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As the 2020 presidential contest begins, Democrats need to refocus

Feb 04,2019 - Last updated at Feb 04,2019

We are off to the races; the 2020 presidential races, that is. Since the beginning of the year, at regular intervals, new candidates have been coming forward to announce their intention to compete for the presidency. Some are interesting and/or exciting, while others frankly leave me scratching my head and asking “What are they doing? How on earth do they think they are going to be elected?”

While reading reports on the proposed strategies and “visions” of these fledgling presidential aspirants, I have been struck by two quotes that are important because they define two fundamentally flawed approaches to politics. Both quotes are only half right, and both are recipes for defeat.

The first of them came from Howard Schultz, the billionaire founder of the Starbucks coffee empire. He is exploring running for president as an independent. Schultz has described his political philosophy as being “socially liberal and fiscally conservative”. This formula is the one that has been adopted by so-called “centrists”, moderate Democrats and liberal Republicans. They have embraced it with such conviction that it has become, for some, the accepted wisdom of what is needed to fix American politics. The problem with this “wisdom", however, is that it is not wise at all. It does not work, and it fails to consider the aspirations of millions of hard working Americans, the very voters who are supposed to be the intended audience of this centrist message.

Two decades ago, working with polling conducted by my brother, John Zogby, I wrote "What Ethnic Americans Really Think", a study of the attitudes and voting behaviours of white ethnic Americans. The groups we initially covered were the communities of European Mediterranean immigrants and their descendants who, for decades, have been dominant in the mid-Atlantic and Midwestern states.

What we found was that their views on a range of political and social issues were the exact opposite of what the centrists believed them to be. Our study found that these ethnic voters were proud of their heritage and their traditions. They believed in supporting their families and communities, and in the values of hard work and playing by the rules. At the same time, they saw government as playing an essential role in providing for the common good. They were deeply committed to providing quality education for all, strengthening social security and Medicare, protecting the environment, imposing stricter gun control and supporting the rights of organised labour. The bottom line was that these voters were socially traditional and fiscally liberal.

And when we compared the attitudes of these white ethnic voters with Black and Latino voters, we found that they closely matched one another. The point was that most Americans want the same things for their families and communities, good paying jobs, quality education, healthcare and a safe and secure environment, and they see the role of government as playing a positive, not negative, role in realising these goals.

The second quote came from a senior adviser to one of the Democrats who recently announced their candidacy to run in the presidential primary. The adviser described their campaign's strategy as focusing on "base Democratic voters". Now while a primary, by definition, is for Democratic voters, Democrats have, for too long now, made the mistake of shaping their message and narrowly targeting their efforts on what they defined as their "base", which has included: minority communities, educated women and young voters.

This worked for president Barack Obama in 2008 and 2012, and it was a key factor in Doug Jones' successful 2017 senate race in very Republican Alabama. But as an overall strategy, this approach of focusing on some groups, while excluding others, is a recipe for disaster.

I had an argument about this very issue at a Democratic Party meeting shortly after Democrats had suffered major loses in the 2014 congressional elections. At that meeting, the party's pollster/strategist presented his analysis of the election, insisting that the strategy of targeting only "base voters" was not the reason for the loss. With slides full of tables and graphs, he demonstrated that indeed, Democrats had won the Black vote, the Latino vote, the youth and educated women vote, but he concluded "we just did not win enough of them". His solution was that "in the future, we need to expend greater resources going after 'our' voters”.

At that point, I strenuously objected, saying that Democrats also needed to have a message and a strategy to win the support of other voters. I noted, especially, voters from European Mediterranean ancestry, who had been Democrats a few decades ago but had since left the party, primarily because the party stopped speaking to them. The pollster/strategist countered "Why should we throw money away going after voters who are never going to support us?"

That attitude, I responded, is why Democrats had lost control of governorships and legislatures in the Midwest. I said that with this attitude, Democrats were being as divisive as Republicans, were abandoning and betraying groups of voters that needed our support and policies and would never be able to win a decisive enough majority to effectively govern. With this, the debate ended.

As I noted at the outset, both quotes were one-half correct. It is important to be inclusive and protective of the rights of all, if that is what Schultz meant by being "socially liberal". But coupling that with being fiscally conservative means crippling the very government that provides for equal opportunity, equal access to vital services and the safety net that lifts up those who need a helping hand. Voters get that, those calling themselves "centrists" do not.

And while it is important for Democrats to focus resources on voters who have been faithful supporters, this should not be at the exclusion of reaching out to other groups of voters who need to be brought into the Democrats’ fold. Politics should be about adding, not subtracting.

In 2016, President Donald Trump took advantage of this half-right approach to politics. Yes, he ran a racist campaign that attracted support from white supremacists, but he also preyed on the resentment of white voters, who felt ignored/betrayed by Democrats who had a message for everyone but them. Trump coupled his "courting" with fear and even hatred of the "other". And he replaced centrism with populism. While with a wink and a nod at the GOP establishment, he made it clear that he would cut taxes and government regulations, that protected the environment, health, safety, etc., he promised middle class voters the moon, great healthcare for all, good jobs for everyone and making America respected in the world.

For Democrats to win, they need to be more than anti-Trump. They will need to have a message that speaks to the aspirations of all voters and a strategy that actively courts them, as well.

 

The writer is president of the Washington-based Arab American Institute

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