What's wrong with the Democrats

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Last month I was at a private dinner group, where we heard from Gretchen Whitmer, now the front-running candidate for next year's Democratic nomination for governor.

Her presentation was captivating and compelling; she made a case for herself as the one candidate who could possibly work with the legislature, and talked about education.

There was, however, one word she never said, something that once would have been among the first words out of any Democratic candidate's mouth. That word was "jobs."

A few weeks later, at the Detroit Regional Chamber's annual Mackinac Island event, I asked her about that. Turns out it wasn't an accident. "I prefer to think in terms of careers," she told me. What about the 50-year-old laid-off auto worker who is now desperately trying to keep his house?

Well, the former state senate minority leader said she thought folks like that needed to think in terms of building new careers also, or words to that effect. Suddenly, I had a flash.

Democrats really might lose the next election for governor after all. That would be despite what Donald Trump is doing to this nation; despite what Republicans have done to this state over the last eight years; despite the Flint water crisis; and despite the fact that Bill Schuette is a naked opportunist who spent millions of taxpayer dollars in a silly and failed effort to prevent two saintly gay nurses from adopting some special needs kids.

Whitmer — whose values I essentially share — will, if nominated, win by a landslide in her native East Lansing, Ann Arbor, and in affluent Oakland County. Hillary Clinton did all that too. But she lost Michigan and lost the election. There were many reasons, but one big one stands out: Democratic voters want to vote for... a Democrat.

They want someone who cares about jobs and the economy and the plight of the lower middle class and those slipping below it. They want their lives to be better.

Donald Trump spoke to those people.

Yes, he largely told them lies and gave them bullshit, telling them that he'd get their jobs back from Mexico, or that illegal immigrants had taken them. But he spoke to them.

Hillary Clinton didn't. She spoke to Goldman Sachs.

Wall Street was perfectly comfortable with her.

The best analysis of this campaign was written by legendary journalist H.L. Mencken: "Neither candidate gave a speech worth hearing, but one of them got down in the muck and clowned around with the fools."

Nevermind that Mencken was actually talking about the election of 1948, or that he died sixty years ago. What he said was far truer of last year's race.

But there is a far bigger issue here: Democrats have swallowed a myth that Bill Clinton was largely responsible for hatching back in the mid-1980s.

That false theory was this: Democratic populism of the style made famous by Franklin D. Roosevelt in the 1930s is passé. Democrats who preach a left-wing economic message are doomed.

That was the mantra of something called the Democratic Leadership Council, whose early members included folks like Bill Clinton and Michigan's then-Governor, Jim Blanchard, in the 1980s. They had reason to think something was wrong.

Democrats took a terrific pounding nationally in the 1980s, losing three presidential elections by huge margins.

The Democratic Leadership Council thought this was because the party had moved too far to the left.

Most people, they felt, didn't care that much about blue-collar workers and the poor, and that, at any rate, they felt those voters would have to show up and vote for the Dems because the Republicans were worse.

Their solution to take back power: Democrats should be somewhat socially liberal and economically conservative. The DLC leaders, some of whom called themselves "New Democrats," felt this was proven when Bill Clinton was elected President in 1992. Indeed, he moved slightly left on things like gay issues, and right on economic issues. He agreed to a huge welfare "reform" bill with the Orwellian title of "Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunity Reconciliation Act."

Clinton also signed off on a Telecommunications Act that did away with most restrictions on how many broadcast outlets one company could own, and did other conglomerate-friendly things. Not surprisingly, big business offered only token opposition to his bid for reelection the next year.

But there were signs that the analysis that the Democrats lost because they were too "left-wing" may have been wrong from the start. Yes, Walter Mondale did, in an admirable burst of honesty, tell voters that he would raise taxes — and he did indeed lose every state but Minnesota.

Forgotten is that he also told them Ronald Reagan would also raise them. "He won't tell you, I just did," he predicted.

Mondale was right on both counts, but the fact is that he probably could have promised to suspend taxes and buy everyone a pony, and the popular Reagan still would have won.

Michael Dukakis four years later did indeed blow a large lead and lose by eight points. But that wasn't due to his so-called liberalism, but to the fact that he was a poor candidate who ran a lousy campaign. What few remember now is that late in the game, he announced that he was indeed a liberal, found a little backbone, and started campaigning as one.

That actually narrowed the gap — though it was too little, too late. Nor is there any sign that Bill Clinton's failure to sound traditional economic themes four years later is what won the election.

Ross Perot's nutty third party campaign likely took more voters from incumbent President George H.W. Bush, who Perot hated, than from the Democrats. Clinton, in fact, got a smaller percentage of the vote than the hapless Dukakis had. In years to come, New Democrats Al Gore and John Kerry lost too.

Now, Hillary Clinton's candidacy has shown the ultimate intellectual bankruptcy of the whole Democratic Leadership Council approach. Think about this:

Bernie Sanders, according to their theories, should have gotten nowhere last year. He was not only a left-wing rabble rouser, he was an admitted — gasp! — socialist.

What's more, he was a cranky old irreligious Jew who would have been the oldest (75) major party nominee ever.

Basically, he shouldn't have gotten past the first primary. Except, in a process clearly rigged against him, he got more than 13 million votes and won states like Michigan and Wisconsin. Young voters were overwhelmingly for him.

Could it be that in this frightening world where workers' incomes and benefits are falling, standing up for the oppressed might not only be good policy, but politically smart?

I wouldn't bother to ask Hillary Clinton about that.

Meanwhile, across the herring pond:

Twenty years ago, Tony Blair followed Bill Clinton's lead and reinvented his party as "New Labour," which largely meant turning their backs on the sort of people Labour was founded to look out for.

Blair was popular for a while, but then was discredited by his slavish support for Bush's Iraq war.

Two years ago, after a second straight humiliating defeat, the party returned to its roots and picked an authentic left-wing populist, Jeremy Corbyn, as its leader. When a new election was called this spring, commentators and pollsters forecast a landslide for Theresa May's conservative party.

Some said she'd have a majority of 200 seats. But when the votes were counted, Corbyn's Labour had made massive, stunning gains. The Tories were left a minority trying to cling to power with an unstable coalition.

Something may be happening out there, and too many politicians and commentators still haven't a clue.

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