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The Future Of The Democratic Party, According To ‘The Establishment’

This is the fourth and final episode of “Party Time,” a mini-series from FiveThirtyEight’s Politics podcast examining where the two major political parties are heading in the Trump era. Throughout February, we’ve been talking to lawmakers, strategists and stakeholders who hold different views within the parties.

In the first two episodes, we heard from people representing different positions within the Republican Party: Trump allies and Trump skeptics. In the third episode, we heard from Bernie Sanders-style progressives.

The final episode focuses on so-called “establishment” Democrats, or Democrats who would have been more likely to support Hillary Clinton in the 2016 primary than Sanders. They are liberal, but not quite as far to the left on some of Sanders’s key issues, such as single-payer health care, tuition-free higher education, and tax increases that include the middle class.

In this episode, we hear from U.S. Rep. Steny Hoyer, the House minority whip; Stephanie Cutter, deputy campaign manager for the 2012 Obama campaign; and Neera Tanden, president of the Center for American Progress. Here is a partial transcript of our conversation with Cutter:

Galen Druke: Looking back on the 2016 election — in your mind, what went wrong?

Stephanie Cutter: When you lose by that small of a margin and particularly if you’re losing the electoral vote but winning the popular vote by that kind of margin, there’s not one answer. There’s lots of little answers. Because the margins are so small, everything matters. You could talk about the Comey letter at the tail end of the campaign driving third-party voters away from Hillary and toward Donald Trump. You could talk about some of what went wrong in Wisconsin, in Michigan and in Ohio. Or you could talk about part of the Obama coalition just deciding to stay home. All of these are very important reasons and reasons that Democrats need to pay attention to, but I think it’s difficult to put your finger on just one thing when you’re losing by that kind of a margin.

Druke: If you look at the broad picture, though, Hillary Clinton’s loss was the culmination of years of losses by the Democratic Party both in Congress and in state legislatures around the country. Do you have an idea of why that played out the way it did over the eight years from the beginning of Obama’s tenure to the end? What happened to the Democratic Party?

Cutter: I think as a party we didn’t pay enough attention to down-ballot races, and that takes a toll in a number of different ways. One, in redistricting, which has given Republicans a pretty solid majority in the House of Representatives. It takes a role in talent recruitment. We have not developed a bench of talent over the last eight years, or we haven’t spent enough time developing that bench of talent. And lastly, in terms of winning an election in a state with a supportive governor, a supportive secretary of state is a much different proposition than running in a state where you’ve got antagonists in those spots. It’s a much more difficult race to run. So all of this matters. We have to focus on down-ballot races if we want to invest in upper-ballot races.

Clare Malone: Who’s to blame for that exactly? I’ve been following the DNC chair race, and a lot of people have talked about how OFA (Obama for America) sucked the air out of the room on the state level — that it was supposed to be this organization that would keep people engaged in those years in between presidential elections. People are saying that it didn’t do that; it, in fact, diverted attention away from those state parties. What would you say to that line of reasoning of why the Democrats lost on the state level?

Cutter: Remember, President Obama was elected in 2008 largely outside of the Democratic Party system because the bulk of the party was for Hillary Clinton, not for Barack Obama. So that was the origination for OFA. And over the years, after the president took office, OFA became a policy-driving organization. It played an instrumental role in passing the Affordable Care Act, in financial reform and all of the other first-term successes. Did that take a toll on how Democrats were building state parties? Yes, probably. And I think the president has acknowledged that there were some issues.

But I think that the biggest reason is that Democrats, from the president on down, all of us, we just weren’t paying attention to how to continue building the party. It’s not atypical to what happens when you have a sitting president of your party in office. It happened to Republicans during the Bush years. All of that is to say, it’s a problem for us, and we have to figure out how we go back and put some real investments on the ground level.

Malone: I want to ask you about the systemic structural problems that Democrats face. You mentioned redistricting before. How do the Democrats tackle that? And through what vehicle do they tackle it?

Cutter: I don’t think we can have too many people working on it, but it’s important for those organizations to understand their roles and work together. I know that certain people are focused on the legalities of redistricting and understanding the use of the court system to ensure fair representation. Others are focused on electing that bench of talent at a local level so that redistricting going through state legislatures has a chance. Others are focused on overall reform so that redistricting is not subject to political whims.

So I think everybody has to understand their role and also understand that there is no one solution. We have to attack it from every angle. It is a long-term prospect. These changes aren’t going to happen overnight. It’s something we have to stick with as a party and understand that early investments made by Republicans 10, 15, 20 years ago have reaped them benefits today. And, ultimately, this is about — yes, of course, as Democrats we want to win, but we also want a more representative democracy.

Look at what has happened when you have gerrymandering creating non-competitive districts. It means that elected representatives really don’t have to compete for votes. They’re not held accountable in terms of reaching across the aisle or finding a way to get things done. They play to their party base. That does not lead to a great democracy. I think we can all agree with that.

