It should be a golden opportunity for Democrats: The nonstop controversy surrounding President Donald Trump and the failure of Republicans on Capitol Hill to get much done.
But swelling energy on the streets masks deep problems confronting Democrats, who stumbled out of the 2016 election with a muddled message and crushed spirits. The party lacks a clear leader and is engaged in internal fighting reminiscent of the tea party takeover of the GOP.
“Voters have no clue what we stand for because we try to take every position under the sun,” said Susan Smith, a progressive activist in Tampa Bay.
Hillary Clinton demonstrated that Democrats won’t win just by demonizing Trump, but the party is struggling to find a common and compelling direction forward.
“Everybody wants to fight Trump, but Trump’s not going to win us elections as much as crafting a bigger narrative,” said Luis Miranda, former communications director for the Democratic National Committee. “It’s a huge danger.”
Hand-wringing is natural after major defeats, but for years the party has been losing touch with the working-class, white voters who were drawn to Trump, and experiencing a vast power deficit in Washington and in state capitols across the country.
And it may be too optimistic for leaders to expect a turnaround in time for the 2018 midterm elections. Despite Trump, Republicans enjoy favorable playing fields due to gerrymandering and a shift of Democratic voters to more urban areas.
David Wasserman, an analyst for the Cook Political Report, recently offered sobering news: Even if Democrats win every race in places Clinton won or Trump won by 3 percent or less, the GOP could still keep the House and gain five Senate seats.
“The idea that the Democratic Party is going to get its act together quickly is contrary to history,” said William Galston, a former policy adviser to Bill Clinton, who a quarter century ago led a resuscitation of the party. “It’s going to take time and discussion. It’s going to take argument and political conflict.”
Some see hope in a set of economic proposals Sen. Chuck Schumer of New York and other leading Democrats unveiled last month under the brand “A Better Deal.” Ideas range from increasing the minimum wage to $15, lowering the cost of medications and child care, and cracking down on business monopolies.
But to others, it’s more of the same: a laundry list of familiar ideas, no defining message. Smith’s reaction: “Blah.”
“Part of the problem, and this has been at least a decade in the making, is the party had stopped communicating what it’s all about,” said longtime operative Mo Elleithee, now at Georgetown University. “It had gotten very good at detailing a policy platform — here are the 10 issues we are fighting for. But that’s not what people internalize. They want to know what the world view is, why are you a Democrat?”
A range of Democrats agree that Hillary Clinton had plenty of policies but did not present a clear message focused on the economy, yielding that ground to the populist Trump. “He had a message and story he was telling about a system that was holding people back and voters need someone from the outside to blow it up,” Elleithee said.
“A lot of Democrats would like to believe that the problem is just an absence of a clear and coherent economic message,” said Galston. “But it’s much more difficult than that because there’s a cultural dimension.”
Many of the white voters Trump took from the Democratic Party or attracted to the ballot box for the first time favored his stance on immigration, viewing it not just as an economic threat, but also one to American culture and even national security. Democrats need to find a way to address that gulf, Galston said.
Clinton also followed the Democratic playbook of tailoring her proposals for different groups: blacks, Hispanics, gays, young people, old people, the working class. It denied her a simple, unifying focus.
“The first thing Democrats have to understand is that promising everything to everybody is not a solution. There isn’t enough money and people to see through that kind of pandering,” said John Morgan, a top Democratic fundraiser and potential candidate for Florida governor. “To me, the most important problem — first, second, third, fourth and fifth — is fair wages for a fair day’s work.”
Morgan plans to lead a 2020 ballot initiative mandating a higher minimum wage , and he hopes state and national candidates concentrate on that issue, rather than a broad agenda. “When the roof is off your house, you don’t mess around with trying to redecorate the living room and putting in new fixtures,” he said. “You put the roof on your house, and to me the roof is fair wages.”
In a crowded and competitive field of potentially five credible Democratic candidates for governor, only one — Tallahassee Mayor Andrew Gillum — is campaigning as a bold and proud liberal.
Chris King, an Orlando businessman running for governor, chalks up the success of Trump and Florida’s last three governors, all Republicans, to a simple fact: They won the economic argument. “We Democrats have had a message problem and that’s one of the reasons I jumped into this race,” he said.
Asked to identify Democratic leaders they admire, Morgan and King named Democratic governors, an increasingly rare breed, such as Virginia’s Terry McAuliffe and North Carolina’s Roy Cooper. “They don’t talk in a highly partisan way. They’re good managers, and they talk and think that way. They get things done,” King said.
“I don’t think we need a party message any more. I think it’s an American message. It’s an economic message that is both pro-business and pro-people,” said Miami Beach Mayor Philip Levine, a businessman expected to run for governor.
Another Democratic candidate, Gwen Graham, brushed off talk of a Democratic message problem. “It’s a mission. My mission is to help solve the challenges that we face in Florida. After 20 years of one-party dominance, we have so many problems to solve,” citing education, the environment and growing the economy.
But those moderate approaches, tailored for a swing state that narrowly favored Trump after twice supporting Barack Obama, clash with the direction pushed by liberals such as Sens. Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren.
They want an unequivocal platform that champions working people while taking on Wall Street and big corporations. “We are not a wing of today’s Democratic Party. We are the heart and soul of today’s Democratic Party,” Warren declared this month at a gathering of activists in Atlanta.
She flatly rejected the strategy that put Bill Clinton in office, saying the party “isn’t going back to the days of welfare reform and the crime bill.”
The party has grown more liberal (just as Republicans have grown more conservative) and activists have pushed for purity on such issues as abortion and a single-payer health care system, also known as “Medicare for all.”
Calls for a litmus test for candidates have exacerbated the struggle between liberals and moderates, who say the party should support candidates with varying views, and recalls the hard right push the tea party imposed on Republicans.
“That’s probably not a winning combination,” said U.S. Rep. Charlie Crist, the former Republican governor and now centrist Democrat from St. Petersburg, who must compete in a county that went for Trump. (Clinton won his district.) “It’s simple math; this is the game of inclusion.”
Crist said he’s encouraged by the Better Deal proposals and thinks the party is focusing on a message of fairness for all — in health care, wages and issues of race.
“We’re in a different place now,” he said, reflecting on the months since the election and the controversies of Trump. “The yearning for fairness and calm and civil leadership is probably stronger now than I can remember.”