The Short Term and the Long Term
Or, my annual reflections on electoral politics …
When I wrote Take Back Our Party two years ago, it was clear whom I was saying we needed to take the Democratic Party back from: the centrist, technocratic, Clinton-Obama-Clinton wing that has held power since the takeover by the Democratic Leadership Council in the early 1990s. The party, one might say, of Terry McAuliffe: a man who made a fortune in real estate before becoming a prolific financial backer of Bill Clinton’s political career (and of the Clintons’ purchase of their house in Chappaqua), chair of the 2000 Democratic Party Convention, chair of the Democratic National Committee, and co-chair of Hillary Clinton’s 2008 campaign before becoming governor of Virginia in 2014.
This past week, McAuliffe failed to win a second term as governor of Virginia, losing in a state that Joe Biden won by 10 percentage points just a year ago. Pundits will furiously debate whether a more progressive candidate would have done better or worse. Moderates will argue that a progressive would have been even more vulnerable to Glenn Youngkin’s attacks; those on the left will argue that people motivated by sinister theories about critical race theory would have voted against any Democrat, and a progressive candidate would have given more people a reason to vote for them.
I don’t want to get entangled in that debate because no one can know what would have happened and no one’s mind will be changed by arguing about it. I think it’s hard to know, in the short term, what candidate and what strategy will maximize our chances of winning a given general election.
The problem is that the long term is only a succession of short terms.
After three decades of doing precious little to help ordinary working people and stem the rising tide of inequality, the centrists’ sole remaining argument each year is that they are more likely to win in November. The result is that we are a party stuck in the same place, desperately scrambling to eke out a win in every election cycle and succeeding somewhat less than half the time. We should be the bold, visionary party, the party of racial and gender equality, of economic security, of free health care and free public education from pre-K through college, of child care and paid family leave, and of saving our planet for our children. Instead we are the party of Terry McAuliffe, of perhaps well-meaning rich people whose ambition is to maintain a friendly environment for business, reduce the national debt, and be less evil than the Republicans.
Every election that we grope toward the mythical “independent” “swing” voter is another election in which we fail to establish a meaningful, distinctive identity that will shift the national debate in our direction and inspire people to be Democrats. No one really knows what our party stands for, other than COVID-19 vaccines and respecting electoral outcomes. For every Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez calling for the Green New Deal or a tax on billionaires there is a phalanx of Dianne Feinsteins and Joe Manchins protesting that we can’t afford it, we don’t want to be divisive, and we just want to go back to the good old days of the 1990s when Democrats and Republicans could agree on bipartisan priorities like increasing police funding and lowering capital gains taxes. And when moderates like Terry McAuliffe lose important races in blue states, that somehow becomes evidence that it is even more important to nominate someone even more moderate the next time around.
If we keep doing the same thing, we will win some, we will lose a few more, and we will become the minority party of the well-educated. We need to expand our appeal to a broader segment of the electorate, and to do that we need to establish what we stand for, and we have to start doing it now. Only then will we able to escape the trap of short-termism; only then can we shape the long-term direction of the political landscape and of our country.