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After Losing Middle-Class Workers, What Does The Democratic Party's Future Look Like?


This time last week, a lot of pundits prepared obituaries for the Republican Party, saying it hadn't changed to accommodate America's changing demographics. A few said a civil war had already begun in the party. But this week, the Republican Party won the presidency, the Senate and the House. A Republican president will nominate Supreme Court justices. Thirty-three of the 50 states have Republican governors, and two-thirds of all state legislatures are Republican. Should Democrats have a wake for their party? Tad Devine is a longtime Democratic strategist. Most recently, he was senior adviser to the Bernie Sanders campaign and joins us in our studios. Thanks so much for being with us.

TAD DEVINE: Good to be with you, Scott.

SIMON: Hillary Clinton - well-funded, supremely smart, very experienced - her opponent said one outrageous thing after another. How could she lose?

DEVINE: Donald Trump was a change candidate in a change election. That's how she lost, OK? The people in this country - most voters in the states that decided the election wanted change. He represented that change. She did not. And I think that was enough for him to win the election.

SIMON: How did what we used to think of as the party of labor wind up losing the votes of so many middle-class workers?

DEVINE: Well, I think because those middle-class workers thought that our party was not speaking to them, to their issues, to their concerns, to their priorities - that we were not in touch with them the way we should have been. And, you know, I know in the primary campaign that, you know, Bernie's agenda was about working people. I mean, that's who he talked to. I think he inspired a lot of them - certainly young people he brought into the process.

And I think that's who we, collectively, as the Democratic Party, need to talk to again. The Democratic Party has to be the party of the working class, of the middle class again. And the way we do that is by the policies that we enunciate and the people we stand up and fight for. And it's hard to make those fights when those people - middle-class voters, working-class voters - think that you're on the side of powerful special interests and not on their side.

SIMON: Should the Democratic Party, in your judgment, go more toward Bernie Sanders, for whom you worked? Or what about the blue dog or conservative Democrats?

DEVINE: I think they should absolutely go more towards a message like the one Bernie articulated in his campaign, talking about the inequality of wealth, talking about issues like trade, which has bled so many jobs out of this country - like manufacturing jobs - talking about education and how people can afford it again and not mortgaging the next generation's future by paying for college. I think those are the issues that people care about, so, yes, I think a progressive agenda is the way to win.

Listen, 70 percent of the voters on Tuesday were white in America. You go back to Ronald Reagan - that number when he beat Walter Mondale, who I also worked for - that number of white percentage of vote was in the high 80s. So this country is changing demographically in a way that can favor Democrats over the long term. What we've got to do is convince those people that our agenda works for them, that we care about the issues that are affecting their lives, that we will be for them in the fights that lie ahead. And I think if we do that, we can reconnect with them.

SIMON: Have Democrats made a mistake possibly in seeing the electorate as different ethnic groups? I mean, one of the statistics we're getting out of the data of the voting this week is that, despite everything, about or more than 30 percent of Latino voters voted for Donald Trump.

DEVINE: Well, I think if we talk to people just on the basis of, you know, that kind of identity politics, yeah, that's not as powerful as talking to people about their future collectively. So, you know, I think what the Democratic Party has to do is not so much think about groups of people, but groups of issues. You know, what we've got to understand is that I think people are doing what they're doing with their voting behavior because of what is happening in their lives. What's happening in their lives is they're falling behind. They're not able to keep up. The economic struggle that they confront every single day in their lives is overwhelming them. And who is going to speak to that? That's what Bernie Sanders tried to do in his campaign. I think he got through, and I think that's what the Democratic Party needs to do if we're going to succeed in the future.

SIMON: Has the Democratic Party taking African-American voters for granted?

DEVINE: Well, I hope not. I mean, I think the African-American vote is the core base constituency of the Democratic Party. They twice came out in incredible numbers and helped to elect Barack Obama. They voted overwhelmingly for Hillary Clinton, but the African-American vote was down. The female vote was down, as a percentage of the electorate was only 52-48, female-male.

SIMON: That's where I get back to - have the Democrats made a mistake in this identity politics stuff? Have they assumed that because the woman was at the top of the ticket, that women would line up to vote for that Democrat?

DEVINE: Well, you know, listen, I hope we haven't. And, you know, again, I'll get back to - what were we selling in the election? I mean, I think the Clinton campaign made a decision that the way to win was to discredit Donald Trump and to use his words and actions against him. I think in retrospect now - and hindsight's always 20-20 - the thing they needed to do was take a step back in the nominating process. Hillary Clinton lost Wisconsin to Bernie Sanders. She lost Michigan to Bernie Sanders. She lost New Hampshire to Bernie Sanders.

What do those three states have in common? Well, they're all places that allow independents to vote in a primary, OK? And that was a warning signal that she needed to make a stronger connection with people in those places who are going to participate in the general election. Now, you could do that one of two ways. They chose to do it by going after Trump. Another way to do it was to build her up. I think that was probably the better route in retrospect. You know, I suppose a lot of people would agree with that, knowing what we know today.

SIMON: Tad Devine, president of Divine Mulvey and Longabaugh, a media consulting firm. Thanks so much for being with us.

DEVINE: Great to be with you, Scott. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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