For 65 million Americans, give or take a few million, we're coming up on the one-year anniversary of a national nightmare – of Nov. 8, 2016, when in the void of an autumn night the seeming sure-thing election of the first female president in Hillary Clinton instead slowly morphed into improbable victory for the dark and carnage-fueled vision of Donald Trump and his supporters.
In the depths of disconsolate despair, the Democrats who gave us one of the most disastrous presidential campaigns ever, made a promise to their supporters, which amounted to: Never again.
So why, on the eve of arguably the most important off-year election in recent U.S. history – scattered but important races that will set the tone for the bigger showdowns of 2018 and 2020 – is everything happening all over again for the hapless Democrats?
It all burst wide open this weekend when – in an act of remarkably bad timing that couldn't have been worse if hatched by Trump and his West Wing minions (or comrade Vladimir Putin, for that matter) – the former 2016 chairwoman of the national Democratic Party, Donna Brazile, let loose with a book full of both wild and wildly inaccurate accusations about Clinton and last year's campaign that took the party's still-bleeding wounds and ripped them wide open.
The importance of Brazile's new book, Hacks, isn't so much what it has to say – its core allegation involving "rigged" 2016 primaries in Clinton's favor was quickly debunked, and the notion that she could have replaced Clinton last November with Joe Biden is X-Files stuff – but in the bloody aftermath of its release, showing that too many Clinton and Bernie Sanders supporters are still much more comfortable fighting each other than fighting against Trump's rising authoritarianism.
Incredibly, the ugly Brazile-fed Democratic food fight happened on the very weekend when party faithful are supposed to be out knocking on doors and singing some version of "Kumbaya" to turn out the vote in some critical off-year elections in New Jersey, Pennsylvania (where, with not enough fanfare, some key statewide judicial races are on the ballot), and Virginia, as well as scattered key local residents.
To be clear, many determined Democrats were out doing that shoe-leather work in the final days of the 2017 election, but the ceaseless Clinton-Sanders wars put an exclamation point on the party's deficiencies when it should be reaping the windfall of Trump's record unpopularity and anger over GOP moves in Congress – such as the (thankfully) botched repeal of Obamacare.
Yes, the glass is also half full. The Democrats seem all but certain to recapture the governor's mansion in New Jersey, and some of the party's unexpectedly successful candidates in local races – here at home, Larry Krasner's likely election as Philadelphia's next district attorney, and electrifying mayoral wins for Birmingham's Randall Woodfin and Chokwe Antar Lumumba of Jackson, Miss. (all backed by the Sanders-inspired Our Revolution) – showed there is an untapped appetite for real progressive change. The loose anti-Trump coalition often called The Resistance created an epic protest march last January and certainly played a key role in saving Obamacare.
But it's jarring that the glass is still half-empty, given the danger of Trump's threat to democracy and the need for a powerful – and unified – opposition.
Sure, the Democrats are on track for a big win in New Jersey with gubernatorial candidate Phil Murphy, although The Situation from Jersey Shore could probably claim a landslide victory there with a "D" next to his name after the eight years of wreckage caused by Chris Christie. Murphy comes across as the Emanuel Macron of the Garden State – a bland elitist, straight outta Goldman Sachs, winning solely because of who he is not. In South Jersey, the teachers' union is inexplicably spending millions of dollars to help a pro-Trump Republican because a revenge plot against Senate President Steve Sweeney seems more appealing than a coherent progressive strategy.
But lack of boldness and vision isn't just a problem for the Dems in New Jersey. Nationally, the party has struggled to come up with a strategy for electoral success beyond "at-least-we're-not-Trump," settling for now on the vague and anemic "Better Deal" – which hasn't exactly set the nation on fire so far. Brazile's replacement as Democratic National Committee chair, the former labor secretary Tom Perez, hasn't kept his promise to unify the Clinton and Sander factions – instead moving most recently to purge progressives. In less than a year, the Trump Resistance seems mired in different factions – ex-hardcore Clinton partisans in groups such as the Indivisible chapters, the Sanders fanatics in Our Revolution, the more radical anti-fascists who were out protesting on Saturday – that rarely work together.
Where the rubber may finally hit the road on Tuesday is in the state of Virginia, where, in a critical governor's race, the Democrats seem determined to – stop me if you've heard this one before – snatch defeat from the jaws of victory. The party remains deeply divided after its nominee, the fairly conservative (he voted for George W. Bush twice in the 2000s) lieutenant governor, Ralph Northam, beat a more progressive rival in the primary; Northam has run an awful campaign, incapable of tapping into voter anger against Trump in a state that Clinton won in 2016 and wavering on issues that matter to the Democratic base, such as immigration. Some left-wing voters are sitting on their hands.
The GOP candidate, former party chairman Ed Gillespie, has brought himself to the brink of a possible upset by embracing the absolute worst of Trumpism, running a campaign based on racism (keeping the state's Confederate monuments), xenophobia (with ads seeking to link Northam to the violent gang MS-13), and over-the-top dishonesty (with a bizarre ad that seeks to link Northam to sex trafficking). If Gillespie wins, it will be the political equivalent of Groundhog Day, not just reliving the horror of Trump's victory one year later but convincing his fellow Republicans on Capitol Hill and elsewhere that the only way to win is by embracing extremism and hate. And the Democrats will share in the blame for running yet another weak, milquetoast campaign.
What should the Dems be doing? There's a two-pronged way forward:
• Endorse a bold but simple populist economic agenda that leans heavily on a $15 minimum wage – politically popular, simple to understand – but also calling for real and affordable universal health care and universal college opportunity, with the wealthy paying their fair share in taxes. Make it clear that these policies will help everyone in the middle class – not just whites in the Rust Belt – and that the party isn't abandoning its commitments to equality and social justice. Then push the hell out of it with ads and every time a Democrat appears on TV.
• Abandon your fears and get behind the one thing that has the potential to unify the hopelessly fractured Clinton and Sanders wings of the party: The impeachment of Donald Trump, with the election of a Democratic House next year. In recent days, I've seen a lot of criticism from Democrats/liberals of billionaire Tom Steyer spending $10 million on ads promoting Trump's impeachment and removal – arguing that the money should go toward conventional Democratic campaigns. Really? Conventional campaigns run as poorly as Ralph Northam's? Impeachment is the one unifying force that can bring Democrats together and make them finally forget the family feuds of 2016.
There isn't much time. Trump's dictatorial talk – about squashing a free press or reducing the independence of the Justice Department – has been mostly talk so far, but we remain one North Korea misstep or a firing of special counsel Robert Mueller away from a grave constitutional crisis. Democracy needs strong institutions – media, judiciary, and a viable opposition party. But a Democratic Party that refuses to move beyond its 2016 election debacle is condemned to repeat it – and deliver us seven more years of Trump in the process.