Michigan’s Democratic leaders on how to fix the party

OK, now what?

The 2016 election appeared to be a real opportunity for Democrats. The Republican Party nominated a volatile, cartoonish, hate-filled blowhard who gave many in his own party the creeps, but extremists, the KKK, and neo-Nazis celebrated him. It was a chance to deliver a coup de grace to a seemingly deranged and out-of-touch GOP. A defeat would've fractured it for years, and perhaps inflicted permanent damage.

Instead, Hillary Clinton's campaign and party leadership at the national level missed a slam dunk. Looking back, it's still difficult to wrap one's head around the top of the party's ineptitude and hubris, even if outside forces also factored in.

At the state level, the show didn't have a much happier ending. Democrats' fortunes in the Michigan House of Representatives races were tied to Clinton as state leaders hoped to flip nine seats to reclaim a majority.

Instead, the election ended with a zero seat net gain, and Republicans still run the state House with a 63-47 majority. So how do Michigan Dems fix the party and regain power in the state? Several Democratic leaders offered prescriptions to MT.

Their hopes are partially tied to the national party, which is debating internally whether to move in a more progressive direction, or try again with the establishment brand that voters rejected. Some are even floating former Michigan Gov. Jennifer Granholm's name to lead the Democratic National Committee, though it's difficult to understand why anyone would want a Clinton surrogate in that role after the 2016 nightmare.

Regardless, all is not as bad as it seems in Michigan. As MT previously reported, state Democrats received more votes than Republicans in the House races, but the districts are so gerrymandered that Republicans continue holding a huge advantage. The only way to fix the problem is for voters to approve a ballot initiative in 2018 calling for the establishment of an independent election commission.

In the meantime, we are playing by the rules that are in place, not the rules that are fair, and the only way to win back power is to overcome the built in disadvantage. Those who spoke with the MT offered some variation of the same ideas: The Democratic Party must improve its messaging while developing stronger policies that benefit the middle and working classes, thus re-establishing itself as the party that will fix a system that's rigged to favor the wealthy.

Like others, state Rep. Adam Zemke, whose district includes Ann Arbor, says there are positive signs around the economy, but personal income and the feeling of security remain a clear concern.

"As James Carville told us in the 1990s: 'It's the economy, stupid.' That's what this election was. But it's about people's personal economy," he says, adding that there are still few people who are better off now than they were pre-recession.

Zemke and state Democratic Party Chairman Brandon Dillon say Dems' policies are generally helping the working class, but the messaging is lacking.

"It's all about how we're speaking toward people at the bottom of the economic ladder. Neither party has done enough to address their problems," Dillon says. "We need a recalibration of our message. What is it about the things that we're saying that's not resonating with many voters?"

Of course, the person previously doing the talking was master orator Barack Obama, while Clinton was about as inspiring as a dead moth. And while Obama masterfully delivered the message, some of his policies fell short.

Democrats held a super majority following the 2008 election, but bankers got bailed out instead of punished. The Dodd-Frank Act, designed to keep Wall Street in check, lacked real punch. And even though the economy is improved, wages only recently began to return to pre-recession levels. Dems' general support for the Trans-Pacific Partnership also doesn't make manufacturing employees feel more secure.

Words start to lack sincerity when the policies aren't doing what the message promises. Thus, the Dems would be wise to develop stronger policies, says Lonnie Scott, director of Progress Michigan, a nonpartisan, progressive think tank.

"Actions speak much louder than words, and after the recession happened, for example ... none of those big bankers went jail," he says. "We've got to get back to our progressive roots and policies that show people that we are going to stand and fight for them. I think the results were a shock to a lot of people, but it should not have been a big shock in Michigan. A large population of working people got left behind in an economy that doesn't work for them, and this needs to be the party that is going to stand for those people."

Mark Brewer, a former Michigan Democratic Party chair, echoed the sentiment.

"Not to take anything away from Obama, but certain parts of populations in Michigan have seen a tremendous decline in income," he says. "Michigan used to be one of the wealthiest states, and now it's middling at best."

Brewer also noted that Michigan holds some of the nation's laxest ethics and campaign finance laws. Big business and the state's political class are taking advantage of that, contributing to a feeling that the system aids the powerful. It would do Democrats well to "become the party reform" and campaign on that idea, Brewer says.

"Both Sanders and Trump tapped into the tremendous dissatisfaction with the dysfunction of government, and the feeling that the system is rigged for people with money and means who get excessive benefits. Democrats need to be the party that addresses and fixes that," he says.

One of the few who warned that Trump's ideas were resonating here was Rep. Debbie Dingell, who wrote about her frustrations with the party's neglect of Michigan voters in a November Washington Post op-ed.

During the election's final months, Clinton chose not to campaign in the more working-class Downriver section of Dingell's district. Sanders stopped there 10 times during the primary and took the state, and his surprise victory should've served as a warning to the Clinton campaign. That lack of attention left some feeling ignored, Dingell says, and she is now calling for more inclusivity. That means blacks, whites, women, men, poor, middle class, working class, students, and all others get a seat at the table.

"We need to understand what people are afraid of, what they're worried about, and address that in our agenda," she says.

If there's a silver lining in receiving a frying pan to the face, it's reform. The Democratic brand grew stale, its leaders grew lazy, its ideas were watered down, and it was rejected. The loss is a catalyst, though the short-term pain, and four years of Trump fucking with our psyche, will be difficult.

"This is a process that's really important, and it's really unfortunate that it has to happen in such a critical election with someone as really dangerous and unstable as Donald Trump becoming president," Dillon says. "But we'll work through this with some lessons learned, then come back stronger."

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