Druke: Going forward, part of the debate within the Democratic Party is: Was this really a strategy issue where a different candidate with the same platform could have run a better campaign? Or is this an issue of the issues, the platform? Does the Democratic Party need to pivot to the left à la Bernie Sanders democratic socialism? Where do you come down on that?

Cutter: I don’t think the platform is flawed. I think there’s room in the party for the Bernie Sanders wing and any other wing. I think where we need to agree is that we have to find a way to be relevant to the American people. We have to find a way to break through on the issues that matter to them. And, primarily, that’s how we can improve their daily economic life, how they make ends meet, how they send their kids to college, how they buy a house, how they pay a mortgage. Those are the things that most Americans think about on a daily basis, and we have to do a better job in being relevant in that discussion and demonstrating that we can be problem solvers, we have solutions, we can move the country forward.

So I don’t buy into we need to move left, we need to move right. We just need to be relevant to them, and there’s room in the party for all different types of specific policies. But we have to agree that we have to talk about things that matter to them.

Druke: So on the issues, there’s no change? From health care to immigration to trade, is there anything in terms of issues that you would advise the Democratic Party, “Rethink this”?

Cutter: Tell me where you’re coming from in the question. Give me something specific.

Druke: Here’s an example: We’ve talked to progressives as part of this series, and they said: “The [Affordable Care Act] was a little misguided all along. We should have pushed more for single payer, and that’s what we’re going to be pushing for going forward.” Do you think a move like that on the part of the Democratic Party would be misguided?

Cutter: There’s lots of people out there, including mainstream health care experts, who believe we need to ultimately get to a single-payer system. And that’s a legitimate debate to have, but I think if you’re talking about appealing to voters, who are also everyday Americans, that’s not what they’re thinking about. They’re not sitting back and thinking, “God, I really wish I had single payer.” They’re wondering how they’re going to pay for their health care. So that’s a policy discussion. That’s not a discussion about where the Democratic Party needs to be politically.

Druke: But also, speaking from the perspective of where the Democrats need to be on their platform and their issues, there are forces within the party right now that are kind of pushing to the left and saying, “We need to go with the Bernie Sanders vision for America.” And part of that is doubling down on single payer and making other further left economic adjustments. Do you think that’s misguided?

Cutter: I don’t think that’s misguided. I don’t think that is where as a party we need to be putting our focus right now. We have rebuilding to do. And as we do that rebuilding, we have to make sure that this administration and this Congress doesn’t do damage to the American people. So over the course of the next two years, as we’re looking toward the next election or recruiting candidates, sure, can we have a discussion as a party about whether we all collectively want to be for single payer? Absolutely. My guess is because we’re the Democratic Party, there’s never going to be unanimity on that — particularly if we want to get out of coastal areas and get into the heart of the middle of the country and recruit candidates.

So I think that’s a policy discussion to have. At the same time, we need to do some rebuilding from a political standpoint, in recruiting talent and understanding over the course of the next two years the discussion that the American people want to have.

Malone: We’ve labeled the main wings of the Democratic Party for this series as “establishment” and “progressive.” Does that seem right to you? Do you think those are going to continue to be the main blocs?

Cutter: I think there have been people who have been in Congress for a long time who would call themselves progressives, so I don’t know how you define what an establishment Democrat versus what a progressive Democrat is.

Druke: Let’s make this question a little more open-ended. Obviously, there are competing interests in any party. How would you categorize those competing interests right now in the Democratic Party?

Cutter: I think that there are people who supported Bernie Sanders who would like the party to be more aggressive and bold in some of the policy statements. And I know that Sanders supporters supported Sanders for a lot of reasons, including the policy positions that he took. But they also supported him because of his clarity and ability, you know, seeming ability to speak the truth on the issues. And I think that it’s important for Democrats to understand that people are just looking to get the bullshit out of the way and go straight to what matters. So I think if we’re looking at the future of the party, it’s important to understand that people just want to cut through the clutter, get through the bullshit, not get caught up in partisan exercises and just figure out how we move the country forward in ways that will help them, ways that will make a difference in their lives.

So, sure, the Democratic Party has always had those that stood a little bit more to the left and those that stood a little bit more to the center. Absolutely. We’re the Democratic Party. It’s been interesting to watch the Republican Party over the last eight years become more fractured like the Democratic Party. They’re more fractured than we are, but that doesn’t mean that our fractures went away.

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The FiveThirtyEight Politics podcast publishes Monday evenings, with occasional special episodes throughout the week. Help new listeners discover the show by leaving us a rating and review on iTunes. Have a comment, question or suggestion for “good polling vs. bad polling”? Get in touch by email, on Twitter or in the comments.

Galen Druke is FiveThirtyEight’s podcast producer and reporter.

Clare Malone is a former senior political writer for FiveThirtyEight.