What Democrats Need to Do to Win Again

Trump Maladministration

So here’s another article about the poor Appalachian people who used to work in coal mines and don’t anymore and are dependent on Obamacare and might lose it and voted for Trump. And it’s really, really sad. Here’s just a bit of it:

Heartburn is just the latest problem for Clyde, a patient Keisha sees every three months. Like so many in this corner of Appalachia, he used to have a highly paid job at a coal mine. Company insurance covered all of his medical needs. Then he lost the job and ended up here, holding a cane and suffering not only from heartburn but diabetes, arthritis, diverticulitis, high blood pressure and high cholesterol.

Because of the ACA, Clyde’s visit is covered by Medicaid. Before the law, most West Virginians without children or disabilities could not qualify for Medicaid, no matter how poor they were. The ACA — better known here as Obamacare — expanded the program to cover more people, such as Clyde, who can depend on Keisha to fix his heartburn without having to worry about the cost.

As for the other problems in his life, he has put his hopes in Trump, who came to West Virginia saying he would bring back coal and put miners back to work. When Trump mentioned repealing Obamacare, Clyde wasn’t sure what that might mean for his Medicaid. But if he had a job that provided health insurance, he reasoned, he wouldn’t need Medicaid anyway, so he voted for Trump, along with 74 percent of McDowell County.

And we might judge this man a fool, but in truth he voted for the candidate who promised him something, as opposed to the one who promised him nothing. And assuming he gets most of his politics news from the teevee, nobody warned him what a con man Trump is.

The truth is that Clyde was abandoned by both parties. It might be that the Democrats were working to get him better benefits, but neither party has ever been straight with coal people about why their jobs are not going to come back. Neither party, on a local, state or national level, has hustled to come up with a plan to replace those coal jobs or otherwise come up with a way for the Clydes of America to find self-worth and income.

And it’s not like the end of coal was something that just sneaked up on everybody last week. They’ve had years to figure out what to do about Clyde. Meanwhile, nobody tells him straight-out what’s really going on. They just dangle promises in front of him that nobody intends to keep.

One of the best things I’ve read today is An open letter to America’s coal miners, and to America by Mark Sumners, a former mineworker himself. In other words, he’s someone who knows the business. Here’s a bit:

This is the hard truth. In 2000, coal generated almost 53 percent of all the electricity in the United States. By 2009, that was 45 percent. In 2014 it was 39 percent. One year later, it was 33 percent.

Look at that last number. Coal’s contribution to the electrical picture dropped by 6 percent in a single year. That didn’t happen because of rules on carbon pollution that were never even made. It didn’t happen because of regulations on water pollution that never went into effect.

It happened because fracking for natural gas has made that fuel extremely abundant, and generators of electricity would much, much rather deal with gas than coal. Even when the gas itself is more expensive than coal, gas is easier to transport, easier to store, easier to burn. You don’t need expensive ash-removal on the smokestacks of a gas-powered plant, because gas doesn’t make ash. You don’t need to worry about where to bury ton after ton of clinkers left over when the coal is burned. There are no dams full of slurry to burst.

Better still, from the point of view of the people making electricity, gas generators are cheaper. You can buy them small and add on power gradually. Coal plants are big. They take a huge amount of money up front and don’t start making money for decades after construction.

That’s why there are no new coal plants under construction anywhere in the United States. None.

Forget the songs. Ignore the banners. You don’t sell coal to “America.” You sell it to Duke Energy, and Southern Company, and NRG and a few dozen others. That’s who buys coal. Only they’re buying less. And they’re going to keep buying less, until they’re buying none at all. Donald Trump isn’t going to change that. Short of passing a law that requires power companies to burn coal, which he won’t, there’s nothing that can stop it.

If Congress repealed every environmental law and every safety law that affects coal mining tonight, you know what would happen tomorrow? There would be fewer coal jobs. And fewer still the day after.

In fact, the regulations that Trump is repealing will make that happen faster. The rule that was changed on allowing more coal waste in streams won’t make new coal jobs. It will allow mining companies to replace underground mines with mountaintop removal mines. Those mines use far fewer people. When Trump signed that document and handed you the pen, what he was repealing was coal jobs.

There was a time that mine workers got much of their news about what government was up to from the unions. I assume Clyde doesn’t hear from unions any more, either, but if he did I’m not sure how they are handling the cold, hard fact that coal mining is going the way of the whaling industry.

And I’d also bet that Clyde had no idea what any Democratic running for office anywhere actually proposed. And that isn’t entirely Clyde’s fault.

Of course, a lot of people are being left behind by the economy. I keep reading that this isn’t really the fault of outsourcing jobs to other countries, although that used to be the cause. Maybe it isn’t the real cause these days. But something is a problem.

