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Democrats’ Arafat Complex

| December 16, 2018

Like Democrats today, Yasser Arafat had a gift for self-destruction even when handed easy victories. (World Economic Forum)

Like Democrats today, Yasser Arafat had a gift for self-destruction even when handed easy victories. (World Economic Forum)

I’ve been looking at lists of 2020 prospects for Democratic hopefuls to unseat Donald Trump in 2020 and getting flashbacks to pre-internet antiquity when those same Tussaud Museum pieces wagged animatronically from cathode-ray tube TV sets with a relevance as presumesd then as it is now: John Kerry, Joe Biden, Elizabeth Warren, Bernie Sanders, Michael Bloomberg, and of course Hillary Clinton.

pierre tristam column flaglerlive.com flaglerlive Thankfully that’s not the complete list. There are almost three dozen names being thrown around, some of them very appealing, with more to come. But we keep hearing a lot about those six. They’d never make it to a nomination, and if they did they’d never win. Meanwhile they’re cluttering up the field, making it more difficult for the next generation of Democrats–the less known, the better–to emerge. With self-centered saboteurs like that I’m not sure Donald Trump has much to worry about.

Their age is telling. Most of them will be closer to 80 than 70 on inauguration day, with an average age of 76. I’m all for people working as long as they like, but this is the presidency, and these candidates’ age reflects a has-been tiredness that makes the Democratic Party look like a collection of clinging holdovers who don’t realize they’ve had their time. The country is still trying to define itself in a new century, the events of 9/11 having hijacked its trajectory for a decade of loss and almost another decade of recovery before the Trump regression. The time that these six did have along the way is not exactly stellar.


The Democratic Party these days has a lot in common with Yasser Arafat, the late Palestinian leader: it has a gift for self-destruction, even when handed victory. Clinton, Kerry and Biden all ran for president a combined five times between them, going back to 1988. It was a debacle every time, mostly because of their own errors. Kerry had no business losing against George W. Bush anymore than Clinton had against Trump, but both managed it brilliantly. Clinton thought it was enough to shine neon on Trump’s luridness, just as Kerry thought it was enough to sanctify his Vietnam War record. The condescension made even lunch pails wince.

There’s also the tendency to turn despair about reactionary immaturity into a marketing pitch. There’s a place for that sort of cultural criticism. It’s what university columns, sit-coms and overheated opinion columns are for. But campaign-trail focus on cultural and pandering issues like guns, religion, abortion and “values,” that all-purpose bait that can mean everything but really means nothing–that focus is a red herring and a trap. Since Pat Buchanan vomited that strategy in 1992 as the perpetual sequel to the race-baiting Southern Strategy, Republicans have loved to ambush Democrats on those counts because it makes them look elitist, like when Clinton calls cultural conservatives “deplorables” or Obama refers to them as clinging to their guns or religion.

Clinton and Obama weren’t wrong. Obama’s fuller statement is even more indisputable now, with a president incarnating the statement with every tweet, than it was when Obama made it in 2008: “They get bitter, they cling to guns or religion or antipathy to people who aren’t like them or anti-immigrant sentiment or anti-trade sentiment as a way to explain their frustrations.” But Obama quickly learned what Clinton didn’t: these statements get us nowhere if they divert from the more relevant issues that do matter even to the clingers and the deplorables: economic security, decent health care, humane immigration.

Of course Democrats talk jobs, the promise of a green economy, the evils of inequality. But after so many decades in power, even liberals like Bernie Sanders sound as if they speak on behalf of the middle or working class rather than as being of it. They’re no longer believable, speaking in white papers and cliches, turning those classes into pliant monolith, sentimentalizing them rather than reflecting their concerns. (The historian Barbara Tuchman described English intellectuals doing the exact same thing with their working class at the turn of the last century, on the way to socialism’s demise there.)

