Opinion | Can the Democratic Revolution Wait?
Is it time for a revolution within the Democratic Party? “Spare me,” writes Thomas L. Friedman in his column, “‘Trump’s Going to Get Re-elected, Isn’t He?’”: “Win the presidency, hold the House and narrow the spread in the Senate, and a lot of good things still can be accomplished.”
More than 5,000 readers weighed in — including President Trump (via Twitter, of course).
Thomas “the Chin” Friedman, a weak and pathetic sort of guy, writes columns for The New York Times in between rounds of his favorite game, golf. Two weeks ago, while speaking to a friend on his cell phone, I unfortunately ended up speaking to Friedman. We spoke for a while and…
Mr. Friedman responded to the president:
Mr. President, You are right, unlike you, I am always respectful — especially when I talk to the President of the United States at the request of a U.S. Senator in your party. I try to be respectful even with people I disagree with.
Some readers were also frustrated by Mr. Friedman’s argument. “Why is it the left’s job to keep in step with the status quo in order to unite the party?” asked Aria, a reader in Astoria.
Others worried that focusing on divisive issues like single-payer health care, reparations and the immigration crisis would scare off potential voters in swing states. “If the Democrats don’t find the right message in the critical swing states, they can kiss 2020 goodbye,” wrote Karen J. in Ohio.
Mr. Friedman engaged with several readers in the comments. Excerpts from those comment threads are below. They have been edited for clarity and length.
‘This is still a center-right, center-left country’
I get a sinking feeling when Democrats come out in favor of single-payer health care, reparations for blacks, decriminalizing illegal immigration, wiping out student loans and more. These are all worthy ideas, but Blue Cross/Aetna employees and white people who haven’t been able to save enough money for a down payment on a home aren’t going to support a candidate who favors “others” over them. Even people who abhor Trump’s crudeness, incompetence, bigotry and anti-democratic leanings may not vote against their own self-interest. — Linda, New Jersey
James Utt, Tennessee: Yet Republicans have been successful at getting millions of people to happily vote against their own self-interests for decades. What are the secret ingredients in their sauce?
Gf, Novato, Calif.: By and large, it is not the progressive Democrats who are expressing unwillingness to vote for a middle-of-the-road Democrat. Over and over again it is the “moderates” who are saying that they won’t vote for a “far left” (in their minds) Democratic candidate. They naïvely believe that voting for a progressive is as bad as voting for Trump.
Thomas L. Friedman: Thank you for your thoughtful comments. I have always considered myself a pro-growth Democrat — someone who wants to grow the pie but also redivide it in ways that guarantee everybody, not only a minimum slice, but a fair shot at a bigger one.
I am convinced that this is still a center-right, center-left country. The broader point I was trying to make in this column, though, is that most people don’t listen through their ears. They listen through their stomachs. If you can make a gut connection with people, they actually don’t worry about the details so much. They’ll say, ‘I trust you — you work out the details.’ That is part of Donald Trump’s genius. We in the media keep trying to show his supporters more negative details about him — which is our job and valid — but we cannot overcome the gut connection he has forged.
What I worry about from the first Democratic debates was that by so many candidates offering so many free things to so many people — some of them not even American citizens — the gut message being conveyed by the party was that it’s for open borders and for taking care of people who just walked into our country illegally, more than taking care of our fellow Americans, like veterans who are badly in need of improved health services. You just lose people that way. It sounded pie in the sky.
As I wrote, I want taxes raised to fund more pre-K education for more American kids. And I would like to see some kind of program for reducing student debt, maybe in return for some national service. I am very concerned about our income gaps and how to bridge them long-term.
But people will not hear you, or will actually vote against their interests at times, if they think — or can be made to believe — that you actually care more about noncitizens than you do about them, or that you care only about disadvantaged minorities. I want the Democrats’ best ideas to be heard, but first, they have to get into the guts of a wider audience and earn its trust. As the saying goes: Culture eats strategy for breakfast every day.
‘I am progressive. When is it my turn?’
I am continually impressed by the inability of moderates to recognize any responsibility for the part they play in our electorate. I am progressive. When is it my turn to get what I want and for moderates to hold their noses and vote for someone they are not crazy about because the alternative is insanity?
The argument I keep hearing is: “The Democrats had better run someone more moderate, or else.” Why isn’t it: “Vote for whoever isn’t Trump, or else?” I refer you to what I have been told my whole voting life: “It’s not what you really want, but it’s better than the alternative. Welcome to being an adult.” — Grandtheatrix, Los Angeles
David, Dodgeville, Wis.: Agreed, Grandtheatrix. Why must we Democrats always settle for “Republican Lite?” Why must Republicans always dominate the political conversation, even when they are in the minority? Trump is as radical as they come. Today’s challenges require bold solutions.
Tony Ickes, Bellingham: Grandtheatrix, you get your turn when your ideas win in the marketplace of the voting booth. Politics is the art of the possible, not the art of an unreachable perfection.
KKW, New York: I’m a progressive and an adult. What I’m tired of is the lack of options, the naysaying to any change in a system that doesn’t work for most of the people in the United States, and being systematically dismissed for proposing measures that most other democracies have in place already, all with healthier, happier people.
Ben, Oakland: It’s about the numbers. Show the moderates that there are enough votes in the Electoral College to make this strategy work, and I’m in. But I seriously doubt that progressive ideas have enough appeal in the South and Rust Belt states to make your ideas a winnable solution.
Friedman: I have to say, I am with Tony and Ben on this one. Politics in a democracy is not about whose turn it is. It is often not even about what is fair. It is about what you can get a majority of people to vote in favor of.