Someone asked some pollsters recently about what the Democrats have been doing wrong, and they said,

[Hillary Clinton] had a list of policies, but she didn’t have an overall explanation of what her diagnosis of the problem was, or what her solution was. This is what we call the Listerine test, after the eight-word slogan: “Listerine kills the germs that cause bad breath.”

It defines the problem, and gives a solution that sounds like it might work. It’s what advertising calls a “reason to believe.” Hillary didn’t have one. She had a goal statement: “An economy that works for everyone, not just those at the top.”

The very first question of the very first debate came from [moderator] Lester Holt, and it was: “Secretary Clinton, why are you the better choice than your opponent to create the kind of jobs that will put more money in the pockets of American workers?” And her answer listed 14 different policies, but with just a few grace notes to connect them. That was the moment at which I became convinced she wasn’t going to win.

That is not her problem—it is a party problem.

It is a party problem, and it goes deeper than just messaging.

First, they need to figure out what they’re going to do about Clyde. And I don’t mean appealing to his presumed racism or misogyny or anything else. We don’t need to do that, and we shouldn’t do it. I mean they need to figure out how are they going to change the economy so that there’s a place for Clyde in it, somewhere. Because until they figure that out, all the clever slogans in the world aren’t going to help them.

And I don’t know what that solution might be, but I suspect it’s going to take more than a few tweaks to status quo. Be bold, Democrats. Stop negotiating with yourselves. Stop whimpering that Republicans are mean to you. Come up with the plan you’d like to put into place if you had complete control of Congress and the White House, and stick to it.

Then, when you’ve got the plan, sell it. Get everybody on the same page with a simple message that basically says, We can do this. But it’s got to be more than a slogan; people need to know the message means something.

And at this point the Democratic Brand has become so degraded it’s going to take a few election cycles to be credible again to most of the Clydes. But if they don’t do this, they’re going to be keep losing.

See also: Andrew O’Hehir, How the DudeBros ruined everything: A totally clear-headed guide to political reality

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  1. LongHairedWeirdo  •  Mar 12, 2017 @8:33 pm

    I think this is a bit more complicated – for example, Clinton *did* have plans to try to create jobs in coal country (not necessarily there, but her goal was to put them there), but, of course, the money quote was “we’re going to put a lot of people out of work, so we need new jobs”, and “we’re going to put a lot of people out of work” was all that was spoken, and the context – that those jobs are going away, no matter way – was stripped.

    And I don’t think any candidate is going to win with a message of “dude, those jobs *are not* coming back, and everyone knows it!” Not when a Trump can say “those jobs are coming back and I’m the only one who *can* bring them back!” and get taken seriously.

    That’s not to say you don’t raise points – Democrats *don’t* have a good economic message, probably because they’re afraid to venture into “dude, those jobs *are not*…” territory. But if Republicans can spend decades finding ways to say “giving more money to the rich, and removing protections from you when you work, eat, drink, and sleep, and breathe, will give you good jobs!” then Democrats can try to find ways to package their message too.

  2. charluckles  •  Mar 12, 2017 @8:53 pm


    Hillary Clinton suggests those jobs are not coming back. “The way things are going now, we will continue to lose jobs,” she said Monday. Rather than reversing Obama’s climate agenda, as Republicans have promised to do, Clinton wants to help coal country adapt. The $30 billion plan she released last fall calls for increased job training, small-business development, and infrastructure investment, especially in Appalachia. The plan also seeks to safeguard miners’ healthcare and pensions. “I have been talking about helping coal country for a very long time,” Clinton said this week.

  3. maha  •  Mar 13, 2017 @12:16 pm

    charluckles — and when and how did she deliver that message to coal country? Because I doubt they ever heard it. Or, if they heard it, they heard empty promises that maybe the government would tweak a few things. The Dems need to go bolder than that.

  4. Badtux  •  Mar 12, 2017 @9:37 pm

    I call BS on the notion that Democrats never promised these people anything. Democrats were the only ones who were honest enough to say, “those jobs are gone, and they’re not coming back”, for which they got eviscerated. Democrats were the ones who funded job retraining programs for these depressed communities to train these people to do something else, an effort which had horrible uptake and even for those who went through the programs, less than 1% of them were willing to move elsewhere to get the jobs they’d trained for. What these people want is their coal mining jobs back. And they’re going to vote against *anybody* who tells them the truth — that those jobs are gone and they’re not coming back — and who tells them they’re going to have to retrain and, in many cases, move elsewhere to have a job again.

    Nope. They continue to cling to the hope that coal is going to come back. Well, it isn’t. Not only because of natural gas being so cheap today, automation has greatly reduced how much labor is needed in the mines. But tell them this, and tell them they’ll need to retrain and, possibly move elsewhere? They won’t vote for you. They just won’t. Because their problem is the 21st century. They don’t like it, they don’t want it, they want the 20th century back when they could make their way through life with just a hard head and a strong back. But the 20th Century is gone, and won’t ever be back, but these people refuse to hear that reality and cling to fictional coal jobs that will never happen, year after year, decade after decade.

