The party establishment is at it once again. Playing the game of fear to promote the idea of centrist, corporate-type candidates as the Democratic statewide torch-bearers in November. The only way to stop Trump-styled fascism in this state is to nominate centrists who are from outside southern Florida and who can appeal to “swing voters.” We’re told if Democrats don’t appeal to these so-called swing voters (who are thought to be moderates, incorrectly), Trump’s candidates will win and the nation may never recover. This sort of thinking is why we have Trump in the first place and Republicans have controlled this state without any sort of meaningful opposition for two decades. Republicans have won 17 of the last 18 races for Governor or Cabinet while enjoying robust legislative majorities controlling at least 63% of the seats in every session since 1999.
We have been on this ride before and know how it ends. But why do establishment Democrats insist on playing this way?
If nominating milk toast like centrist candidates was the way forward, Alex Sink would be completing her second term as Governor (she would have succeeded her husband Bill McBride who in 2002 lost by the biggest margin ever for a Democratic nominee in this state’s history after establishment Democrats convinced just enough primary voters than Janet Reno was too liberal, too south Florida and too much of a woman to be competitive in November), Patrick Murphy would be sitting in the US Senate and Democrats would control the state’s Congressional delegation and be within striking distance of capturing both houses of the legislature this year.
But instead, Florida is a one party state having been essentially pillaged for two decades by ideologically-driven conservative Republicans thanks to a Democratic Party that was initially shell-shocked, then eventually dominated by consultants and lobbyists determined to make an accommodation with Republican-aligned interests. Factor in the personality-driven styled politics of many Democrats who are more concerned about maintaining control of elements within the party or continuing to make money off the electoral process, and it’s no small wonder why Democrats continue to consistently lose in this state. Assumptions that swing voters somehow are “moderate,” are based largely on the ideology of most of the chattering class and others in and around politics in some fashion – that’s why these same people underestimated the appeal of Donald Trump to a wider electorate in 2016 and continue to make similarly wrong assumptions even after Trump’s victory.
The Democratic Party in Florida is a mess. But the personality-driven politics of the party is making matters worse, and taking the party down a road where its minority status now resembles a bunch of elementary school kids at a lunch table fighting over the final package of M&M’s within the school premises. Until those associated with various interests related to party can agree to listen one another or to behave as civil adults we’ll continue to see the Democrats under-perform. Party feuds and maintaining of control over the party apparatus is what motivates so many to keep pushing the line to nominate candidates that don’t offend “swing” voters.
Florida’s Democrats have been wrong so many times about “swing” voters, it’s comical that keep pushing the same illogical lines on activists and other concerned shareholders. In 2002, we were told that Buddy MacKay’s liberalism in 1998 gave us Jeb Bush and we needed to nominate a moderate. Janet Reno, who generated enthusiasm among the most activists was rejected for the traditional institutional Democrat, the late Bill McBride. What ensued was a Republican landslide that we noted above was the biggest at the Gubernatorial level in the state’s history. In 2004 Betty Castor occupied the middle ground against Mel Martinez who, despite a somewhat moderate record as Orange County Chairman, decided to run to the hard right. Castor lost to a Republican nominee who ran the most conservative campaign (for a Republican) in the state’s history.
In 2010, moderate Alex Sink, the wife of McBride, questioned President Obama’s Health Care plan, positioned herself to the right of GOP Governor Charlie Crist on insurance and banking and tried to appeal to “swing voters” against a pathetically weak GOP nominee in Rick Scott. Sink, like McBride and Castor, was defeated thanks in large measure to a depressed turnout in southeastern Florida. In 2014, Charlie Crist a former Republican who in fairness ran to the left as much as he could was defeated. Crist had made an alliance with the Democrats in 2010, when the party’s insiders citing its favorite theories about ideology, geography and ethnicity worked to marginalize US Senate nominee Kendrick Meek, an African-American Congressman from Miami. The fact that Meek, leading an effort to limit class size in 2002 had actually won a statewide referendum against the open hostility of Governor Jeb Bush was quickly forgotten by those seeking to work around him.
