Not Once in the Last Four Decades; Not Once in This Generation
In this tumultuous lead up to the 2020 election, as we are desperate to dislodge the menace in the White House, I hear again and again, “We need a white man to get Donald Trump out of office, “ or “A woman can’t get elected in this atmosphere”.
I get that people are spooked. And Trump supporters’ obvious cheers for his racism can draw a knee-jerk reaction “Back to Basics, Back to White and Male”.
But Dems, SNAP OUT OF IT. You’re being played.
The White Man Advantage goes only to Republicans. Those who ignore history are doomed to repeat it.
Now let’s start the history lesson. When was the last time an ordinary, unspectacular white man succeeded in giving us a Democratic Presidential Administration? Answer: Maybe 1976, President Carter, one of the finest human beings to ever live in that house. Was he bland? I don’t remember, I was much too young.
Now, for the ensuing 40+ years, let’s review. Chronological order.
1980: Reagan, with his charisma, sweeps most states to win the presidency. He becomes the erstwhile role model for a generation of Republicans. President Carter becomes an incredible humanitarian, and continues to be true to his fine character, to this day. But he’s not in the White House. The Reagan Revolution which started the slide of unions and the middle class, begins.
1984: Walter Mondale, not noted for his charisma, does take the extraordinary step of nominating a woman for Vice President, delighting budding Democratic feminists like me. Unfortunately it’s not enough “pizzaz” to beat the Gipper. Reagan comes back and continues to change the social contract to favor shareholders of corporations as the true stakeholders rather than employees and the country’s citizens.
1988: Michael Dukakis loses to the Gipper’s successor, George Bush the Elder. Admittedly the blander-by-a-little-bit man won, but remember, he’s a Republican, so that was a plus not a minus, and he also sort of inherited the post from Reagan. And Dukakis never really had a chance. He could not motivate voters.
1992: The Clinton Years begin! Clinton is a white man, sure, but anything but bland! He built a BRAND that endures to this day. His charisma is legendary. He (((gasp))) brought an educated, professional First Lady to the White House, with a law degree! Female law students who were still arguing with their male colleagues about whether sex was ever really rape or wife beating was sometimes justified, feel particularly validated. Clinton did not present as Standard White Man.
2000: Gore loses. Bland White Male Democrat loses to Bland but Fake-Folksy Republican White Man. By a hair. But still, he could not keep the White House in Democratic hands. When I talked to people who were undecided before the 2000 election, the most memorable, and most frequent comment I heard was “There is no difference between the two men.” I differed, and even said “Bush will take us into war” and was waved off as an overreacting/overemotional female liberal. Every. Single. Time. I am so dismissed, I turn out to be prescient. So ensued two wars that continue to this day, and massive transfer of tax dollars to oil companies and the No Friends of Bush and Cheney Left Behind policy.
2004: John Kerry challenges Bush W. Bland White Privileged Democratic Man vs Bland White Privileged Republican Man. Kerry was short on charisma, in fact Low Charisma may have been his brand. But, surely, the lies that led us to endless war and destabilized the Middle East, gave rallying cries to terrorists, have disillusioned Americans. Surely they want this destructive, dishonest president — Bush W — out of our White House! Surely voters are seeking someone they can trust! Well, no. Again, Mediocre White Male Dem vs Mediocre (or Less) White Male Repub is no contest. That formula only works for Republicans, the party that explicitly works to uphold the primacy of the Mediocre White Man.
2008: Obama! Sweet relief! Not White. Not Bland — hell no, this is a man with a professor’s brain and a preacher’s oratory. The country was ostensibly sick of Bush and booed as he flew away during the inauguration (not cool) — but what did voters think they knew in 2008 that they didn’t know in 2004? Here we had Charisma vs. Establishment White Republican Man. And who won?
2012: Obama keeps the White House when challenged by White Male Elitist Clueless Mitt Romney. Note that clueless and elitist did not prevent Republicans Bush I nor Bush II from being elected, so that wasn’t it. That is a plus for Republicans. But again, not for us.
2016: Hillary lost to Bombastic, Charismatic Donald Trump. By a hair in a few states, but the White House was lost. White Supremacy, stacking of our judiciary with reactionary conservatives, and corruption of our federal contracts, environmental protections, and tax principles ensues.
As we continue the story, what are the lessons from history?
1. When the question is, “What is the difference between the two men?” the Democrat will lose. Every time. Without exception.
2. The incumbent will never be pried loose by a “safe” choice. Regardless of how bad we Democrats think the incumbent is, no matter what polls say. It hasn’t happened. A good chunk of the same people who booed Bush as he left the White House, had to have voted for him in 2004, the numbers don’t work otherwise. People will chose the familiar over a non-exciting alternative.
What are the lessons going forward, as we are desperate to prevent disaster, but need to persuade voters who don’t see the current state of the country as a disaster:
1. The White Man Advantage skews VERY strongly Republican. Donald Trump has the advantage here. We can nominate a white man, but that will not increase our chances.
2. The Democrats need a candidate who is charismatic, and can create a Brand. That’s what Donald Trump has, and not coincidentally, Clinton and Obama, our only Democratic presidents in the last four decades, also have that. Not a coincidence.
3. The Brand has to be new, fresh, and it needs to excite people. Put out policy, sure, but make that part of the brand, the party with the actual Ideas, and then boil it down to a slogan that catches on. I almost want to cheekily suggest “Make America Great Again — Right Back Acha!” but this is not the time for sarcasm or anything subtle — find something repeatable, and emotional.
Democrats as a party are much, much too cautious. We have never won by playing it safe. Who is turning Congress upside down right now? The Squad, not the safe players. And nor will any “safe” choice win the White House.
If people are truly undecided after the last two years of public support for White Supremacists and Nazis, child kidnapping and abuse, and oh, by the by temper-tantrum tariffs that are harming small and large businesses alike, then we can’t win them. Why is this so hard to understand? We certainly won’t persuade them with a bland like–Trump-but-nicer imitation candidate.
We cannot really win swing voters. Because if they’re still undecided, if they’re still swing voters, after all that has happened, they are lost to us. They are default Trump voters. The best we can hope for from people who think having Donald Trump in the White House for 4 more years won’t be “that bad”, is that they stay home.
We need to motivate more of our people to vote. There has been a surge in activism, and political participation that I have never seen before in my lifetime. When more people vote, Democrats win — this too, is history.
Nor can we aim to “just beat him” — we are not looking for a razor thin margin this time, somehow that also always puts a Republican in the White House. Reference the two presidents in recent memory that lost the popular vote but were installed in the White House anyway. We need a large margin of victory, an unquestionable one.
We need motivated, enthusiastic voters. Promises of “damage control” will not do it. It’s too nebulous to picture when your head is already spinning. Our own voters will stay home along with the “undecideds”. We need excitement, optimism, hope that things will get better, that we will get a leader that is on our side, not just against the other side.
This is the time to be BOLD, Democrats. Do not be afraid of a charismatic woman, or a man who is not old, white, and vaguely similar to past Republican presidents. That’s THEIR brand, not ours.
We have nothing to lose, unless we play it “safe”.