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With a White Working-Class Focus, Are Democrats Going Back to the ’90s?

We asked architects of Bill Clinton's "New Democrat" agenda.

LUKE FRAZZA/Getty Images

At a rally outside the U.S. Capitol last Thursday, Bernie Sanders stated the obvious: “When you lose the White House to the least popular candidate in the history of America,” he said, “when you lose the Senate, when you lose the House and when two-thirds of governors in this country are Republican, it is time for a new direction for the Democratic Party!”

What’s not so obvious, of course, is what “new direction” the party should take. So far, most of the Democrats’ election post-mortems have focused on one particular group that gave Trump his Electoral College edge: white working class voters who backed Barack Obama in 2008 and 2012 but went for Trump by more than two-to-one. Hillary Clinton’s most surprising (and decisive) losses came in the so-called “Blue Wall” of Rust Belt states she was expected to win easily—Michigan, Pennsylvania, and Wisconsin—and lost by less than 110,000 votes combined. Those losses could just as easily be blamed on a lack of enthusiasm by nonwhite and young voters. But so far, it’s a voter cohort that is shrinking over time, rather than growing, that Democrats have fixed on.

Sanders himself gave voice to this impulse when he tweeted, “I come from the white working class, and I am deeply humiliated that the Democratic Party cannot talk to the people where I came from.”

Sanders is among those calling for overhauling the party and its leadership to win back those voters. Representative Tim Ryan of Ohio, whose district is full of blue-collar voters who supported Obama but cast ballots for Trump this year, is challenging Nancy Pelosi—the ultimate “coastal liberal”—for House Minority Leader. As BuzzFeed reported, ideas for blue-collar outreach range “from a complete reform of the party’s infrastructure to changing up communication tactics and espousing more progressive policy ideas.”

For Democrats of a certain age, this might feel like deja vu. The last time the party faced an existential crisis, after losing three straight presidential elections in the 1980s, so-called white “Reagan Democrats” became the party’s obsessive focus for several election cycles. Bill Clinton and the Democratic Leadership Council responded to the Reagan-Bush years with a “New Democrat” strategy that helped him win blue-collar voters (and the White House) in 1992 and 1996.

But the play didn’t end up benefiting many Democrats other than the president. The Southern whites it was supposed to keep in the fold kept going Republican, and the centrist, pro-business positioning and cultural pandering to white conservatives diluted the party’s progressive economic message. In the process, Democrats took nonwhite voters for granted. James Surowiecki of The New Yorker recently argued that Democrats “chose explicitly to pivot away from antiracism” in the early ‘90s, with Clinton’s “tough on crime policies” and welfare reform. Clinton was also accused of speaking in coded racial language to convey that, as then-Democratic strategist Ted Van Dyk told the New York Review of Books in 1992, “poor, black, Hispanic, urban, homeless, hungry, and other people and problems out of favor in Middle America will no longer get the favored treatment they got from mushy 1960s and 1970s Democratic liberals.”

Will 2017 see a return to this type of politics? No prominent voices are calling for Democrats to moderate their message the way they did in the ‘90s. But with the chorus of concern about white working-class voters, comparisons to the “New Democrat” moment are undeniable. What do the leading proponents of that strategy think? Last week, the New Republic spoke with some of them to hear their perspectives—sometimes surprising—about whether it makes sense to go “back to the future” and reorient the party to appeal to blue-collar whites.

“The real parallel to the 1990s and the New Democrat experience is not the particulars—it’s that Democrats need new ideas,” said Will Marshall, who co-founded the Democratic Leadership Council in 1985 and runs the Progressive Policy Institute, once known as “Bill Clinton’s idea mill.” But at least in broad strokes, Marshall’s “new ideas” tend to sound a bit familiar. The Democratic Party remains a coalition between liberals, moderates and a significant smattering of Democrats who identify as conservative, he said, and the left-wing economic populism of Sanders won’t work to inspire them all. “I see nothing in the election returns that shows left-wing populism is the answer to right-wing populism.”

“The campaign with Bernie Sanders shifted the debate toward statist and redistributive solutions,” Marshall added, “and not enough about how we’re going to make the economy grow and make government work better.”

“Reforming government” was a key New Democrat message, of course, and Marshall thinks it needs to be revived: “A message that simply talks about expanding government and not reforming government is missing a critical component,” he said.

Marshall pushes back against “the misconception that demography is destiny,” that elections can be won by mobilizing “this supposed majority” of nonwhite and millennial voters who lean toward Democrats. “It’s not that Democrats don’t have democratic advantages with parts of the electorate that are growing,” he said. “We do. But it’s not enough.”

Elaine Kamarck, another DLC co-founder and key strategist who’s now a fellow at the Brookings Institution, also said Democrats need to reach out to white working-class voters by addressing inequality without resorting to redistribution. She faults Obama for not making infrastructure investment more of a priority during his tenure, which would have benefited blue-collar Americans. Noting how close the administration was to the rising technology sector, Kamarck said, “We have to focus like a laser on the white working class, somehow bridging the old economy and the new economy.”

Kamarck rejects the idea that a “laser-like focus” on blue-collar whites means ignoring the interests of minority voters. “That was bullshit,” she said of the criticism of New Democrats, citing Bill Clinton’s immense popularity in the black community. “That was just white liberals having a fit.”

But while Marshall and Kamarck’s prescriptions for the Democratic Party’s future tend to sound familiar, former DLC stalwart Ed Kilgore, now a columnist for New York magazine, said there’s no reason to react to 2016 by again targeting one specific group. “People are acting as though the Democratic Party is extinct,” he said. “It’s not. Some of the hyperventilation is a bit much.”

Kilgore urged against the idea that “we can cherry-pick our way back to a majority by focusing on one constituency group,” and said Democrats should wait to see how Trump actually governs before they finalize their strategy against him. More likely than not,” he said, “the Trump presidency and what’s going to come with it will offer Democrats an ideal opportunity for a comeback, by 2020 if not before.”

Kilgore acknowledged that the outlook for congressional races in 2018 is bleak for his party—especially since Democrats routinely fail to turn out in non-presidential electionsbut a big backlash against Trump would be reason to hope. “I used to joke that Democrats need to lose a presidential election so they can finally win a midterm,” he said.

Steve Jarding, one of the few consultants who won statewide Democratic campaigns—most notably for Virginia’s Mark Warner in 2001 and Jim Webb in 2006with white working-class support for candidates not named Bill Clinton, calls for striking a balance. He agrees that Democrats need to make more of an effort to speak to blue-collar whites, but says it’s time for the party to be more progressive and populist in the mold of Sanders. Given a changing culture, he said, there’s less pressure for Democrats to do what his candidates did to court the blue-collar vote—embrace bluegrass music, NASCAR, and gun culture. “I think today you can talk more about economic issues because they’re more powerful,” he said. “There’s absolutely no question that an economic populist message today works better than ever.”

What’s tricky, of course, is finding an economic message that resonates both with blue-collar whites and the “emerging majority” of nonwhites and Millennials. Jarding believes the Democrats should look at what they failed to do in 2016 as they look toward the future. The party said, “should’ve been telling these Rust Belt voters you are getting screwed, but it isn’t the people of color screwing you. It’s the damn corporations and the politicians they bought off.”