Posted on March 3, 2017

The Democrats’ White-Guy Problem

Josh Kraushaar, National Journal, February 28, 2017

The battle for the chair­man­ship of the Demo­crat­ic Na­tion­al Com­mit­tee was far from the most consequen­tial de­cision that party lead­ers were fa­cing. But it offered an in­struct­ive les­son over how identity polit­ics — put­ting one’s skin col­or or gender over polit­ic­al views and the qual­ity of one’s résumé — has become the de­fin­ing prin­ciple for today’s Demo­crat­ic Party activists. With a pro­gress­ive grass­roots obsessed with check­ing priv­ilege, it’s dif­fi­cult for even the most ap­peal­ing white male can­did­ate to over­come this polit­ic­al han­di­cap with the base.

Former Labor Sec­ret­ary Thomas Perez’s nar­row win over Bernie Sanders-backed Rep. Keith El­lis­on was a vic­tory for es­tab­lish­ment forces with­in the party. But the big­ger, less-ap­pre­ci­ated story was the implosion of 35-year-old South Bend May­or Pete But­ti­gieg, con­sidered a rising star in the party and a ser­i­ous con­tender for the chair­man­ship. With sup­port from well-placed party lead­ers (like former DNC chair Howard Dean, former Mary­land Gov. Mar­tin O’Mal­ley, Dav­id Axel­rod, and Obama communications dir­ect­or Jen Psaki), But­ti­gieg looked like a plaus­ible com­prom­ise can­did­ate who could unite the party’s pro­gress­ive and prag­mat­ic fac­tions. In­stead, he dropped out of the race be­fore the first round of bal­lot­ing, re­cog­niz­ing his low vote total would be an em­bar­rass­ment.

On pa­per, But­ti­gieg offered everything the party needed for a pub­lic face — a young, cha­ris­mat­ic small-town may­or from the Mid­w­est who is out­spokenly lib­er­al and openly gay. But be­ing a white guy in today’s Demo­crat­ic Party has be­come a glar­ing polit­ic­al vul­ner­ab­il­ity.


Obama’s Su­preme Court nom­in­ee Mer­rick Gar­land, a re­spec­ted prag­mat­ic jur­ist, recently failed to hit the sweet spot with the Demo­crat­ic base as well. Obama hoped that Re­pub­lic­an obstruction of his nom­in­a­tion would hand Demo­crats a tail­or-made is­sue for the pres­id­en­tial elec­tion. In­stead, the op­pos­ite happened. The lib­er­al base hardly cared about the fate of a bor­ing white guy, even though the stakes were so high. Demo­crats stopped us­ing Gar­land as a cam­paign is­sue after real­iz­ing his nom­in­a­tion wasn’t res­on­at­ing with their voters.


Demo­crats must im­prove on their ap­peal with white men. Only 22 per­cent of white men view the Demo­crat­ic party fa­vor­ably, ac­cord­ing to a new NBC News/Wall Street Journ­al poll, with a whop­ping 57 per­cent view­ing it un­fa­vor­ably. Not co­in­cid­ent­ally, just 22 per­cent of Hil­lary Clin­ton’s voters in 2016 were white men, ac­cord­ing to ana­lys­is from my Cook Polit­ic­al Report col­league Dav­id Wasser­man.