Democrats Try To Find A Future Post-Obama With Fault Lines Along Economics, Race

Jan 24, 2017
Originally published on January 24, 2017 8:03 pm

David Betras realized Hillary Clinton's odds of winning the presidency were in peril — back in March of last year.

Betras, the chairman of the Mahoning County Democratic Party, lives in an area of Ohio that traditionally votes for Democrats. But during the Ohio primary, Betras saw 18 people on his own precinct committee defect and cross party lines to vote Republican.

"Why did they vote for Donald Trump?" Betras asked rhetorically, and in the next breath answered his own question, "'cause Donald Trump — I don't get it, but, amazingly, a man that s**** in gold-plated toilets — was talking more to working people than the party's standard-bearer."

Quick fact check: While some apartments in Trump Tower do have gold-plated bathroom fixtures, there's no evidence of a gold toilet. But you get the point: Betras was frustrated with his own party, that it could not appeal to working-class voters while running against a New York billionaire.

"We were stressing the wrong messages. 'Stronger Together' — that's real nice," Betras said, referring to Clinton's campaign slogan. "Let's sit around and sing, 'Kumbaya,' but that really doesn't get anyone a job, does it?"

The future for Democrats is fuzzy. Following President Obama, the first black president, the party is having something of an identity crisis. Clinton lost, in part, because she wasn't able to appeal to white, working-class voters, who were a crucial pillar of the party for decades. But minority activists warn that people of color have been a growing key to Democratic success for years — yet still don't have the influence they feel they deserve.

While many in the party were encouraged by the massive turnout for the Women's March Saturday, which was bigger than the crowd that showed up for Trump's inauguration the day before, Democrats have no clear leader and no unified policy direction. Democrats suffered a stunning defeat in November, capping off a disastrous string of defeats during the Obama years. Democrats have lost more than 1,000 state legislative seats in that time, dozens of congressional and governors seats — and are at the lowest point of their power than at any time in the last century.

In this post-mortem moment, Democrats can't even agree on why the party lost. Some, like Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders, Clinton's chief rival for the nomination, say Democrats focused too much on identity politics and need to return to their economic roots. Others point out that identity politics is a necessary part of the game. They argue that Trump was playing to his own base of white identity politics and that black voters, for example, were among the most loyal Clinton supporters, so the party should not abandon them and cater to whites.

And yet others insist that economics and race are not mutually exclusive choices, that it is possible to focus on both simultaneously. Figuring out that balance is going to be central to the party's survival, as it currently wanders in the political wilderness.

"Off message": Concerns over economy, white, working-class ignored

Betras, the county chairman, was so deeply frustrated by what he was seeing, he typed up a memo and sent it to the Clinton campaign in Brooklyn.

"I told the campaign they were in trouble with blue-collar workers," he said with urgency. He tried to warn the campaign that if it "didn't retool [its] message," it would lose not only Ohio, but also other states with influential white, working-class voting blocs, like Pennsylvania and Michigan.

Betras said no one ever responded to his memo. And Clinton went on to lose exactly as he had predicted. It was the first time a Democrat had lost Ohio and Pennsylvania since 1988 and the first time a Democrat had lost Wisconsin since 1984.

A big reason for that was the bleed with working-class voters in the Mahoning Valley. Three counties make up the valley — Mahoning and Trumbull in Ohio and Mercer in Pennsylvania. Clinton suffered more-than-25-point swings in each county from Obama's performance in 2012.

"We could have saved those states, had they taken my damn memo [and] at least tried to do what I suggested for them to do ... start talking to these people about their jobs," Betras said.

Clinton's loss shocked many Democrats across the country, but it didn't surprise everyone in Ohio, a traditional battleground state where Clinton suffered one of her largest defeats. She lost by more than 8 percentage points, the worst loss for a Democrat there since Michael Dukakis lost it by 11 in 1988.

"I'm not shocked that Hillary Clinton lost," said Precious Samuel, 29, a labor organizer in Cleveland. "I saw the loss a mile away."