Let’s discuss 2014 and 2016 for minute. Democrats are currently at the party’s lowest point using Congressional representation and state legislators as a metric in terms of an overall percentage, since before the Great Depression. This is despite the constant nominating of so-called centrist candidates that can win “swing voters,” whom the party seems to always assume are moderates. A feeling has permeated movement progressives, particularly those not actively involved in politics/political campaigns but more into causes (who watch MSNBC, read the Daily Kos and of course supported Bernie Sanders) that they have been asked to walk the plank one too many times backing establishment candidates who then lost general elections.
The breaking point for many progressive came in 2014, when the party determined that protecting marginal Senators in red states meant no immigration reform and precious little else in progressive ideas pushed by the Democrats prior to the midterms. The result? All of the Senators who the Democrats sought to protect by pushing moderation were beaten badly. Meanwhile Charlie Crist lost the Governorship in Florida largely because of the punt on immigration. Hispanic voters dipped from 17% of the statewide electorate in 2012 to 13% in 2014. Two years later, Patrick Murphy was pushed as a US Senate candidate by Democrats in Florida and nationally. Murphy was such a dud, he made us long for the days of milk toast. Predictably he was beaten badly, but only after the national Democrats pulled out of his race and spent the money earmarked for Florida on other losing campaigns for so-called “electable” centrists.
Earlier in 2016, Bernie Sanders candidacy has fired up progressives throughout the nation. According to exit poll data, fewer Sanders voters shifted to other candidates in the November General Election than Hillary Clinton supporters did in 2008. It’s been conveniently forgotten but race-baiting and making then-Senator Obama appear Un-American (as well as stealing primary votes but we’ll save that for another conversation because it’s really not an ideological issue) was a fundamental part of the Clinton playbook which led some of her supporters to abandon the Democrats once Obama was nominated.
But following the 2016 election right through this week we’ve seen constant reminders from party establishment types, neo-liberals and their allies in the media that somehow Trump is in office due to Sanders supporters and progressives.
The reality is ideology scares Democratic Party establishment types because they have become comfortable with the current political climate – using fear to motivate the Democratic base. This is a profitable way for many in the professional left, that is those who claim to be progressive but are tied to certain donors or organizations in order to make money to continue to feed at the trough.
Paraphrasing here but basically these folks say “If you don’t support this Democrat, you’ll get a much worse Republican who is a racist that will destroy reproductive rights, push religion, hand everyone guns and ban minorities from advancing in our society before deporting anyone with a foreign sounding name.” These fear tactics have long worked as movement progressives felt they needed to play defense and support the lesser of two evils. Closing ranks eventually happens as a worse alternative looms, and the Democratic establishment knows that. However now many progressives are reaching a wits end, meaning the trick may not work this year for the party, especially given the willingness of the establishment to somehow pin Trump’s victory on Sanders supporters.
Modern elections in Florida and in fact nationally are turnout wars between competing ideologies, with very few voters in the middle. The 24-hour news cycle fed by cable news and social media has ensured that the former wild swings in the electorate are no longer a regular occurrence. As a result ticket-splitting has also grown less common than anytime since before the New Deal and voters, even so-called and self-proclaimed moderates are hardened in their voting patterns. Unlike the 1970/s and 1980’s when many people split their tickets in Florida and swung from party to party depending on the candidates and issues of the day, the 2000’s and 2010’s have witnessed hardened voting patterns and the efforts of the Democrats to nominate what I’ve long called ” Diet Republicans” fall flat on its face.
A “Diet Republican” is a Democratic version of the “me too Republicans” of the 1950’s, 1960’s and 1970’s. Those Republicans were essentially closeted Democrats who accepted the New Deal, and supported a lot of the more liberal Democratic social agenda.
These Republicans were like many Florida Democrats so motivated by status and access that they simply accepted the Democratic majorities in Congress without fighting a battle on issues. Today some Washington and Tallahassee media veterans harken back to this era of “civility” but the reality was that the Democrats grew so arrogant and comfortable in power while the Republicans were so complacent in the minority that we got Vietnam and 58,000 dead Americans, among other problems that were not addressed in that era. Those who stood apart on either side of the aisle were ostracized. Centrism and moderation led to disaster for the country because if our elected officials don’t stand for anything except political survival and making sure their cronies have work, how exactly can they lead?