  5. maha  •  Mar 13, 2017 @12:15 pm

    “Democrats were the only ones who were honest enough to say, ‘those jobs are gone, and they’re not coming back’, for which they got eviscerated.” They didn’t say that to the coal miners. They said that to the environmental groups, and when the coal miners heard about it (second hand, through right-wing sources) they interpreted this to mean that liberals hate coal because liberals just randomly hate things for no good reason. The miner workers have never been told the real reason coal isn’t coming back.

  6. Lit3Bolt  •  Mar 12, 2017 @10:16 pm

    Part of it was putting a Demographic/Big Data band-aid over everything. Democrats could also improve their messaging by going out to the various state communities and listening, instead of relying on 10,000 Ivy League clones who each have the “killer app” for the next election.

  7. Swami  •  Mar 12, 2017 @11:44 pm

    And we might judge this man a fool, but in truth he voted for the candidate who promised him something, as opposed to the one who promised him nothing. And assuming he gets most of his politics news from the teevee, nobody warned him what a con man Trump is.

    What?..The warning siren was blasting for 18 months prior to the election. How invested in life can a person be that they can’t see and comprehend those thing we all learned as children about human nature and characteristic traits. Regardless of what the Democrats did wrong there is no excuse for Clyde and the people like him who chose to put their trust or faith in a scoundrel like Trump.
    Clyde “reasoned” that if he had a job he wouldn’t need medicaid anyway, so he was willing to go along to get rid of it or reduce it to an abstract concept by supporting the Repuglican agenda. If he was such a hard working, doing everything right American, who found himself the victim of circumstances beyond his control. He should have reasoned that maybe there are other people in similar circumstances who might need the same assistance that he relied upon. Yet he was willing to cast them aside to satisfy his own selfish needs. Devoid of empathy?
    Seems Clyde never bonded with the concept of America in the way it was intended by our founders. He should cultivate his mind in the pursuit of wisdom instead of the pursuit of poontang.

  8. maha  •  Mar 13, 2017 @12:13 pm

    “The warning siren was blasting for 18 months prior to the election.” Not on television news, unless he happened to watch MSNBC. Most television news went out of its way to “normalize” Trump. Those of us plugged into progressive/lefty news sources heard the sirens, but otherwise there were no sirens.

  9. Chet Murthy  •  Mar 13, 2017 @4:01 am

    The truth is that Clyde was abandoned by both parties.

    Lolwut? You started with (paraphrasing) “the Dems gave him critical medical care that he hadn’t had for a good while” and your conclusion is that -both- parties abandoned him?


  10. maha  •  Mar 13, 2017 @12:11 pm

    Chet Murthy — you should have kept reading. The Dems have tried to give him better benefits but did zilch to address the issue of what to do with left-over, redundant blue collar workers the global/tech economy has left behind.

  11. Ed  •  Mar 13, 2017 @11:30 am

    But I thought that whale oil was going to be part of the Trump plan for renewable energy!

  12. watermelonpunch  •  Mar 13, 2017 @11:58 pm

    maha: thank you for your followup comments. They’re spot on to what I have observed.

  13. Ruthmarie Hicks  •  Mar 18, 2017 @8:22 pm

    These comments are ridiculous. These people need JOBS! Jobs that pay enough for them to survive.

    Hell, I live in NY and am educated with a doctorate in a STEM field and I NEED A good paying job. In my case, the solution is as simple as dramatically curtailing the H1-B visa program. For the coal miners, its more complex.

    They were abandoned not because coal is a thing of the past. No one can do anything about that. They were abandoned because no one tried to give them the training or jobs to replace what they lost. And yes, that is the responsibility of the public sector.

    These people who think they are so high and mighty better wake up. I thought I was “safe”. I was doing work that I thought was needed and worthwhile. It could very easily be their livelihoods and financial security next. That would wipe the smugness away from their comments in big hurry.

  14. Badtux  •  Mar 18, 2017 @11:23 pm

    Ruthmarie, it isn’t true that no one tried to give them the training for new jobs. They refuse to take the training because they find the new jobs to be “demeaning” or “women’s work” because most of the new jobs being created that don’t need high IQ are in the health care field as orderlies or attendants or practical nurses. There isn’t a jobs training program in all of Appalachia that has managed to fill their rosters with people willing to be retrained for new jobs. The few who do accept the training for the new jobs refuse to move to where the new jobs are, less than 1% will actually move once they complete training. What in the world are we Democrats supposed to do for them if they refuse our help? Force it upon them?