As a presidential candidate, Hillary Clinton’s economic plan consisted of dozens of rational policy ideas lacking a unifying message or any hint of passion. Donald Trump’s plan rested on incoherent ideas that didn’t bother supporters fired up by his fervent rhetoric and simple, revivalist message—“make America great again.” We know which prevailed.
After humiliating losses in 2016, Democrats realize they have an existential problem, and now think they’ve found a solution—a program they’ve labeled “a better deal for American workers.” To some extent, it’s a move from the Republican playbook, which launched Newt Gingrich’s “Contract with America” in 1994, followed 22 years later by Trump’s “Contract with the American Voter.” The Dems’ “better deal” is also a semi-clever play on Trump’s famous book, “The Art of the Deal” (ha), and a paean to the most revered deal ever among liberals, Franklin Roosevelt’s New Deal during the Great Depression.
But the Democrats need a better idea than the “better deal.” The introductory version, outlined by Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer in the New York Times, reads like a mashup of Bernie Sanders’ campaign platform and President Barack Obama’s go-nowhere budget proposals. The platform includes a $15 minimum wage (politically impossible and economically inadvisable), a $1 trillion infrastructure plan (isn’t that Trump’s idea?), new trade laws more beneficial to American workers (ditto), and tax credits for job retraining (rewarmed Obama). The idea seems to be that if you scoop up a bunch of leftover ideas and brand them as something new, voters will buy it.
They won’t. The reason Trump won is that voters no longer believe Washington policymaking can solve the real-world problems affecting them. They’re right, and it’s not that one party is any worse or better at this. They’re both awful. Democrats helped some people by passing the Affordable Care Act in 2010, but they hurt others who didn’t qualify for subsidies under the new law and had to deal with skyrocketing premiums and deductibles. Instead of fixing that problem, Republicans who control Congress now want to make it even worse by passing a plan that would boot more than 20 million people off insurance. Ds and Rs no longer collaborate to come up with practical solutions to real problems. They battle each other on the ideological margins to score points that will keep them in good stead with extremists on each end whose support is essential to winning primary elections. Both parties suffer the tyranny of “the base.”
Democrats need new blood
So what good are rational policy ideas when it’s impossible in Washington to pass rational policies? And what good is a “new” plan when it’s delivered by the old blood, like Schumer and House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, that led the party into the blind alley it’s now stuck in? Trump, for all his stumbles, remains popular among his own base because his blow-everything-up approach to Washington seems like the least bad thing to do.
Dems undoubtedly would love to capture the appeal of Bernie Sanders in a more mainstream candidate, which probably explains their focus on key Sanders issues such as a $15 minimum wage, new efforts to break up big companies, and legal limits on prescription drug prices. But Sanders’ appeal wasn’t about his policies, which were extreme, bordering on loopy in some instances. It was about his personality, his passion and even his sense of humor. Sanders supporters believed in their candidate. Clinton supporters merely tolerated theirs.
The lesson of the 2016 is a cliché by now: Authentic candidates win. Inauthentic candidates lose. Voters can’t stand phonies. Policies matter less than the relatability of the politicians espousing them.
The Democrats’ “better deal” includes some sensible and even important ideas, such as incentives for job retraining. But it won’t matter if the people talking about them seem like out-of-touch blowhards. If there are any real people in the Democratic Party, Schumer and Pelosi should roll them out and spend more of their own time behind the scenes. What the Democrats really need isn’t a better deal, it’s better politicians.
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Rick Newman is the author of four books, including Rebounders: How Winners Pivot from Setback to Success. Follow him on Twitter: @rickjnewman