By Tom Troy
The defeat of Hillary Clinton and the Democratic Party in the election of 2016 has party leaders wondering whether the party is fundamentally out of touch with Midwestern voters.
Many Democrats — and others — were shocked when Republican Donald Trump won states that Mrs. Clinton was expected to win, namely Wisconsin, Michigan, and Pennsylvania. And though Mr. Trump was projected to win Ohio, his 8-point margin outpaced pollsters’ predictions.
A month after the election, U.S. Rep. Marcy Kaptur (D., Toledo) said former first lady, secretary of state, and U.S. Senator Clinton missed opportunities to drive home the economic message that might have won voters’ confidence.
“I think the Democratic Party has some soul-searching to do. On the economic front it fell short,” Miss Kaptur told The Blade.
She sent to her Democratic House colleagues a packet of graphs, political cartoons, and articles that portray a “bicoastal” bias on the part of the Democratic Party leadership. Miss Kaptur said the industrial heartland feels “squeezed out, overshadowed, marginalized, ignored.”
And the representative doesn’t think the national Democratic Party is in touch with those voters, seeming to prefer its leadership come from the coasts.
“I think that they are sympathetic but they really don’t understand,” Miss Kaptur said after House Democrats again elected California U.S. Rep. Nancy Pelosi as their leader in the House, over Rep. Tim Ryan of Ohio.
“They are captive of their own ideology and culture and economies. San Francisco being a financial center, I think it’s really hard for someone like Leader Pelosi to really internalize what it’s like to live in a place where someone can have their job jerked out from under them,” Miss Kaptur said.
Meanwhile, the Republican Party’s leadership is heavily Midwestern — with the exception of President-elect Trump, who is from New York. Vice-president-elect Mike Pence is from Indiana. Speaker of the House Paul Ryan is from Wisconsin. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell is from Kentucky. The incoming chairman and co-chairman of the Republican National Committee are from Michigan and Ohio.
Liberality from coasts
Miss Kaptur, the longest-serving woman in the U.S. House of Representatives and eighth member overall in seniority, has long been a critic of the liberality of the east and west coast Democrats who tend to rule the Democratic Party.
She said campaign money supplied by extremely wealthy donors carries more weight with both parties than do the concerns of working people in the Midwest. She has introduced campaign finance legislation to level that playing field.
“These people have enormous power and it’s all behind the curtains in both parties,” Miss Kaptur said.
Miss Kaptur said the Democratic Party is quick to talk about social issues — lesbian, gay, bisexual, and trangender rights; women’s rights; minority groups’ rights, and civil rights — so-called “identity politics.”
“The economic message is one which our party was deaf toward for a very long time,” Miss Kaptur said, citing Democratic Party leadership for the 1993 North American Free Trade Agreement that knocked down trade barriers with low-cost Mexico and allowed manufacturers to make products cheaper there for sale in the United States.
“The leaders of our party don’t agree with our point of view out here,” she said.
Miss Kaptur said she spoke personally to Mrs. Clinton before her speech at the near-downtown Martin Luther King, Jr., Plaza on Oct. 3 to give her some ideas for sharpening an economic message that would resonate in Toledo and Ohio.
Instead, she heard a speech in which billionaire investor Warren Buffett was mentioned but not the international trade agreements, including NAFTA, that are widely blamed for undercutting manufacturing jobs in Ohio.
“She didn’t make much of that in Toledo. I was shocked at the Amtrak station. She talked more about Warren Buffett. Who knows who that is? And she stood in the Amtrak station and did not talk about how her infrastructure bill would help renovate that station, renovate the water plant, save Lake Erie,” Miss Kaptur said.
“I said, ‘I think the Great Lakes region needs a message that you’re hearing us,’ ” she said. “I thought it was a lost opportunity. I was so dejected.”
Weighing a tariff
Miss Kaptur refused to blanket endorse Mr. Trump’s oft-mentioned 35 percent tariff on goods manufactured in other countries by American companies to be sold in the United States. She needs to see the legislation.
“I’d have to see what he’s saying. Will he be selective? I’d say he should pick steel to put a tariff on. He could speed up the process for the International Trade Commission so we can have decisions that are more timely [on unfair trade claims]. The selective use of tariffs I could support,” Miss Kaptur said.