In Northeast Ohio, Democrats said they saw the warning signs. And, so now, as Democrats look to rebuild, they also see lessons the national party can learn from Ohio.

"Here's the irony of it — all our local Democrats crushed the Republicans," Betras said, " 'cause we're talking to those voters, we know how to talk to them."

He, like other Ohio voters, pointed to the popularity of Ohio Rep. Tim Ryan (who tried unsuccessfully to challenge Nancy Pelosi, who won yet another term as the Democratic House leader). But Betras said the familiarity and trust many voters felt for local Democrats didn't translate to Clinton on the national level.

"The people here thought — wrongly — the national Democratic Party cared more about where someone went to the bathroom than whether or not these people had a job," Betras said. "And so, we're off-message."

Betras insists for most voters, the economy is the primary concern. And he is worried the Democratic National Committee doesn't understand that — that it has become too coastal, too elite and too disconnected from middle America. His prime example of the elitism he sees in his own party is the criticism he heard from some Democrats when Trump misrepresented the number of jobs in the Carrier deal.

"I don't care if it was a bad deal," Betras argued, "he was fighting for someone's job. That's what we used to do, right?"

Betras said the pushback seemed horribly out of touch with working-class voters. And the Mahoning Valley is home to thousands of working-class folks, many of them white people who voted for Trump in November.

"Those are our voters," Betras said. "Those are the people's issues we should be fighting for."

"Time for progressives to reclaim the party"

Leo Jennings III, a 61-year-old Democratic consultant and former union organizer, grew up in the shadow of the Ohio steel mills.

But those days are long gone, he said, in between bites of country toast and bacon at the Golden Dawn restaurant in Youngstown.

"There's no one around this area who believes for two seconds that the steel mills are coming back, because we all watched them flatten. ... They're gone," he said. "But what they see is the rich getting richer and no opportunity for them to go to work."

Jennings, a Sanders supporter during the primaries, said the only way his party can start winning again is by adopting a more progressive economic agenda.

"I think we've left a lot of people behind by this belief in trade," Jennings said. "I think it's time for the progressives to reclaim the party."

He added that in a year when people wanted to shake up the system, Clinton was the poster child for the status quo. Plus, he added, she didn't have credibility among many voters on issues like income inequality and wage stagnation, because of her flip-flop on the Trans-Pacific Partnership.

Jennings, like Sanders, thinks the party needs to focus on working-class issues above all else.

"If we don't start talking about the things that we can do to make it better for all working-class voters, we're bankrupt as a party," Jennings argued.

Jennings added that working-class whites and blacks are affected by the same financial woes and that the Democratic Party needs to start talking about the economy in a way that rises above race.

"I mean, I don't think you have to abandon identity politics," Jennings said, "but, at the same token, you have to talk to the issues that motivate the traditional Democratic base, because it's been decades where they feel as if they've been ignored."

Both Jennings and Betras fundamentally believe race and class are not mutually exclusive — they say the dichotomy between identity politics and the economy is a false choice.

"I hate the [phrase], 'white, working class,' " Betras said, "and I reject that notion that somehow the white, working-class needs are different from the working-class needs."

For both men, it's a matter of prioritizing the discussion. They see a focus on the economy as a way to ensure the party remains a "big tent."

A warning not to "go and pander back to white Americans"

About an hour and a half west of the Mahoning Valley, in Cleveland, Chinemerem Onyeukwu, 23, part of a group called Ohio Young Black Democrats, echoed that message. He, too, wants a more progressive party.

"If the Democratic Party wants to be around in the future, they need to go left," said Onyeukwu, an organizer for the state's coordinated campaign that worked to elect Clinton.

Onyeukwu, like the Democrats in the Mahoning Valley, also thinks the party needs to focus more on the economy. He points out that's how a man named Barack Hussein Obama won Ohio — twice.

But "progressive" politics for Onyeukwu is more than just the economy. He wants a party that is progressive socially — and culturally. He thinks the party could start winning again by investing more in young voters.

