How to trounce Scott Walker: Courage, unions and Democrats' identity problem

Party leaders trying to understand how they got trounced this year should take a look at Wisconsin. Here's why

Published November 20, 2014 1:30PM (EST)

  (AP/Andy Manis)
(AP/Andy Manis)

I don’t know if the seven stages a partisan goes through after her side gets walloped in an election are quite the same as the ones associated with grief, but after progressing from despair over their party’s failures in the midterms to rage over the GOP’s success, it seems to me that many Democrats now just want to know what comes next.

Hillary Clinton’s pending candidacy — which will reportedly have its big unveiling in January — has an anticlimactic, even perfunctory feel to it. Granted, Clinton is popular with the Democratic rank-and-file. But unless she has changed dramatically during her time out of public office, there isn’t much reason to think a Clinton presidential campaign in 2016 will be any bolder or more visionary than it was in 2008. Early signs, in fact, suggest the opposite.

That said, I don’t think Clinton is much to blame for the tepid enthusiasm her crypto-campaign has inspired among the Democratic intelligentsia. She’s an easy target, with her corporate leanings, her temperamental conservatism and her lengthy history, but the reasons Clinton 2016 feels so uninspiring transcend the former secretary of state and in truth apply to the entire Democratic Party. Yeah, it may be hard to say what the next Clinton run will be about — but is there a single viable candidate out there that’d make a difference?

With apologies to Tommy Carcetti, I’d say no. Not because the Dems’ roster is especially thin currently (though it is) but because the party right now doesn’t really stand for anything. Put differently, it has no real identity. One moment it’s the party that takes on Wall Street; the next moment, it isn’t. One moment it’s the party that’ll save the world from climate change; the next moment, not so much. Sometimes it’s the party that promises to fight economic inequality head-on; most of the time, it’s content to leave the basic setup of our economy intact. It’s hard to say what the Democratic Party stands for, really — except being in opposition to Republicans.

To be fair, the “Not-Republican” strategy worked all right in ’06 and ’08, when being seen as the opposite of George W. Bush was often enough. But as a recent report from the Huffington Post’s Sam Stein finds, the Democratic Party’s leadership is starting to worry whether that’s still true, especially now that Barack Obama’s electoral career is over. After repeatedly pointing to demographics and the six-year itch to explain their recent thwacking, Stein says Democrats are now realizing that “the party lacks other critical elements” of success, like “a message that addresses the top concerns of voters and effective messengers to share it.” In other words, an identity.

Yet for all the hand-wringing, most of the sources in Stein’s piece seem more interested in blaming the president for the midterm failure than engaging in any actual introspection. There’s a lot of insider-y whining about the DNC, and the typically D.C. myopia of thinking stories about process matter to voters. (If I never again hear another pundit or anonymous Dem authority vaguely criticize the White House’s response to Ebola, which was completely appropriate, it will be too soon.) At no point do any of these professional Democrats mention flatlining wages, the delay of immigration-related executive orders or worries over being sucked back into the Iraq quagmire. Policy might as well not exist.

What may be the most frustrating thing about this desperate flailing for a more fine-tuned message, though, is the fact that it’s so very unnecessary. The Democrats may not have much of an identity right now, but that’s not because this or that wing of the party’s political infrastructure dropped the ball, or because President Obama is so fond of golf, or any other Beltway nonsense. On the contrary, the Democratic Party’s increasing opacity is the result of their having an identity but deciding not to use it. Students of the last 50 or so years of American political history can probably guess where I’m going with this. It’s one single, simple word: unions.

I'm not going to recount the entire long and complicated story here that is the decline of organized labor in America. But suffice it to say that for much of the postwar years, unions were the backbone of the Democratic Party and the member of the New Deal coalition that, for good or ill, was most immediately recognizable to the general public. Unions not only provided the party with funding, but they also gave it its foot-soldiers, the people willing to do the hard, dull and necessary work of knocking on doors and guarding their communities’ civic spirits. Indeed, while organized labor is a shadow of its former self, its role within the Democratic Party remains essential.

And this is why another recent report, from Tom Edsall in the New York Times, is so dispiriting. As Edsall rightly notes, unions have long been the Democrats’ linchpin. But in recent years, the folks paying most attention to what remains of organized labor haven’t been Democrats, but rather Republicans. While the GOP has long been at war with labor, its assault has increased in ferocity and brazenness in recent years, with the actions of Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker as just the most conspicuous example. In response to this attack not only on working people but on the party as we know it, Democrats, Edsall finds, have been half-hearted at best. “Democrats are happy to get labor’s votes and money,” Edsall writes, “but they have done little to revitalize the besieged movement.”

You can see the terrible impact this has on the party just by keeping your focus on Wisconsin, where Walker, despite presiding over a weak economy and being quite uncharismatic, has managed to win election not once or twice but three times. If you want, you can write off 2010, the year of the Tea Party wave — but that still leaves Walker’s triumphant recall victory in 2012 and just-as-easy 2014 reelection. In both those latter cases, the state’s public unions were the engine behind the opposition; and in both of those cases, despite being much of the reason Walker was in trouble, they saw Democratic candidates run while keeping them at arm’s length. There were times, in fact, when Walker and his most recent Democratic challenger, Mary Burke, were strangely simpatico when it came to public unions. 

Burke ended up losing to Walker, and it wasn’t particularly close. Much of that can be attributed to the bad political climate and public anger toward the president. But the inconvenient truth for Democrats is that the nondescriptness of Burke likely played a role too by dampening the base’s enthusiasm. There are downsides, no doubt, to being seen as the party of organized labor. Still, it brings plenty of benefits, and it’s an identity — and that's something the Democratic Party is rapidly losing.

By Elias Isquith

Elias Isquith is a former Salon staff writer.

MORE FROM Elias Isquith