Are Democrats in Denial?

A report on the 2014 election reveals a party that has yet to move past the first stage of grief.

Manuel Balce Ceneta/AP

Democrats released an official autopsy of their defeat in the 2014 midterm elections over the weekend. It's a document that reveals a party largely unshaken by its stinging defeat in the midterm elections. Just nine pages long, if you include the front and back covers, the report from the Democratic National Committee is not a particularly detailed dissection of the November drubbing. Its conclusions boil down to a familiar refrain from losing parties: The problem is the packaging, not what's inside the box.

"It is clear that Americans overwhelmingly support the people and issues that the Democratic Party fights for every day," the report asserts. In other words, Democratic ideas are better, but somehow more people voted for Republicans. At the same time, the members of the Democratic Victory Task Force—a collection of state and federal party leaders, consultants, and patrons like Google's Eric Schmidt—suggest that while Americans back Democrats on individual policies, they don't actually recognize the party's core principles. The report proposes launching a "National Narrative Project" to "create a strong values-based national narrative that will engage, inspire and motivate voters to identify with and support Democrats." The authors wrote:

It is strongly believed that the Democratic Party is loosely understood as a long list of policy statements and not as people with a common set of core values (fairness, equality, opportunity). This lack of cohesive narrative
impedes the party’s ability to develop and maintain a lifelong dialogue and partnership with voters.

What this means, exactly, isn't clear. But its mere inclusion is a remarkable acknowledgment of the intra-party tensions that likely will continue to fester even if Democrats anoint Hillary Clinton as their next presidential nominee without a contested primary. Those are not just the highly scrutinized debates between the populist wing of Elizabeth Warren and the more Wall Street-friendly Clinton crowd; there is also a subtler, but still significant, divide among Democratic champions of issues like climate change, immigration reform, and campaign-finance reform on one end and those who believe the party would be better off focusing on pocketbook issues that more directly affect voters' economic well-being.

"It's my paycheck, stupid," Representative Steve Israel, the former chief of the House Democratic campaign committee, told me last fall, offering a twist on the famous Bill Clinton line that he has repeated many times since. That was also the basic sentiment behind the blunter electoral post-mortem offered by another New York Democrat, Senator Charles Schumer, who scolded his party for passing a polarizing healthcare law rather than more economic stimulus in the early part of the Obama presidency. Saving the planet from environmental ruin, preventing the American political system from devolving into an oligarchy, and allowing millions of undocumented immigrants to live without fear of deportation—just to take three examples—are grand goals that key elements of the Democratic coalition may set for themselves. And all of them have profound macroeconomic impacts on the country. But do they really speak to the daily concerns of people who either stayed home or voted Republican last November? As Democrats learned in 2010, providing health care to an additional 10 or 20 million people represents a generational policy victory, but it's a tougher sell to the millions more who already had insurance and believe, accurately or not, that they are paying for someone else's entitlement.

These goals are not mutually exclusive. Democrats don't have to choose between fighting to combat climate change and championing equal pay, or between passing immigration reform and offering tax cuts for the middle class. But the lesson they seem to be learning from 2014 is that their message was too muddled, and that if they aren't willing to jettison items from the party's platform, they at least need to do a better job of connecting the dots. The National Narrative Project, however, doesn't inspire much confidence. Just a few pages after expressing disdain for "Beltway consultants who recommend cookie-cutter campaigns," the party announces an initiative whose amorphous name could only have been coined by a consultant.

The DNC task force rightly pointed out that the party needed to "reclaim voters we've lost, including white Southern voters," as well as "excite key constituencies such as African American women and Latinas, and mobilize
the broadest coalition of voters possible to not only recapture state houses but also Congress." But it said nothing about how, or even if, those objectives could be pursued simultaneously. The report also acknowledged that losses in state and local races had decimated the Democratic bench, and it pledged a six-year plan to rebuild the party from the ground up, with an eye toward the next round of congressional redistricting in 2022. Here, too, the details were a little thin.

Aside from backing a constitutional amendment guaranteeing an "explicit right to vote," it offered no major policy recommendations. Democrats may have been wary of repeating the experience of their GOP counterparts, who in an autopsy of the 2012 election loss urged the party to "embrace and champion comprehensive immigration reform" only to watch the Republican House majority reject that proposal in 2013 and 2014. While skipping specifics, the DNC report did nod toward populism with a quotation from the Great Commoner, William Jennings Bryan, the three-time failed presidential candidate who was given a place of prominence usually reserved for Kennedy or Roosevelt. (The DNC is quick to emphasize the report is preliminary, and an aide noted that one reason for releasing an early, incomplete draft is to gather input that could be incorporated into the final version.)

Perhaps Democrats are just going through the motions. In releasing the preliminary report on Saturday, DNC Chairwoman Debbie Wasserman Schultz warned that Democrats were in for some "tough love." But aside from twice labeling the last two midterm election results "devastating," the autopsy didn't find much fault. That may be a reflection of the party's confidence heading into 2016. Democrats have had much more success turning out their voters in presidential years. They have, in Clinton, a presidential nominee-in-waiting, and many remain convinced that demographic trends favor Democrats over the long term in key states. But as John Judis has detailed in National Journal, that last assumption may already be outdated. And even if Democrats keep the White House, the last four years have shown how a president's power is diminished without a majority in Congress. Maybe the lengthier "action plan" that the DNC is promising by May will have more answers. In the meantime, though, the search for a Democratic identity in the post-Obama age continues.