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.


More articles by:

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


April 23, 2019
Peter Belmont
The Monroe Doctrine is Back, and as the Latest US Attack on Cuba Shows, Its Purpose is to Serve the Neoliberal Order
David Schultz
The Mueller Report: Trump Too Inept to Obstruct Justice
Geoff Beckman
Crazy Uncle Joe and the Can’t We All Just Get Along Democrats
Medea Benjamin
Activists Protect DC Venezuelan Embassy from US-supported Coup
Patrick Cockburn
What Revolutionaries in the Middle East Have Learned Since the Arab Spring
Jim Goodman
Don’t Fall for the Hype of Free Trade Agreements
Lance Olsen
Climate and Forests: Land Managers Must Adapt, and Conservationists, Too
William Minter
The Coming Ebola Epidemic
Tony McKenna
Stephen King’s IT: a 2019 Retrospective
David Swanson
Pentagon Claims 1,100 High Schools Bar Recruiters; Peace Activists Offer $1,000 Award If Any Such School Can Be Found
Gary Olson
A Few Comments on the recent PBS Series: Reconstruction: America After the Civil War
April 22, 2019
Melvin Goodman
The NYTs Tries to Rehabilitate Bloody Gina Haspel
Robert Fisk
After ISIS, a Divided Iraq, Wounded and Grief-Stricken
Binoy Kampmark
Julian Assange as Neuroses
John Laforge
Chernobyl’s Deadly Effects Estimates Vary
Kenneth Surin
Mueller Time? Not for Now
Cesar Chelala
Yemen: The Triumph of Barbarism
Kerron Ó Luain
What the “White Irish Slaves” Meme Tells Us About Identity Politics
Andy Piascik
Grocery Store Workers Take on Billion Dollar Multinational
Seiji Yamada – Gregory G. Maskarinec
Health as a Human Right: No Migrants Need Apply
Howard Lisnoff
Loose Bullets and Loose Cannons
Ricardo Alarcón de Quesada
Dreaming in Miami
Graham Peebles
Consuming Stuff: The Polluting World of Fashion
Robert Dodge
Earth Day: Our Planet in Peril
Weekend Edition
April 19, 2019
Friday - Sunday
Andrew Levine
What Will It Take For Trump to Get His Due?
Roy Eidelson
Is the American Psychological Association Addicted to Militarism and War?
Jeffrey St. Clair
Roaming Charges: Time is Blind, Man is Stupid
Joshua Frank
Top 20 Mueller Report “Findings”
Rob Urie
Why Russiagate Will Never Go Away
Paul Street
Stephen Moore Gets Something Right: It’s Capitalism vs. Democracy
Russell Mokhiber
Why Boeing and Its Executives Should be Prosecuted for Manslaughter
T.J. Coles
The Battle for Latin America: How the U.S. Helped Destroy the “Pink Tide”
Ron Jacobs
Ho Chi Minh City: Nguyen Thai Binh Street
Dean Baker
Fun Fictions in Economics
David Rosen
Trump’s One-Dimensional Gender Identity
Kenn Orphan
Notre Dame: We Have Always Belonged to Her
Robert Hunziker
The Blue Ocean Event and Collapsing Ecosystems
Theodore C. Van Alst, Jr.
Paddy Wagon
Brett Wilkins
Jimmy Carter: US ‘Most Warlike Nation in History of the World’
John W. Whitehead
From Jesus Christ to Julian Assange: When Dissidents Become Enemies of the State
Nick Pemberton
To Never Forget or Never Remember
Stephen Cooper
My Unforgettable College Stabbings
Louis Proyect
A Leftist Rejoinder to the “Capitalist Miracle”
Louisa Willcox
Aldo Leopold’s Land Ethic and the Need for a New Approach to Managing Wildlife
Brian Cloughley
Britain Shakes a Futile Fist and Germany Behaves Sensibly