The other day, as 2016 was winding down to its much anticipated close, I was trying to delete the hundreds of junk emails that I get every day when I stumbled across one from Marcel Groen, the chairman of the Pennsylvania Democratic Party. The subject line declared that Pennsylvania Democrats had "a plan" for fighting back against Donald Trump in 2017.
Finally!...I thought to myself. I may not be a Democrat, but I'm willing to listen to anyone with an idea for beating back the Orange Menace. What could it be? Massive legislative resistance? An alternative agenda from Harrisburg, where at least the Dems control one branch of government? Civil disobedience? I opened an email only to learn there was no plan -- nothing specific, anyway. Instead, there was an incredibly vague promise to somehow stand in the way of the short-fingered vulgarian next year...if you could just spare a few bucks. $100 would be great, but they'll take $25.
This from a political party that just spent an astonishing $1.4 billion on its presidential candidate -- only to lose the election to a man who not only was the least prepared and least liked major-party nominee in American history, but who also got away with spending nearly $500 million less. That money was thrown away on ads that failed to give the electorate any sense of what a President Hillary Clinton might have done, and on ridiculous amounts of data that, in the end, apparently failed to indicate that Clinton should visit Wisconsin, the state that swung the election, or turn out voters in Michigan.
And yet -- two whole months after Clinton's stunning defeat -- the Democrats seem hellbent on merely asking for more money, with the promise that they will resist Trump. Honest! But is there anything in the Democrats' recent past to convince anyone that they have to cojones to stand up to the president-elect? Or that they even know how? Without a real plan of action, throwing more money at the Democratic Party would be the straight-up definition of insanity -- doing the same old thing and expecting a different result.
And yet, it seems increasing likely that the current leadership of the party won't be focusing on conducting a much-needed 2016 autopsy or developing a plan for radical change. Why? Because growing numbers of Democrats -- from the party elites to the rank-and-file -- have come to believe that Hillary Clinton and her cadre didn't lose the election, but that Vladimir Putin and Russian hackers stole it from her, with their alleged efforts to steal and publish Democrat emails and tilt the playing field toward Trump.
In the last few weeks, I've read a ton of online discussion about the election and Russian hacking. Some have called the scandal worse than Watergate or even suggested there should be some kind of election do-over, while others -- Trump and his inner circle, but also some on the farther left -- note that inconclusive proof of Russian involvement comes from the same folks who lied about weapons of mass destruction in Iraq. As if so often is the case, the reality is probably in a place that no one likes to be in 2017. In the middle.
Look, no matter what your politics are, there certain things about the election hacking that we should all be able to agree upon. 1) Vladimir Putin is a scummy, authoritarian leader who murders journalists and opponents, bullies and occasionally invades his neighbors, and wants to destabilize rivals like the U.S. and Western Europe. 2) Allegations -- not 100 percent proven, but strongly backed by circumstantial evidence -- that a major power, Russia, broke the law by hacking and sought to influence the election outcome need to be treated with extreme seriousness, including a full-blown, public and open investigation and some sort of retaliatory measures like those carried out last week by President Obama, and 3) Trump's embrace of Putin is unseemly and has potentially disastrous implications for American policy.
Having stipulated those things, did the Russian hacking really snatch victory from the Democrats and hand it to the Cheeto Jesus? Other than getting rid of former party chair Debbie Wasserman-Schultz -- arguably the best thing that happened to the national party in 2016 -- is there anything even that memorable that emerged from the purloined emails? The pollster Nate Silver -- who was wisely less sanguine about Clinton's odds of winning than most other pundits -- has made a persuasive case that if any external factor tilted things toward Trump Tower, it was FBI Director James Comey's bizarre and arguably unethical actions surrounding the Clinton email case. But Putin is a bigger, sexier, and easier-to-loathe target than Comey.
The biggest concern about Putin and the Russians -- that the actual vote tallies would be hacked and changed, presumably in Trump's favor -- never happened. And yet, so successful has been the crusade by Democratic elites to blame it all on the Kremlin that 50 percent of the party rank-and-file now believe that Russia did tamper with vote tallies to help Trump, despite zero evidence. That surely undercuts Democrats' moral authority when it comes to the raft of fake conservative scandals like Pizzagate, but -- even worse -- it also gives the party an excuse not to re-invent itself.
The reality is the Democrats lost the critical battleground states, including Pennsylvania, for a multitude of reasons. In battered rural and Rust Belt counties, frustrated voters found it easier to connect with a bombastic strongman than with liberals who seemed to look down on the middle class even when they promised to help. But even more deadly was the failure to excite the Democratic base, especially in cities like Philadelphia or Milwaukee. The signs were there: I remember wading through crowd at Hillary's big night-before-the-election rally on Independence Mall and wondering why so many of the faces were white suburbanites. I should have wondered harder. On Election Day, Putin didn't hack the fractured relationship between the party and its base.
When the Democrats did something good -- like the Affordable Care Act -- they were afraid to sell it. When the party base was excited about something -- like a $15 minimum wage or taking on Wall Street -- the leadership was too petrified to touch it. The party bigwigs knew how to generate dollars, but not excitement. The party's powerful "grassroots" was really just the personal popularity of Barack Obama, and when that was not on the ballot it all collapsed like a house of cards, until they'd lost the House, then the Senate, and now the White House, with a right-wing Supreme Court, which will thwart progressive change for the rest of my lifetime, on deck.
The irony about the Democrats now trying to raise money off Trump is that most of the liberals I know are in a remarkably giving mood in this post-Nov. 8 world. In my own (ultra liberal...duh) family, donations to progressive causes overtook tradition gifts this Christmas, and checks were written...but to groups like Planned Parenthood, the ACLU and the Southern Poverty Law Center. The idea of supporting Democrats with their hard-earned cash hasn't even occurred to a lot of folks.
That's because of something that's so powerful and so obvious that people haven't even felt the need to verbalize it. From the millions who wish to oppose Trump and his ill-advised policies, real resistance will flow from the people first, and not the politicians. Right now, nothing on the radar screen is generating more excitement from people I know than the Jan. 21 Women's March on Washington. Before anything else, a lot of people's first priority is to stand up and be counted among #TheResistance.
Then what? By 2018, there'll be little hope of any major reversal of Trumpism without electoral gains against the GOP. But the current Democratic Party is unlikely to change to meet the needs of regular people; regular people will need to change the Democratic Party. That is beginning to happen -- there are already some refreshing outsider candidates for national leadership posts like South Jersey's Melissa Byrne, a longtime brawler for social justice who recently worked in the Bernie Sanders primary campaign. But ultimately, the real reformers and anti-Trump newcomers will need to tackle the on-the-ground jobs like ward leader or committee person, the unglamorous soul of the Democratic Party machine. And the more predictable party hacks should expect primary challenges. Those are the kind of things that make party insiders cringe -- but they ought to be cringing after November's debacle.