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Michigan Democrats need a new game plan

Jack Lessenberry

I had lunch the other day with Senate Minority Leader Gretchen Whitmer, who in a few weeks will be out of office for the first time in fourteen years. The last four years have had to be frustrating for her.

She led a caucus so small – a dozen members – that you could pack them all into a minibus. They didn’t even control one third of the seats, and were even powerless to prevent bills they didn’t like from taking immediate effect.

Nobody realistically thought the Dems could take control of the state senate this year, but they believed they would at least pick up a few seats. Instead, they lost another one, and for the first time in fourteen years, Whitmer, thanks to term limits, won’t be in Lansing.

Intelligent, well-spoken and charismatic, she likely could have won a nomination for statewide office or Congress had she wished.

But in a stunning sign of normality, she decided she wanted to get out of politics, at least for now, and spend more time with her eleven and twelve year old daughters.

That doesn’t mean she doesn’t care, however, and she is deeply concerned about her party. She thinks it is time for Democrats to ask: “Have we lost our way as a party? Do we know who we are and what we stand for?”

Those are questions that almost desperately need to be asked.

If Michigan Democrats had a party slogan this year, it would have been something like “at least we’re not quite as bad.”

Voters learned a lot about what they thought Governor Rick Snyder was doing wrong, but little about what Democrats would do instead.

They never made the sale, and lost every major state office. What’s most baffling about this is that Democrats have won every Presidential election in Michigan since the World Wide Web was invented. They’ve lost only one U.S. Senate race in the last forty-two years. Yet they can’t win state positions.

To be sure, gerrymandering has a lot to do with this in so far as the legislature is concerned. But Democrats have lost five out of the last seven races for governor; the last six races for secretary of state; the last four for attorney general.

The conventional wisdom, as expressed by editorial writers and columnists, is that the party has become too liberal and needs to move to the right. But I think that may be dead wrong.

I think Democrats would be better off standing for something, including a program to help the middle class and those who want to be in the middle class, something that people are finding harder and harder to do.

Twenty years ago, Newt Gingrich led the Republicans to recapture control of both houses of Congress with a simple, easy to understand program called “A Contract With America.”

Democrats ought to look at their playbook. Two of their most popular politicians are Senators Elizabeth Warren and Bernie Sanders.

Sanders even calls himself a socialist. Yet they win by landslides and people love them, because they stand for something.

Standing for something and a healthy dose of populism might not hurt, but one thing is clear. Democrats need to do something new.

* Correction: and Earlier version of this post referred to Gretchen Whitmere as Senate Majority leader. The correction has been corrected above. 

Jack Lessenberry is Michigan Radio's political analyst. You can read his essays online at michiganradio.org. Views expressed in his essays are his own and do not necessarily reflect those of Michigan Radio, its management or the station licensee, The University of Michigan.

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