Can Democrats think strategically about Trump country?
Democrat Conor Lamb seems to have eked out a narrow victory in the special election in Pennsylvania's 18th congressional district — which President Trump won by 20 points in 2016. Far too much time, money, and attention has been lavished on this race — after all, this district is literally going to disappear when redistricting goes through before the 2018 midterms. But Lamb's victory is still a pretty impressive demonstration of just how much wind is at the Democrats' back. It also ought to serve as a reminder that if Democrats are going to win in places like western Pennsylvania, they have to formulate an ideological and political stance that reverses the last generation of weak and elitist neoliberal Democratic Party policy.
Hillary Clinton, in her trademark style featuring equal parts reasonable argument and astonishingly tone-deaf phrasing, recently all but admitted this fact. As my colleague Jeff Spross notes, as part of an explanation for why she lost the 2016 presidential election, she said: "I won the places that represent two-thirds of America's gross domestic product. So I won the places that are optimistic, diverse, dynamic, moving forward." Interpreting generously, one could read that as a tacit admission that the rest of the places that aren't on the GDP train really have been left behind, as President Trump constantly says, and that she and her party's failure to provide for those places is part of why she lost.
Regional inequality really is a big part of why the Democrats have struggled in the American hinterland in modern times. The party's shift from the New Deal to neoliberalism led to free trade and deregulation that devastated the U.S. industrial heartland around the Great Lakes. Abandonment of anti-trust meant more and more economic activity concentrated in relatively few cities, as Wall Street-coordinated mergers and acquisitions stripped the assets out of businesses in places like Indiana and Ohio so that financial wheeler-dealers in New York City could collect a quick "dynamic" buck.
The way "moderation" has been translated through the Democratic Party's ideological machinery up through the Obama years is "more neoliberal." That meant that the people the party ran in rural, conservative districts were often likely to support policy that would trash those very same districts. Not surprisingly, this proved to be a massive handicap when the economy melted down in 2008, and the failure of neoliberalism became undeniable. In 2010, with unemployment hovering near 10 percent, the moderate Democratic Blue Dogs were the party faction most obsessed with austerity instead of jobs, and as a direct result, they almost all got washed out of office.
But the political winds are changing.
For one thing, Trump's presidency has done precisely nothing to meaningfully help the "forgotten men and women" he vowed to fight for, as Greg Sargent demonstrates. On the contrary, the only major policy he's passed is a giant tax cut for the rich that will probably exacerbate regional inequality overall. Many districts in Trump Country are ripe for the taking.
For another thing, Lamb shows that Democrats can reach Trump country voters without going full Blue Dog. Now, he is a former prosecutor and Marine veteran who has somewhat socially conservative personal views. But his campaign also featured a sizable dose of economic populism, including withering attacks on Paul Ryan for proposed cuts to Social Security and Medicare — quite different from the typical Blue Dog focus on deficit reduction. That suggests he may be developing a new strand of "moderation" adapting to the fact that direct economic interest of the American hinterland requires a rollback of neoliberalism on all fronts.
Ultimately, it won't be clear just what he thinks about political economy until he gets a chance to vote on something. Once in office, he might go the Doug Jones route, and sell out his constituents with Wall Street deregulation. If that sort of thinking returns to become the governing Democratic consensus, it spells disaster for the party.
In 2006 and 2008, the Democrats won two wave elections largely because President George W. Bush was a despised failure who destroyed everything he touched. But the Democratic Party squandered these victories, largely governing by trying to return to the pre-Bush status quo. Where they did pass big reforms — namely Dodd-Frank and ObamaCare — they were moderate compromises rather than root-and-branch overhauls. On trade in particular, President Obama quickly betrayed his promise to renegotiate NAFTA, and pushed for a new horrible trade deal, the TPP.
That kind of thing is not going to cut it if the party wants to avoid getting wiped out again the next time the economy crashes, and they can't fix it due to ideological self-handicapping. The popularity of individual candidates and positions aside, it is inarguable that Democrats need a workable economic program that spreads economic benefits far and wide — and that means torching the old neoliberal orthodoxy.