Why are so many Democratic operatives cynical, soulless hacks?

Being a cynical sellout is a good way to get rich. But it's not a good way to win elections for a left-leaning party.

Rahm Emanuel isn't fit to lead.
(Image credit: REUTERS/Jim Young)

The narrowness of Hillary Clinton's stunning loss to Donald Trump — especially given the fact that she actually won the popular vote by 2.5 million and rising — has led many liberals to conclude that the Democratic Party only needs a slight adjustment to win future presidential elections. A better candidate, a more competent campaign, or a more credible message on economic issues — any one of them might have kept the presidency in Democratic hands.

On one level, this is true. A large football stadium's worth of additional votes distributed correctly across three states, and Clinton would be president-elect today. But it also obscures the fact that the Democratic Party has basically collapsed at the state level.

There are many things the party must do to rebuild. Here's one more to add to the growing list: The Democrats need a better breed of operative.

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Democratic hacks today have a poor understanding of how to think clearly about their party's best interests. Too often, they confuse being monstrous with political savvy, and fail to see the harm their constant pursuit of big-dollar donors does to their political cause.

Consider, for example, Rahm Emanuel. Now the mayor of Chicago, he was President Obama's chief of staff from 2009-10. He's the guy who cynically suggested ditching ObamaCare when it hit its first political hurdles, who helped lock in a jaw-droppingly horrible deal giving control of Chicago's parking meters to a consortium of investors for over 70 years, and who suppressed video of a police shooting of 17-year-old Laquan McDonald so he could win re-election last year.

Or consider David Brock. A former rabidly anti-Clinton conservative attack dog, Brock has since seen the liberal light and founded Media Matters for America, a political nonprofit, as well as several political action committees. He is probably best known today for building a stable of writers whose slavish hero-worship of Hillary Clinton was matched only by their crazed hostility to Bernie Sanders. Now, much of Media Matters' output is still worthwhile. But overall, Brock's various institutions produce unusually cloddish center-left agitprop.

The political style of Democratic operatives like Emanuel and Brock is characterized by a focus on opposition research and propaganda, an obsessive pursuit of political cash at nearly any cost, and occasional sops to the liberal base when it can't be avoided. Instead of trying to build genuine enthusiasm among the working class with integrity and simple, good policy, they would attack the enemy and essentially dupe people into voting Democratic with psychological tricks, massive ad campaigns, and coordinated use of social media.

The Democrats need better, more honest operatives. Party hacks who actually believe in the ideals the party was built on. People like Terry McAuliffe, the Democratic governor of Virginia.

This is a guy so obsessed with party politics that he once left his wife and hours-old infant in the car while he dropped in on a fundraiser. (He's also got a bad case of foot-in-mouth disease.) Yet as governor, he has worked diligently to get ObamaCare's Medicaid expansion in his state, and more importantly, used his pardon power to restore voting rights to over 109,000 ex-felons.

McAuliffe is not a terribly competent person, and he could certainly have done better on those fronts. Yet he is one of only a handful of the Democratic old guard who seems to grasp that sometimes doing the morally right thing (on the advice of left-wing activists, no less) is also smart tactics. Re-enfranchising felons not only guarantees Democrats several thousand votes come election time, it also lends the party extra credibility among black voters (Virginia is 20 percent black) on the most pressing racial justice issue of the day, and among white liberals in the D.C. suburbs.

McAuliffe's approval rating is 58 percent.

The Brocks and Emanuels of the party would have Democrats double down on catering to rich people. Only days ago Brock was huddled with super-rich financiers attempting to figure out how to "kick Donald Trump's ass." Look at how that worked out.

The final irony here is that, as Bernie Sanders' primary campaign shows, you don't need to be a groveling plutocrat lickspittle to raise gobs and gobs of political cash. A strong working-class and anti-elite message can work about as well — a few bucks from tens of thousands of average schlubs adds up to about the same as tens of thousands of bucks from a few ultra-rich jerks.

Being a cynical sellout is a good way to get rich. But it's not a good way to win elections for a left-leaning party.

Editor's note: This article originally under-reported the number of felon pardons granted by McAuliffe. It has since been corrected. We regret the error.

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