Democrats vs. Trump: Why Status Quo Ante and Obamaism are Not Enough

Beginning January 3, the Democrats have a choice:  Do they act simply as anti-Trumps, seeking to reverse his policies and revert to status quo ante Obama- politics, or do they move toward something more transformational?  If they are politically smart, they do the latter and build policies and a coalition more permanent.  If they do the former they set themselves for failure and position themselves for setting up the conditions that led to their demise over the last generation.  The challenge for Democrats is navigating this choice, and it is not clear they can successfully do it given the distinct interests within their party.

Democrats, especially in the US House, face complex challenges governing.  In part, their agenda is determined by the lessons of 2016 and 2018 elections.  Theory one is that Clinton and the Democrats lost in 2016 because they failed to take Trump seriously.  Clinton was a weak candidate with a poor message and campaign strategy who ran on the politics of the status quo in an election whose geography came down to a handful of swing states.   She and her party lost because  critical voters, such as women, people of color, and those under the age of 30 stay home because Democrats assumed they would show up to vote, and they did not, while at the same time angry white men did.

Democrats  won in 2018 because Trump was despised, especially by female voters in more affluent and better educated suburbs where Democrats ran candidates who worked hard to get out the vote and mobilize voters who stayed home in 2016.  If this is the theory of what happened, then the Democratic agenda is set: Reverse Trumpism, bring back Obama-era policies, and take on the president with aggressive investigations and checks that could include impeachment.  Do this and many of those lost white, working class voters will return to the party.

Theory two is that the lesson of 2016 and 2018 is tht the Democrats lost because of 40 years of complicity in neoliberal politics, transcending the Bill Clinton and Barack Obama administrations, and which Hillary Clinton personified.  It was a set of policies where Democrats, having embraced  big money from Wall Street, did little to address the rising gap between the rich and poor, where trade, industrial, and tax policies disproportionally hit those lacking a college education, and where the primacy of identity politics ignored the plight of white working class America–still the largest voting block in the country.  When the Great Recession of 2009 hit, Democrats bailed out the banks but not the people, ignored  unions who wanted labor laws updated, and adopted a tepid Republican-inspired health care bill.  If this is the theory of what happened, simply going back to Obama-era policies is not enough.  Democrats need a more transformative agenda, linking policy change to constituencies, including  major voting rights and elections reform, health care, education funding, and addressing the gap between the rich and poor.

The reality is that the lessons of 2016 and 2018 may be a little bit both theories.  For many  simple reversal and opposition of Trumpism is enough, and this might appeal to the suburban voters and establishment Democrats.  Tinkering with Obama-era policies may be the limit of what these voters want.  But for others, especially many of the Millennial and Gen Z voters located in the urban cores, they want a more transformational agenda because the legacy of the Democratic Party’s Neo-liberalism have left them broke, holding significant college loans, or in the case of people of color, policies that failed to address all the disparities between them and White America.

The Democrats challenge is knitting together a set of policies that make sense of both theories about why they won and lost and hold together a coalition that may have very different perceptions of what it means to be anti-Trumpism.  While short-term expediency may require Democrats to moderate their policies to hold suburban voters in their fold, longer term this strategy  clashes with the more progressive agenda needed to hold the other wing of the coalition together.  However, thinking that simply returning to Obamaism is enough will fail to hold either of these constituencies.  Even the more moderate and suburban voters want more than the return of Obamacare.  Democrats need to delivery on reality of  making health care and education more affordable.  They want safer schools with fewer guns, they want a clearer environment, and they want an economy where they feel they are treated fairly.  Simple Obamaism was not enough to do that, and it will do nothing to bring back white working class voters to the Democrats, although it is not clear really anything will move the core base of Trump to switch their vote.

The 2016, 2018, and 2020 elections are potentially producing what political scientists call a critical realignment in American politics that redefines party coalitions, agendas, and policies.  The Democrats lost because they failed to adopt and adapt politics to an emerging new coalition in America while also ignoring or taking for granted their base.  There is no question that Democrats have lost some voters and will never recapture them, but if it has any hope at  building a new permanent coalition it cannot simply be the Obama antithesis party to Trump.


David Schultz is a professor of political science at Hamline University. He is the author of Presidential Swing States:  Why Only Ten Matter.