"The Democratic Party has not done a good job in developing the next generation of policymakers, of advocates, and activists, and politicians," Onyeukwu said. He feels that Republicans have made more of concerted effort than Democrats to develop a bench.

He is worried that Democrats are going to keep running what he called '90s-style campaigns despite Clinton's loss.

"The people that they're talking about running in 2020 — they need to be in a retirement home, just old heads," he said, quickly adding, "And, I don't say that to like be ageist ... [but] these people have sat at the top for so long, they don't even know what's going on in the rest of America."

A few other members of the Ohio Young Black Democrats nodded in agreement.

"Hillary's not the problem," said Samuel, the labor organizer. "The democratic process is the problem. And, making sure people feel included."

Samuel said the Democratic Party doesn't seem to understand its audience. And for Onyeukwu, that audience includes many people of color. So he wants a party that also continues to push for more progressive policies on race.

"I want to guard against the Democratic Party, because they feel that they lost because white men and white women did not vote for Democrats," Onyeukwu said. "I want to make sure that we do not abandon minority demographics to go and pander back to white Americans."

Onyeukwu is concerned that identity politics has become increasingly taboo in some Democratic circles.

"As a party," he said, "you should be robust enough to have multiple conversations with multiple groups of people at the same time."

"People of color are the base of the Democratic Party"

This debate over identity politics gets people like Jessica Byrd frustrated. She is an Ohio native who now leads a group called Democracy in Color, which calls for Democrats to invest more in minorities.

"We're talking about identity politics as if the only people who have an identity are people of color when we know that white men ... that's an identity too," she said. "That's who came out and voted for Donald Trump."

Byrd believes Democrats need to figure out how to create the most inclusive party possible. And, for her, that means not just expanding the tent, but also looking inside the tent.

She noted that people of color have been key for Democrats to win elections for years — and yet, she believes they have not been given an influential enough voice in the party. She said without doing so inevitably hurts enthusiasm and grass-roots activism.

"The lack of diversity in the Democratic Party," she said, "means that we aren't meaningfully able to engage in the conversations on the ground that actually get people to care about voting."

She added, "People of color are the base of the Democratic Party; it is our home. The difference, though, is — we're not allowed to make any decisions there."

She argued that power dynamic needs to change, especially at a moment when the party is rebuilding.

"In a time where we are rebuilding our home, and we're like deciding what's going to go on the walls and what kind of couch we're gonna sit on," she said, "we want everybody to come to our housewarming, [but] we also want to make some decisions about what that vibe is like."

Byrd said the party doesn't need a huge overhaul — it just needs to do a better job connecting with the people already in the Democratic Party, particularly minorities, to make sure they show up on Election Day.

Byrd argued part of what's getting lost in this moment of Democratic introspection is the technical failures of the Clinton ground game. Clinton lost Pennsylvania, Michigan and Wisconsin by fewer than 78,000 votes combined. Winning all three of those states would have put Clinton over the 270 electoral votes needed to win.

Clinton didn't make a single campaign stop in Wisconsin and did not pour in the kind of resources necessary to win Michigan. In each of those states, Clinton underperformed President Obama with young voters. Byrd, who worked on the Obama campaign in Ohio, said it takes extensive organizing and one-on-one conversations for Democrats to engage their base voters.

"We have to get back to believing that those resources being spent on human beings," she said, "having conversations with other human beings, is meaningful."

Copyright 2017 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:

As Republicans in Washington get down to the business of governing, Democrats are still trying to dig themselves out of a stunning presidential defeat. The party has no clear leader. People are pointing fingers in opposite directions.

In Ohio, some Democrats say Hillary Clinton's loss was not a surprise. They saw the warning signs, and they have solutions. So NPR's Asma Khalid traveled to Ohio.

ASMA KHALID, BYLINE: Back in March, David Betras realized something was horribly wrong. Betras is the chairman of the Democratic Party in Mahoning County, an area that always goes blue. But during the primary, 18 of his own precinct committee people defected.

