David Michael Miller
Let’s say you manage a baseball team. You inherited a team with a .590 winning percentage in 2008. But in your next season you took that team to a disastrous .443 season. And ever since you’ve maintained the team’s futility, racking up a combined .450 winning percentage.
Going into the 2010 elections, the Democrats held 257 seats in the House of Representatives to the Republicans' 178. That was almost reversed in the 2010 Republican wave, and the GOP has maintained its majority ever since. The new Congress to be sworn in next month will have 241 Republican members to the Democrats' 194.
So if you were the manager of the Democratic team, you took a team that was winning about six out of 10 games to one that was losing about six out of 10.
Don’t you think you’d be out of a job?
The answer is no if you’re House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-California). Pelosi, 76, has just been overwhelmingly re-elected by House Democrats to yet another term as their leader.
And it’s not like they didn’t have a better alternative. Rep. Tim Ryan (D-Ohio), 43, ran a campaign based on the premise that, as the face of House Democrats, he could help the party start to win back the working-class white voters that just delivered the presidency to Donald Trump and returned the House and Senate to Republican control in a year when Democrats were expected to take back one if not both houses.
Ryan represents an industrial northeast Ohio district where he likes to spend time hanging out in bars and diners frequented by the very disaffected blue-collar voters who have turned on his party. This is not the kind of place where Nancy Pelosi would fit in.
Ryan called for no major changes in the party’s platform, but rather an overhaul of its messaging. It’s part of a larger debate in the Democratic Party about whether the party should continue to emphasize gender- and race-based identity politics or shift its focus to economic issues. It’s actually an echo of the debate between Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders during the primaries.
From my point of view, it seems that the civil rights and identity issues that have been at the center of Democratic politics could still be well-served by a more inclusive message that unites different constituencies around economic concerns.
Because if your message is losing elections, then you don't have the power to actually do anything on behalf of the identity groups you're trying to help.
For a lot of observers Pelosi is the very symbol of what’s wrong. She is a wealthy woman who hails from a deeply blue, new-economy, coastal community. She has strong fundraising connections to Silicon Valley and to Wall Street. Politics is about perceptions, and Pelosi herself represents everything that the Democratic brand has come to symbolize. In short, she’s a coastal elite, but the truth is that the party will do fine with coastal elites no matter who leads it. Meanwhile, the Democrats lose elections because they’re getting hammered with blue-collar white voters in the center of the country. Pelosi turns them off; maybe a guy like Ryan could reach them.
Am I suggesting that the Democrats would do better to take their East and West Coast strongholds for granted while they concentrate on winning back voters in the middle of the country? Yes. I'm suggesting exactly that. And there was no clearer way to send the message that the party had absorbed the lesson of the last election than replacing Nancy Pelosi with Tim Ryan. Instead they sent the message that they're doubling down on a losing strategy.
Apologists for Pelosi point out that Democrats have a built-in disadvantage because Republican legislatures in many states in the Midwest and South drew district boundaries after the 2010 census that worked in favor of the GOP. But it was Pelosi herself, as a leader of the Democratic Party, who is partially responsible for the rout her party suffered in the 2010 elections, which led to that very result. An excellent question is, why she wasn’t sacked after that first disaster?
Moreover, the redistricting excuse is one that Democrats, even in Wisconsin, should stop leaning on, at least as hard as they do. In any other venture, when conditions change you adapt or die. There’s no question that Republicans drew the lines here in a way that, arguably, disenfranchised Democrats. In fact, a federal court recently agreed, and there’s some chance, that even with Trump replacing the late Justice Antonin Scalia, the U.S. Supreme Court might overturn that gerrymandering.
But what if they don’t? And even if a fair redistricting map were adopted, Democrats still struggle because they tend to cluster in cities, making it a challenge to draw fair maps even if you tried.
Maybe the answer is to think about this differently. Instead of complaining that Democrats aren’t treated fairly in redistricting, the answer could be to create new Democrats out of independents, fallen away Dems and maybe even some persuadable Republicans. If the Dems haven’t been winning in rural districts, maybe the answer isn’t to redraw the lines but to persuade some voters within the existing boundaries that the Democrats have answers for the issues in their lives.
But there’s no sign that the Democratic Party at the national or state level is about to do that. They’ll stick with the same old leadership and the same old messages and the same old excuses that have brought them — and our country — to this dark day.