I appreciate where David and KKW are coming from, but take one issue that has been tossed about by some Democratic candidates: free college. I think that is a terrible idea. First, people don’t value things that are free. I think everyone should pay something, otherwise they will just stop and start courses for years. Second, how would you administer such a plan without overwhelming some schools with students and lowering the quality of their education? Third, why should my kids not pay when I can afford it and should be made to pay?
Just because something is a progressive idea doesn’t make it right or just — or wrong or unfair. Everything needs to rise and fall on its merits, and on whether it can gain a majority in favor of its implementation. It’s nobody’s turn — only the majority’s.
Swing states need to hear more than ‘Trump is bad’
If the Democrats don’t find the right message in the critical swing states, they can kiss 2020 goodbye. So far, the only message they’re hearing is that Donald Trump is a bad person. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, et al., are simply exacerbating the problem. They are distracting, not unlike Trump. Again, wrong messaging.
Pennsylvania, Wisconsin, Michigan, Ohio and Florida: These are the only states that matter. And the women in these states are what matter the most. Everyone else will be curious onlookers. — Karen J., Ohio
Aria, Astoria, Queens: Karen, Ocasio-Cortez and “the squad” are strong new congresswomen defending the values of their districts and of anyone with a shred of humanity in this country. They’ve also been forced to defend themselves from Trump’s vitriol. What should they do instead, shrink into the shadows? They’re standing up against the extreme racism of the administration and the G.O.P., as well as the passivity of the establishment Democrats. Why can’t moderates recognize passion and integrity when they see it and unite behind a courageous movement?
I agree that swing states are important. You know who else is important? Young people, who if they’re ignited into action, could turn out to vote in droves.
Jerry Schulz, Milwaukee: The election will, again, be decided by a relatively small group of voters. President Trump won in 2016 with 48 percent of the popular vote, but notice how even since his first day in office, his approval rating has never exceeded 40 percent? The swing vote in 2016 was the 8 percent of Americans who don’t like him yet voted for him anyway because he spoke to economic issues critical to them — or they couldn’t bring themselves to vote for Hillary Clinton, who never really talked about economic issues in her obsession to keep telling us how awful Trump was.
The way to win over these voters in 2020 is to explain how you have a vision of America that will make it more likely for them to have jobs that enable them to make their mortgage payments.
Friedman: I think Karen makes a good point. You know what I would have done in response to Trump’s racist attack on the four Democratic congresswomen? I would not have put a censure motion up for a vote in the House (which turned into a circus and more fodder for Trump). I would have announced a plan to register one million more Democratic voters in swing districts and states and created an all-night telethon where people could call in or email in donations to pay for that registration drive. Maybe even enlist a few celebrities to answer the phones.
Don’t get angry; get even! Don’t play into Trump’s hands. Tell him: “Thank you Donald, we just registered one million more voters on the back of your racism. Have a nice day, you knucklehead.’’
To win rural America, lean right
I’m a liberal living in rural Trump country. I guarantee that if the Democrats nominate a left-leaning candidate who wants health care for illegal immigrants, they will lose the election — and by a substantial margin. The average American can barely afford the thousands of dollars a year it costs to provide their families with health insurance and the Democrats want to give this expensive commodity to people who have entered the country illegally?
Those writing, ‘Let’s give the left a chance, the moderates haven’t fared well,’ are seriously out of touch with what is going on in this country. — KF2, Newark Valley, N.Y.
Friedman: KF2, that is my impression as well. Democrats won the House back in 2018 by persuading independents, moderate Republicans and suburban women who decided in 2016 to give Trump a chance to dump him in the midterm and vote Democratic. Democrats need to hold those people in the 2020 general election, and to do that they need a candidate those voters can trust and who they feel respects them — even if they have more liberal ideas on some subjects. We cannot tolerate four more years of Trump. It will be a disaster for our norms, our national unity and our institutions, especially the Supreme Court.
Sasham, California: The “left” you speak of so disparagingly is the Green Party, not the Democratic Party. And health care is costing you so much because the Republicans refuse to allow common-sense measures to be discussed. Instead of multiple companies in the insurance exchanges, many of us only have one or two because of the instability produced every time the G.O.P. tries to make the Affordable Care Act illegal. What company wants to invest in that lottery? And if health care is so precious to you, why can’t you see that access to it is a human right?
‘We need more than a Democratic majority’
Friedman conflates political leaders with the way our economic system works. Leaders can listen and be open to adjusting their policies, but nothing much will get done until the wealthy, corporations, lobbies, investment firms, etc., are required to be fair, pay their taxes and stop interfering unduly in the political process.
Some of the candidates are broadcasting that fact and saying that we don’t simply need some good voting, we need people to vote and then to follow up with demands that their interests be defended and promoted. Bernie Sanders calls that a revolution. Poor choice of words, perhaps, but what he is saying is that we need more than a Democratic majority in Congress and a Democratic president. We need the Democrats to go beyond asking the wealthy to be a little more philanthropic or to pay a little more in taxes. Asking them for such things accepts that it is their choice. It is our choice. Our institutions and regulations need overhaul and Congress has to learn how to be the people’s representatives instead of fund-raising lackeys to the wealthy. — Just Thinkin, Texas
Friedman: I have a lot of respect for Bernie Sanders. I would not vote for him, but I think he is smart, sincere and has his heart in the right place. I don’t agree with a lot of his proposals, but if he can get a majority behind them I will do my best to get the most out of his ideas and cushion the worst.
But no one is entitled to have his ideas triumph. You’ve got to win with the voters. Good ideas (or bad ones, alas) scale only when they have power behind them.
Just Thinkin: Tom, we should support a winning candidate, but that is only the beginning. Bernie Sanders and Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez are getting the discussion going. They have not found the solutions, but these discussions can lead to some. Ignore them as potential candidates, fine. But help develop their ideas; counter them, amend them — keep the ball rolling.
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