DAVID BETRAS: 'Cause Donald Trump - I don't get it, but amazingly, a man that [expletive] in gold-plated toilets was talking more to working people than the party's standard bearer.

KHALID: OK - quick fact check - while Trump Tower does have some gold-plated bathroom fixtures, there's no evidence of a gold toilet. But you get the point. Betras was frustrated with his own party.

BETRAS: Stronger together - that's real nice. Let's sit around and sing "Kumbaya." But that really doesn't get anyone a job, does it?

KHALID: He was so frustrated, he typed up a memo and sent it to the Hillary Clinton campaign.

BETRAS: I told the campaign they were in trouble with blue-collar workers and that if they didn't retool their message, that they were not only going to lose Ohio but that they were going to lose Pennsylvania and Michigan.

KHALID: He says no one ever responded to that memo. Betras is worried that his party has become too coastal, too elite. He told me, just listen to how Democrats criticize Trump because he exaggerated the number of jobs in that Carrier deal.

BETRAS: You know, I want to tell these elites, he was fighting for someone's job. That's what we used to do, (laughter) right?

KHALID: This area of Ohio is home to thousands of white, working-class voters. Leo Jennings III is a Democratic consultant and an old union organizer. In between bites of country toast and bacon, he told me he grew up in the shadow of the steel mills. But those days are long gone.

LEO JENNINGS III: There's no one around this area who believes for two seconds that the steel mills are coming back because we all watched them flatten. I mean they're gone.

KHALID: Jennings was a Bernie Sanders supporter, and he wants to see his party adopt a more progressive economic agenda. He says that's the only way to win around here.

JENNINGS III: If we don't start talking about the things that we can do to make it better for all working-class voters, we're bankrupt as a party.

KHALID: Jennings says the issues that affect working-class white folks and black folks are the same, and the Democratic Party needs to start talking about the economy that way. So I hopped in the car and drove about an hour and a half west to Cleveland where a group of young, black Democrats had gotten together to watch President Obama's final speech. And that's where I met Chinemerem Onyeukwu. He was an organizer for the state Democratic Party working to get Clinton into the White House.

CHINEMEREM ONYEUKWU: If the Democratic Party wants to be around in the future, they need to go left.

KHALID: Onyeukwu agrees. The party needs to focus more on the economy. He points out that's how a guy named Barack Hussein Obama won Ohio twice. But Onyeukwu is 23, and he says the other way the party could start winning again is by listening more to young voters. He's worried that Democrats are going to keep running '90s-style campaigns.

ONYEUKWU: The people that they're talking about running in 2020 - they need to be in a retirement home. And I don't say that to, like, be ageist. I say that in the fact that these people have sat at the top for so long; they don't even know what's going on in the rest of America.

KHALID: There is one other thing that bothers him about this moment of Democratic introspection - the idea that identity politics is increasingly taboo.

ONYEUKWU: I want to make sure that we do not abandon minority demographics to go and pander back to white Americans. I don't think there's anything wrong with identity politics. As a party, you should be robust enough to have multiple conversations with multiple groups of people at the same time.

KHALID: This debate over identity politics gets people like Jessica Byrd frustrated. She's an Ohio native leading a group called Democracy in Color that calls for Democrats to invest more in minorities. Byrd says Democrats need to figure out how to create the most inclusive party possible, and part of that is about looking internally. Byrd says black and brown voters are the most loyal Democratic voters, but they don't have much of a voice. And so she just wants more of a say in her own home.

JESSICA BYRD: In a time where we are rebuilding our home and we're, like, deciding what's going to go on the walls and what kind of couch we sit on, we want everybody to come to our housewarming. We just also want to be able to make some decisions about, you know, what that vibe is like.

KHALID: Byrd says the party doesn't need a huge overhaul. It just needs to do a better job connecting with the people already in the Democratic Party to make sure they show up on Election Day. And that is the crux of the debate. Democrats are trying to figure out in a post-Obama world how to balance race and an economic message. Asma Khalid, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.