In 1980, Ronald Reagan turned the GOP irrevocably to the right after almost snatching the nomination in 1976 from the centrist Gerald Ford (as Republican Minority Leader in the House, Ford had been so motivated by peaceful accommodation and co-existence with the Democratic majority that his party couldn’t take advantage of the Nixon landslide in 1972, not dissimilar from some of the traits we see in today’s Florida Democratic legislative leadership whenever the Democrats should have a coattail election here).
Reagan governed from the right while clearly delineating the differences between the two parties. Young voters were motivated to become Republicans and the “Reagan Revolution” culminated with the GOP capturing Congress in 1994 with fire-breathing activist type conservatives running across the country against “moderate” Democrats. Since that election, it is has become clearer and clearer that voters will vote for something rather than for nothing, so when conservatives articulate vision for the future (albeit a disturbing one) and Democrats try and straddle the fence, Democrats lose. President Obama’s clear annunciation of who he was and what he stood for put the Republicans on the defensive and he won Florida twice.
The direct contrast to this is the 2008 and 2012 Presidential elections when Barack Obama won the state running on one of the most liberal platforms in history against Republicans who tried to run to the middle and quite honestly alienated large segments of the GOP base. Democrats who continue to advocate a more moderate approach to issues do not understand Florida’s electorate. While moderation may work in suburbs of large Northern and Midwestern cities, or in states where the electorate is overwhelmingly conservative, Florida’s potential Democratic electorate is often concerned about issues such as environmental protection, gun control, and other social issues. They are in fact to the left of much of the national electorate and most certainly more progressive than the vast majority of Democratic officeholders in the state.
The double-whammy of Pulse and the Stoneman Douglas shooting have probably permanently soured urban areas of the state on guns. Yet Democrats remain weary of fully embracing gun control as a critical issue at the state level. Similarly criminal justice reform is talked about but not fully embraced. This is despite the lessons of the Alabama Special Election late last year where Doug Jones triumphed.
Jones didn’t fit the established Al From induced DLC-playbook that you must run to the middle in a southern state like Alabmaa or Florida. Democrats here in Florida have employed this logic for years and fallen flat with it. Previously in Alabama, Democrats employed the same strategy even welcoming back Parker Griffith to the party to run for Governor in 2014 after he had switched parties and helped sandbag the Obama agenda first as a Conservative Democrat then as a Conservative Republican while in Congress representing the Huntsville area.
It hasn’t been covered much in the elements of the establishment media which are anxious to embarrass President Trump at any turn and embrace Clintonian-like Democratic figures but, Jones ran a more populist economic campaign than we’ve seen in the south recently. The failures of the likes of Mark Pryor, Mary Landrieu and Blanche Lincoln in recent US Senate elections in the south can be largely attributed to trying to run a campaign of “me too Republicanism” which means these Senators bought into a certain premise of the Clintonian-DLC construct of a Reaganomics-like economic structure. Jones ran to the left on economics and was able to motivate African-American voters as well as the egalitarian spirit of those on college campuses. White suburban voters in the Birmingham area swung toward the Democrat, consistent with recent shifts we’ve seen in many other southern urbanized areas. It has also been discussed that white professionals in the Huntsville area swung towards Jones which might be unrelated to national trends (it’s worth noting throughout the last 50 years the Huntsville area, normally conservative has swung to the left against reactionary candidates of the right beginning with George Wallace and continuing through Fob James and Roy Moore’s multiple elections). But professionals throughout the south are shifting away from the Trump agenda.
Minority voter turnout cannot be taken for granted either as we learned in 2014 when Charlie Crist (noted above) did not win the Governorship thanks in large measure to President Obama punting on immigration reform. That decision done in accord with the Democratic establishment’s desire to placate the conservative electorate in Louisiana, Alaska and Arkansas was major factor in why Hispanics in 2014 were only 13% of the Florida electorate as compared to 17% in 2012. The Democrats lost all three Senate seats the immigration punt was designed to save AND got beat here in Florida, a state which would likely have been won without it. This demonstrated that sacrificing minority votes for whiter more conservative ones does not work either.
Jones victory coupled with the consistent failures of the Democrats at the state level show the need to embrace different thinking and give voters the option of a truly progressive platform and candidates. If progressives lose statewide as the party’s nominee it’s not the disaster the establishment claims it is – because their candidates lose anyway and we’ve seen this playbook and horror film already, so know need to run it again.