Democrats Also Need to Think Anew

Deep-seated discontent challenges leaders of the center-left as well as the center-right.

By William A. Galston

Hillary Clinton conceding the election Wednesday in New York. Photo: Agence France-Presse/Getty Images

When the tide goes out, Warren Buffett once said, you can see who has been swimming naked. On Tuesday night, the Obama tide subsided, exposing the Democratic Party’s structural weakness.

Yes, Barack Obama won two presidential elections by substantial margins. But his was a personal—and, it turns out, nontransferable—victory. During his eight years in office, the Democratic majority in the House of Representatives yielded to the largest Republican majority since 1928. Republicans took over the Senate majority in 2014 and held it this year against daunting odds. In the states, Republicans have gained more than 900 legislative seats since Mr. Obama was inaugurated and now control more than three-fifths of all state legislatures. As Mr. Obama took office, 29 governors were Democrats. This total now stands at 15, with one race still in doubt.

The consequence of these losses is a depleted Democratic bench. An entire generation of potential national figures has been wiped out, leaving the party with a huge gap between newcomers and aging baby boomers.
Beyond the dearth of national leaders waiting in the wings, the Democrats now confront a programmatic and ideological challenge. When the British Labour Party lost its national majority after a series of electoral victories under Tony Blair, the party’s left wing, which had never accepted Mr. Blair’s “New Labour” platform, seized control and installed Jeremy Corbyn, a fringe figure, as Labour’s new leader. Few observers of British politics believe that Mr. Corbyn could ever win a national election.

The Democrats now risk a similar fate. As the 2015-16 intraparty contest showed, the Bill Clinton-era “New Democrat” policies are a spent force. Democrats’ grass-roots energy is on the left. Sen. Bernie Sanders, a lifelong democratic socialist who joined the Democratic Party just in time to compete for its presidential nomination, mounted a surprisingly strong challenge, forcing Hillary Clinton to move toward him on issues ranging from the Trans-Pacific Partnership to student-loan debt.

The Sanders-Warren wing of the party was allowed to play a dominant role in drafting the party platform. During the campaign, Sen. Warren made it clear that her forces would demand a veto over Hillary Clinton’s appointments—especially in the area of financial regulation—if Secretary Clinton won the election. The Corbynization of the Democratic Party could consign it to minority status for a long time.

But as the saying goes, you can’t beat something with nothing. Last Tuesday, Brexit jumped the Atlantic, reflecting deep-seated discontent that challenges leaders of the center-left as well as the center-right. Lacking a compelling formula for accelerating economic growth and boosting wages, Mrs. Clinton could offer only incremental proposals which, however carefully crafted, failed to resonate with average voters.

Her campaign’s initial thematic focus on inclusive growth gave way to proposals that focused more on redistribution than on expansion. Although Donald Trump’s focus on trade and immigration as the principal sources of working-class ills was unbalanced and misleading, it packed a punch. As Mrs. Clinton’s husband once said, “strong and wrong” beats “weak and right” every time.

The Democratic Party needs a clear, coherent alternative to both populism and technocratic elitism. It needs an alternative to both self-defeating protectionism and the failed faith that globalization will work to everyone’s advantage. Democrats need a way of giving ordinary citizens the confidence they now lack that the forces of globalization and technological change can be harnessed to promote their well-being—and that effective action by government is part of the solution.

The challenge for the Democratic Party begins with economic policy but does not end there. At a time when government, especially at the national level, is in disrepute, Democrats convey an impression of satisfaction with the status quo. Here again, the Clinton campaign failed to translate its early thematic focus on “reform” into an agenda that spoke to the concerns of discontented citizens.

Secretary Clinton’s proposed constitutional amendment to reverse the Supreme Court’s Citizens United decision said nothing to the tens of millions of Americans who see the federal government as a self-dealing “swamp.” If it were constitutionally permissible, I suspect most Americans would support legislation requiring senators and representatives to return home after leaving office. The alternative, it seems, is an endless revolving door.

But meaningful reform will not be possible unless Democrats re-examine their assumptions about governance. The administrative state is not omni-competent. Regulation is not the solution for every economic and social ill. Not only does the regulatory process fuel an army of lobbyists; it pours sludge into the entire governance system, slowing to a crawl the translation of publicly supported goals into real change on the ground and intensifying the public’s doubts about government’s capacity to act effectively.

Intellectual renewal is a necessary precondition for political revival. It’s time for Democrats to start thinking.

Mr. Galston writes the Politics & Ideas column for the Journal.

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