Before supporting a 35 percent tariff on Ford Trucks made in Mexico and sold in the United States, as Mr. Trump has said he would do, Miss Kaptur said, “I would have to study the flow of trucks. One would have to study how you get some kind of parity.”
But she agreed, “I don’t think they should be able to U-turn goods back into the United States.”
One of the areas in Ohio where Mr. Trump did well was eastern Ohio. Mahoning County Chairman David Betras said voters perceived the national Democratic Party as caring “more about where you take a pee than about whether you have a job.”
President Obama issued an order in May that public schools must allow transgender students to use bathrooms that correspond with their gender identity rather than their birth gender. The rule drew Republican outrage and was struck down by a federal judge.
“For a great swath of people in Ohio, that live paycheck to paycheck, they see their ability to have the living they used to have diminishing, nobody’s paying attention, and worse yet people look down their nose at them,” Mr. Betras said.
In a memo on May 12 to the Clinton campaign that he provided to The Blade, Mr. Betras said Mrs. Clinton needed to make a commitment to bringing back good jobs.
“The messages can’t be about job retraining,” Mr. Betras added.
“These folks have heard it a million times and, frankly, they think it’s complete and total [nonsense],” he said.
Mr. Betras said Mrs. Clinton’s widely replayed remark about how coal miners would be put out of work by climate legislation soured voters in his area. “The workers in our area thought she was disrespecting working people,” he said.
U.S. Sen. Sherrod Brown (D., Ohio), who, like Miss Kaptur, is a strong opponent of NAFTA and the Trans-Pacific Partnership, just like Mr. Trump was, said he has his doubts that Mr. Trump’s agenda will continue to earn public support.
“I see an administration shaping up pursuing the typical billionaire agenda — more tax cuts for the rich, weaker rules for Wall Street, taxes on Social Security. So if they do the typical billionaire agenda — that much of Trump’s cabinet looks like they will, and giveaways to Wall Street, and privatization of Medicare, they’re going to lose these voters that voted for Trump the first time, no question in my mind,” Mr. Brown said.
Mark Weaver, a Republican consultant based in Columbus, said the election was one in which in voters showed their willingness to break out of the political stereotypes imposed on them by politicians.
He said Democrats mistakenly assumed that blue-collar Americans were on the Clinton team.
The Democratic path to victory, he said, was “through coalitions that do not make up the majority. They just presumed that white, working-class voters were in the Democratic pocket, and we all know pockets have holes in them,” Mr. Weaver said.
“Democrats are going to have pay much less attention to the screaming meemies on the left,” he said.
“I think people are saying now, ‘Let me vote for the policy positions not the party,’ ” Mr. Weaver said.
Ohio Democratic Chairman David Pepper said there are multiple reasons that Mrs. Clinton lost Ohio to Mr. Trump, but he thinks the main one is that Mr. Trump spoke most directly to the frustrations of working people stuck in a flat-wage economy.
He disputed the impact of Mr. Trump’s noneconomic message, such as the Muslim ban and a wall on the border with Mexico, saying ideas that might be politically incorrect were embraced by some and ignored by many.
He also said there were complaints about the way the campaign functioned, including what he thought was pivoting too late from registering new voters to phone-banking and knocking on doors — the persuasion phase of a political campaign.
Focusing on the economic message is the lesson for the party, he said. And with Ohio now possibly entering a recession — in the words of Republican Gov. John Kasich — Mr. Pepper said it’s clear that there never was a so-called “Ohio Miracle,” also the words of Governor Kasich.
“When you look at where Trump did the best it was in places that were really reliant on manufacturing — or used to be — or mining or farming. There is no doubt that obviously Hillary Clinton won the national popular vote by millions. So, in parts of the country her message was the winning message. But clearly in the industrial Midwest, in key parts of Ohio, Donald Trump’s message of ‘Make America Great Again’ spoke to an economic need that the Democratic message of ‘Stronger Together’ didn’t speak to,” Mr. Pepper said, citing the two slogans of the Trump and Clinton campaigns.
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After Ohio loss, shocked Democrats ask: What now?