires reimagining and reforming the Democratic Party. Here is a nonexhaustive list of ideas to do so offered with the humility of someone who would have bet their life on Hillary Clinton being president right now and Donald Trump being the sixth member of The Five on Fox News.
Become the Defenders of Democracy
Fixing democracy needs to become the primary purpose of the Democratic Party. I know this sounds cheesy, but nothing else happens if we don’t pursue aggressive steps to fix our democracy. There will be no Medicare for All, no Medicare for some, no Green New Deal, no $15 minimum wage, and no new gun safety laws.
The party platform needs to lead with aggressive reforms—many of which I will lay out in coming chapters. Leaders need to use their platforms to raise the alarm. Democracy needs to be the central message.
This can’t be a campaign trail hobby that gets forgotten once the election season is over. Democratic elected officials from the White House to the statehouse need to work every day to make our democracy work better. They need to pull every lever and leave no stone unturned. There is nothing more important.
Democratic voters and activists have a critical role to play here. They need to hold Democratic politicians accountable once they are in office. If a Democratic governor is not expanding access to voting, they should be called to the carpet. If someone runs as a reformer but starts palling around with big donors, they should be protested. If they don’t respond to the pressure, they should face a primary challenge.
The stakes couldn’t be higher. Democracy is under relentless assault from the Republican Party and their special interest supporters. Democrats must launch an aggressive counterattack designed to establish majority rule in the country. If we don’t, nothing else matters.
End Our Obsession with the Presidency
This is going to sound weird coming from a former White House staffer who worked on multiple presidential campaigns and co-hosts a podcast that spends an inordinate amount of time covering Trump and the Democrats trying to beat him. But . . . the Democratic Party is too obsessed with the White House.
Don’t get me wrong—the presidency is incredibly important. To repurpose an old Obama saying, the president can do a lot with their pen and phone. Without Congress even showing up to work, the next Democratic president can reenter the Paris climate agreement, strengthen the Affordable Care Act, enforce civil and reproductive rights, put back in place regulations that make our air and water cleaner, and repeal Trump’s ban on transgender troops serving in the military. The next Democratic president could fill up most of their first term signing executive orders undoing the bad shit Trump has done to America.
However, the Democratic Party’s focus on winning the White House has come at the expense of everything else. Democrats have controlled the House of Representatives for only six of the last twenty-five years and the Senate for about nine of the last twenty-five. We have done worse in governorships and lost nearly one thousand state legislative seats during Obama’s presidency. The consequences of not controlling Congress are well-known and painfully obvious every time the Supreme Court hands down some right-wing ruling that seems like it came directly off a whiteboard in McConnell’s office or Koch HQ.
But in an era where Congress can’t agree on naming a post office, statehouses are where policy is made. States manage elections; they can expand or infringe upon reproductive and civil rights. States can make guns easier or more difficult to buy. Most important, state governments draw the congressional and legislative district lines. Traditionally, Democrats have’t cared as much about these down-ballot races. This isn’t just the fault of the Democratic Party leadership. Democratic donors (big and small) give less money in nonpresidential years. The further you go down the ballot, the less money is raised. The Democratic gubernatorial and state legislative campaign arms usually raise a lot less money than the congressional committees, even though you can argue that those offices have a greater impact on the lives of more people. Voter turnout drops precipitously for Democrats when it’s not a presidential election. This dropout explains Democratic losses in 2010 and 2014, which are the losses that allowed the Republicans to gerrymander much of the country and control the Supreme Court for decades. Democratic candidates seem much more interested in running for Congress than state legislatures, which means until recently the Democratic bench looked as shallow as the Warriors bench in the 2019 finals.
Republicans, on the other hand, have spent decades and millions of dollars investing in running and winning state elections. To be fair, Republicans have two advantages (and one of them isn’t that they are smarter). First, Republican voters are older, more reliable voters who vote in every election regardless of who is running. Therefore, they don’t have the same drop-off in midterms that Democrats do. Second, the Republican donor network invests in politics up and down the ballot. They pay to train candidates. They understand that $50,000 may be a drop in the ocean of a presidential campaign, but it can tip a state legislative race. They know that today’s school board candidate is tomorrow’s congressional candidate.
We have to win the next presidential race, but a lonely victory at the top of the ballot will not be enough. The Republican response to the last Democratic president was to use every weapon at their disposal to nullify the results of the elections. That will happen again.