Republican candidates don’t bother with everyday concerns. They skirt the problem by pandering to cultural issues: anyone can wrap himself in the flag, anyone can talk guns god and babies, not mean a word of it but still sound like Winston Churchill talking about defending the beaches of Dover. It’s all generalities and propaganda, not something you can ask the Congressional Budget Office to analyze, and it saves you the trouble of having a governing plan. If it worked for Trump–the country is more adrift than it was under Andrew Johnson–it’s because Democrats didn’t come up with a convincing alternative.

The ancient Democrats still aren’t getting it. The other day Clinton was in Europe sounding like a born-again reactionary about immigrants and refugees. What she told Europeans could have been an endorsement of Trump’s wall: stop taking in migrants. Biden’s popularity is high, but that’s mostly nostalgia for the Obama years. It’s not about Biden himself. Now he’s hesitating about a run the way he did before 2016, playing the coquet the way Mario Cuomo did about running for president in 1988 and 92 or accepting a nomination to the Supreme Court in 1993. (Thankfully, Clinton ended up going with his seventh choice, Ruth Bader Ginsburg).

Early lists of candidates are deceptive. The stronger candidates often emerge unexpectedly, though social media and the 24-hour news cycle have pretty much ended the age of the unexpected. Beyond Democrats’ Methuselahs, we hear names like Senators Cory Booker and Kirsten Gillibrand, Texas’s Beto O’Rourke and Ohio’s Sherrod Brown, Julian Castro and Terry McAuliffe. McAuliffe aside, the list is short on leaders who’ve actually run governments and long on the seductions of charisma, that desire for an Obama-like knight to save Democrats–from themselves as much as from Trump. That too is not necessarily encouraging. We can all use a few years of dull, grunt-like leadership to save democracy. Replacing one cult with another won’t do it. 

If even these younger, interesting names tell us anything so far it’s that Democrats don’t know what else to do beyond getting rid of Trump. That’s no small thing, but it isn’t enough, and it won’t carry a candidate to victory. It certainly didn’t in 2016. Taking back the House is an indication of broad dissatisfaction with Trump (as opposed to the Trump administration, which does not exist: it’s a court of sycophants), and it was no small achievement considering the gerrymandering and voter suppression Democrats had to overcome.

But 2020 candidates have yet to develop a coherent message that makes Trump irrelevant not because of his failings, which were no secret even in 2016, but because Democrats have something better, urgent and essential to offer. It’s not as if, from health care to inequality to affordable education to climate change to immigration–yes, even immigration, Democrats–we’re lacking in crises begging for solutions. So far, they’ve not making the case.

Pierre Tristam is FlaglerLive’s editor. Reach him by email here or follow him @PierreTristam. A version of this piece aired on WNZF.

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16 Responses for “Democrats’ Arafat Complex”

  1. mark101 says:

    I’ll put my money on Biden,regardless of age since he has the experience to get Trump out of office and to run this country before Trump destroys the United States.

  2. Mark says:

    Yup, republicans just pander to the economy, unemployment, the military, foreign policy, taxes, and security……. We need dimocrats to fix this stuff!

  3. Richard says:

    Maybe you should cross the aisle like some democrats have done and become a republican like Trunp did. LOL Pierre, if the democrats would come back down to earth, stop trying to come up with plans on how to unseat and impeach the POTUS by whatever means necessary AND lay out some rock solid legislation that REALLY helps the people of this country then they may have a shot. But if they continue on the path that they on Trump will win in 2020 and you will be stuck with him for another 4 years. Remember that our government is supposed to be OF the People, BY the people and FOR the People. When the democrats fully understand those words and apply it to the way they govern this country then the donkeys will have another shot at the white house.

  4. Pogo says:

    @Yada yada yada

    A fine serving of borborygmus.

    Meanwhile, what ARE the newly elected trump lickspittle/Republican bagmen up to?

  5. Merrill Shapiro says:

    Look deeper into the polling. Iowa supporters of Biden, in the wake of our current nightmare, want someone in the White House who knows how the Executive Branch runs, understands what a Cabinet meeting is, comprehends the meaning of the office of President of the United States. Yes, he’s too old, but no other candidate from either party can help us leave the current disaster behind the way Biden can!

