Congressional Democrats have embarked on a listening tour through Trump Country, and so far it’s felt like that early scene from “Jurassic Park.” Chuck Schumer slowly stands up in a Jeep and tears off his sunglasses, his hands shaking, before alerting Elizabeth Warren behind him who also rises and gapes. They watch in awe as a man in a John Deere hat and a woman smoking a cigarette walk by, talking and laughing, while the John Williams score plays in the background. “They do exist,” Schumer murmurs.
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Yes, America’s opposition party has had a difficult time connecting with rural and blue-collar voters lately. An autopsy conducted on Hillary Clinton’s 2016 election performance came back with a kind of Darwin Award last month, as white voters were shown to be abandoning Democrats in droves, and the Obama coalition registered disenchantment. The electoral losses have continued to rack up, most recently with wunderkind John Ossoff in Georgia. Local Democrats are griping that the national office offers little beyond concerns over Russia. Two-thirds of Americans say the Democratic Party is out of touch.
All this indicates that Democrats can’t be an antimatter party, winning in 2018 and 2020 solely by opposing Donald Trump. So as comical as it is to imagine Schumer moseying down a country road, the Democrats’ rural jaunt isn’t a bad idea, at least in theory. “Americans know that this economy is rigged,” Warren declared during a stop in Berryville, Va., which, in addition to being her boilerplate, is also a savvy message in a heartland reeling from a stagnant economy and an opioid crisis. If Democrats are going to shake off their 2016 hangover, at some point they’ll need to start standing for something rather than against everything.
The problem is that they don’t seem to have any clue what that something should be. Fresh from Pelosi’s office, and meant to coincide with their listening tour, the Democrats’ latest plan for revitalizing America has emerged. Its title — “A Better Deal,” splashed against a bucolic image of verdant hills — should be your first indication that it’s exactly like their last 5 million plans to revitalize America.
Their blueprint contains only three goals, each of which is vaguely defined. The first, raising incomes and creating jobs by investing in infrastructure and reining in unfair trade, sounds like it was plagiarized from the Trump campaign. The second, lowering the cost of living by tamping down everything from prescription drug costs to cable bills, is an artificially localized version of their usual pablum, while its tacked-on promise to “crack down on monopolies” sounds like it’s trying to out-retro Trumpian populism. The third, building a modern economy through more tax credits and more broadband, should have been accomplished by Barack Obama years ago.
So on economic issues, “A Better Deal” is weak sauce, which is a problem, because on social issues it’s completely silent. It’s a remarkable absence: After years of routs on everything from gay marriage to transgender bathrooms, Democrats are halting their advance in the culture war so they can win back Wisconsin. But is that even possible? “The medium is the message,” as Marshall McLuhan put it, and when your economic platitudes are being delivered by a Harvard professor and a San Franciscan, it tends to highlight the cultural in people’s minds. “Place matters,” goes the old political science adage, and one of the Democrats’ biggest challenges is simply that they are perceived to come from places where people hold different values from Trump voters, places that require them to helicopter into small towns and study people like sauropods.
All this offers only portents for Democrats. Even after months of an endless wave of anvils falling on Republican heads, Schumer and Pelosi still have no idea how to win back their own voters. Even on health care, the source of so much Republican anguish, Democrats have no plan of their own and could be fractured Thursday as the wonderfully cheeky Sen. Steve Daines forces a vote on an amendment for single-payer. As you roll your eyes at The Donald’s latest attack on Jeff Sessions, remember: It isn’t just the White House that’s in chaos right now.