Without the Senate, the next Democrat will have a limited impact at best on the federal courts. Democrats need to be prepared for the fact that if a Supreme Court justice retired in the middle of the next Democratic president’s inaugural address, McConnell would hold the seat open for four years.
If there is a progressive in the White House and conservatives control the statehouses, most of America will never feel the full impact of progressive policies. The Affordable Care Act included what was essentially free money for states to expand Medicaid to insure their citizens. States with Democratic governors leapt at the opportunity to take care of their citizens without affecting their already tight budgets. Many Republican governors became the first politicians in recorded history to turn down free money and forced their citizens to go without lifesaving health care. There was no argument about fiscal responsibility or small government. The whole point was to fuck with Obama’s policy. The less successful the policy, the better the chances of defeating Obama in 2012 or another Democrat in 2016. I don’t want to be overdramatic about this, but a lot of people died because Republican politicians cared more about hurting Obama than helping their fellow human beings.
Elected officials, party leaders, and even podcasters need to use their platforms to focus attention on the importance of winning down-ballot races. We need to convince donors and political operatives to invest their money and time in these races. We need to talk about the policy consequences and opportunities that come from political power at the state and local level. For example, one of the best ways to protect a woman’s right to choose is to elect governors and legislatures who can pass laws to protect their citizens from an adverse Supreme Court ruling.
There is good news on this front. In 2017 and in 2019, Democrats made huge gains in the Virginia assembly, picking up seats in districts Republicans had held for decades by contesting even the most Republican of seats. In 2018, the turnout among Democratic voters was so high that it was on par with recent presidential elections, which helped the Democrats take control of the House of Representatives and rip the gavel from Paul Ryan’s cold, emotionally dead hand. Democrats also flipped seven governors’ offices from red to blue.A lot of people died because Republican politicians cared more about hurting Obama than helping their fellow human beings.
Without a doubt, this burst in activity was a response to the racist, authoritarian criminal “working” in the White House. The wind was at our back. But the historic turnout of 2018 was also the product of a wave of activism that started right after Trump was elected. The work of everyday citizens who want to make America better was supercharged by new, innovative, tech-savvy groups like Run for Something, Swing Left, Sister District, Indivisible, and others. These groups are the future of the party. We cannot turn our backs on them once the specter of Trump has been exorcised.
It’s easy to be distracted by the presidential election. But we can’t afford to let that happen again. The extraordinary results of ’17, ’18, and ’19 need to become ordinary. That’s the only path to progressive success.
The Campaign Never Stops
On the first day I walked into the White House, I thought to myself, “The campaign is over. It’s time to govern.” I had spent my entire career as an itinerant campaign operative. Sure, I had worked in government, but those posts were just way stations to the next campaign. I always felt the most comfortable in a campaign office wearing jeans and being part of a team working around the clock and putting everything on the line. I never loved working on Capitol Hill—the pace was slow, the results few and far between, and besides, I don’t like to play softball, which is the primary nonwork activity of Hill staffers.
For a while at least, I loved the political combat of campaign season. I was pretty good at making myself hate the opponent— no matter who they were. But ultimately, I was doing those campaigns because I wanted a shot at working in the White House. That was the ultimate goal. Now that I finally had that opportunity, I wanted to remind myself to govern, not campaign. My mentality at the time was consistent with how Democrats think. There is a time for campaigning and a time for governing. Campaigning is dirty work. Governing is important, and rarely, if ever, shall the two meet. Don’t get me wrong—every job in the White House is inherently political, and we thought a lot about how our governing decisions affected Obama’s political standing. However, we worked hard to avoid being overtly political.
Despite being in a very politically precarious position heading into the reelection campaign, Obama didn’t raise a single dollar for his own race until the spring of 2011—less than eighteen months before the election. And even then, we were very nervous about opening the reelection campaign office.
“What message would it send to voters that Obama wanted their vote?” was in hindsight a really stupid thing to worry about, but worry we did. To be fair, it wasn’t just us. The decision to form the reelection campaign in April 2011 was mildly controversial within the hothouse of stupidity that is DC punditry. The right-wing noise machine came after us for launching earlier than any other candidate in recent memory. We announced one whole month earlier in our term than George W. Bush did in his. In the eyes of some, pulling the political calendar forward by one month was a greater sin than invading the wrong country after 9/11.
From the book Un-Trumping America: A Plan to Make America a Democracy Again. Copyright © 2020 by Dan Pfeiffer. Reprinted by permission of Twelve/Hachette Book Group, New York, NY. All rights reserved