  6. ASF says:

    All too true. We Democrats too often act like “Keystone Cops” and sound like sanctimonious hypocrites.

  7. marlee says:

    Are we going to waste 2 years talking about who is running for pres. in 2020 and then start all over again after that person is elected?

    What else is going on in this world, in this country, In this County????

  8. Agkistrodon says:

    YEah the GOP, the party of OLD White People……oh wait………Well there goes that old tired line.

  9. Matt says:

    Mr. Tristam, there are plenty of columns akin to yours which try to appeal to the intellectual capacities of the American voter. The Democrats and Independents have realized that identity politics and culturaly Marxist, counter-Constitutional ambition and sloganism are not cutting the mustard. As much as either would enjoy the prospect of an electorate who may supplant Trump, it should not seem such a surprise that the established and aged Democrat candidate-pool would inherently reflect a moderation and mitigation of radicalism which has potentially alienated 2016 & 2018 American voters. The day that columnists and genuflectors such as yourself are willing and able to navigate toward an honestly introspective and non-intellectual acceptance of this apparent reactionary voting tendency will likely be the day that truly viable (D) candidates risk a step forward and throw their hat into the ring. Your column appears to point-out the foible of the candidacy while failing to realize your own. Write to, for, and about the real American voter…not above, around or through them!

  10. Sam says:

    Excuse me while I wrap myself up in my American FLAG !!!!!

    MAGA

  11. William Moya says:

    They are not making the case because they don’y know who they are, so during the next 18 month we will have a very healthy and productive discussion that will lead to many old time democrats seeking shelter some place else, or the liberal progressive wing of the party looking for greener pastures. This discussion will be good for America, painful, but so is any rehabilitation.

    I know that some like Merrill, not to put words in his mouth, will argue that it may bring another four years of Trumpism, and if that is what the people want it may be the bitter pill that America will have to take in order to take at look at the mirror and see who we really are. To pretend that is politics as usual is to condemn the country to more authoritarianism, and frankly beyond fascism and into the nazification of America. It breaks my heart.

  12. Trailer Bob says:

    Well Mr. Publisher, it seems you are playing the same old game that most Democrats play. THe president of the USA has been ambushed since he was elected. Liberals would rather destroy the American way, than to accept Trump is president and start planning for the future. At least Trump is doing something and it appears to be keeping our Country safe and our economy humming along. If all of you could just take a breath, settle down, and stop crying about the fact that Hillary lost, then maybe the rest of us non-politicians could breathe a little easier and get on with what really matters to us…which would be family, income, health, and the end of the Media acting like children who didn’t get their way.

  13. gmath55 says:

    Host Wants To Exclude A Certain Group From POTUS Run

    https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=1BBjE_n59HU

    I am still waiting for the Hope And Change. LOL

  14. Pogo says:

    @In praise of wisdom and principled experience

    Beto, We Hardly Knew Ye

    The Texas Democrat’s actual political record deserves scrutiny, and it’s not what progressives might expect from the overheated adulation that has sent his presidential balloon aloft

    by Norman Solomon

    “…As candidates and in office, the last two Democratic presidents have been young, dynamic and often progressive-sounding, while largely serving the interests of Wall Street, big banks, military contractors and the like. Do we need to make it three in a row?”
    https://www.commondreams.org/views/2018/12/18/beto-we-hardly-knew-ye

    FWIW, Robert Mueller is 74 years old…

  15. Agkistrodon says:

    @POGO Politicians LIE whether they have a little R by their name or a little D by it. Some people don’t care if they LIE as long as they “say it in a nice way”. I frankly think Liars are scum with no honor or integrity, whether they have a little R or little D. They trick is to be able to admit that they all LIE, and not tell yourself that one is better than the other. I can recall quite a few Democrats being elected in earlier in the 2000’s that ran on Walls, Fences, and Illegal Immigration CONTROL, But once ELECTED, they didn’t do it THEY LIED. THEY all LIE. And neither a Little R or D makes it right.

  16. Alphonse Abonte says:

    I don’t always talk to young Democrats, but when I do I tell them I want a Large fries. Merry Christmas!

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