If the Democratic Party is ailing after losing the presidency to Donald Trump, state parties are on life support.
Here in the long-ago Democratic stronghold of Alabama, the party is all but dead, say some of its disheartened members. Consider: Not a single statewide office is held by a Democrat; the state legislature is dominated by Republicans with just 33 Democrats out of 105 House seats and eight of 35 Senate seats.
Democrats haven’t won a U.S. Senate election in the state since 1992 or the governorship since 1998. There are no Democratic appellate judges, nor any Democratic members of the state’s Public Service Commission. Democrats also are becoming scarcer in county offices.
“The Democratic Party in Alabama is on a crash-and-burn track unless something drastic happens to stop this runaway train,” according to Sheila Gilbert, chair of the Calhoun County Democrats, who hand-delivered a letter outlining the party’s problems following a speech I gave at Jacksonville State University as the Ayers lecturer.
The letter was signed by Gilbert as a leader of the Alabama Democratic Reform Caucus and 17 other members in attendance. The group, which formed two years ago to try to help revive the state party, wasn’t coy about its reason for approaching me.
“We need a spotlight on Alabama and some outside effort to avoid becoming a totally one-party state,” Gilbert said.
I didn’t bother to mention that the current U.S. attorney general, former Alabama Sen. Jeff Sessions, was shining quite a spotlight on their home state. Whether Sessions is forced to resign after already recusing himself from any investigation into Russia’s role in the 2016 election campaign remains to be seen. The fall of such a high-profile Republican could be useful to Democrats back home trying to defibrillate the party.
But Gilbert’s group has been critical of state Democratic Party officials for missing an opportunity to recruit candidates when other Republican politicians were in trouble, including the governor and House speaker. A recent meeting of county and state party leaders reportedly became heated, as when state Chairwoman Nancy Worley offered to call police to escort one county chairman from the room – and may be emblematic more broadly of the party’s disintegration from within.
The GOP went through this same sort of infighting and navel-gazing on the national level several years back. After losing the presidency to Barack Obama in 2008, it regrouped, reformed itself, became disciplined and has taken the House, Senate, the White House and most of the nation’s governorships, while also successfully gerrymandering congressional districts that have given Republicans the advantage in many states – at least until the next redistricting in 2020.
Democrats are readying themselves for that fight, but they’ll need to do more than try to redraw the map. While Democrats were basking in Obama’s sunny smile, Republicans were busy building benches of future leaders, especially at the state attorney general level, where they are now in the majority. The strategy has been to recruit and help elect strong attorneys general who could be groomed to become governors, senators – and possibly president.
What, meanwhile, can Democrats do, a fellow in the audience asked me. There was a plaintive tone in his voice and I wanted to help, though the truth is, I’m not accustomed to Democrats asking my advice. But in the spirit of “it takes two to tango” – and the fact that I’d rather not live in a country exclusively run by either party – I’ll give it a fresh, morning-after stab.
What’s really ailing Democrats is they’ve fallen in love with abstract principles, as reflected on an ADRC handout, without building a foundation where such goals as fair pay, transparency, diversity and such can be played out. Trump may have been coarse and loose at times during the campaign, but he spoke in plain language with plain meaning: Jobs, jobs, jobs.
Whether Trump can fix trade, create jobs and make money for the rest of us was a gamble people were willing to take. Fixing the economy was Obama’s mandate, too, but he decided to focus on health care instead. This is where lust for legacy interferes with good governance. Obama did manage to help turn the economic steamship around – the market bounced from just under 8,000 when he took office to nearly 20,000 – but Wall Street’s recovery didn’t trickle down to the middle class, where Trump planted his flag.
When in doubt, look to the victor.
Washington Post Writers Group