Dear Secretary Clinton,
My friends who know more about politics than I do insist that there is almost no way Donald Trump can beat you in the general election in November. Of course, this election cycle is so odd, that "almost" takes on real meaning. Nonetheless, I am confident that the American people will not turn the White House over to someone as crass, as unprepared, and as undisciplined as Mr. Trump.
I remain worried, however, for a couple of reasons.
First, if you trounce him in November, it will be seen as a rejection of him as much as an endorsement of you. Both of you have such high negatives, and it is difficult to see how they will change. Even if you win in a landslide, you may not be in a politically strong position the day after the election.
The remedy, I think, is to pick four, maybe five, items from your large number of policy proposals and run on them, promising to try and accomplish them in the first 100 days of your presidency. The top of the list should be comprehensive immigration reform. I suspect that Trump will fare even worse than Mitt Romney did among Latinos. Traditional swing states with large Latino populations like New Mexico, Nevada and Colorado will fall more easily into your column. I suspect what is left of the GOP will recognize that they need to dispense with the issue as quickly as they can, and you will be able to not only sign a bill, but to sign a really good bill, one that promotes family reunification and that makes it harder to exploit workers.
Second on the list should be something that addresses income inequality, such as tax reform that starts by setting two rates for businesses. Those businesses in which the highest paid employee makes no more than 100 times what the lowest paid worker makes pay a significantly lower rate than those who pay their top earning executives more than 100 times what their lowest paid worker makes. The CEOs can raise the pay of their employees, or cut their own pay, but companies that share the wealth will receive better treatment from the tax code. Income inequality has become so central to the concerns of the Democratic Party, among both your supporters and those of Sen. Sanders, so I think a clear proposal to introduce a sense of fairness and equity into the tax code would be very well received by the working class voters Trump is appealing to. During the primary debates, you and Sen. Sanders spoke frequently about making college more affordable, but there was very little said about the kids who are not going to college. How do they prosper? Who looks out for them?
You and your team can pick the other two or three items. But, you can't pick 17. Sometimes, your speeches sound like a laundry list, and a laundry list can never be translated into a mandate because the list is too diffuse. Your resume also is no mandate. Yes, the election will be a referendum on Trump and what he stands for, but if you pick a few items and promise to enact them in your first 100 days, you will be able to rightly claim that you were perfectly clear with voters about what you wanted to do. You will begin your presidency from a position of political strength on those four or five issues. And, if you get all the items done, you will have even more political capital at the end of those first 100 days.
The second reason I remain worried is this: Even if you shellac Trump at the polls and even if you can rightly claim a mandate to move forward on a specific program, what is to keep the Republicans in Congress from gridlocking the government in January as they have the past six years? Again, there is a remedy: Win back the House for the Democrats.
One of my chief complaints about President Obama is that he created his own political operation separate from the party. His coalition, and the issues that drove it, permitted him to win in 2008 and 2012, but the Democratic Party as a whole is in its worst shape since the 1920s, with fewer governorships, state legislatures, and members of Congress. And, he chose issues that worked for him, but not for the party. You could easily follow the Obama approach, focus this election on the "war on women" theme he used in 2012, run a convention that resembles the 2012 convention which Melinda Henneberger rightly deemed "abortion-palooza," emphasize the culture war issues rather than the lunch bucket issues, and get to 270 electoral votes or more on the strength of the votes of suburban, middle class and upper middle class women. In the event, given Trump's penchant for mouthing misogyny, I can't imagine you losing the vote of suburban women.
But, that approach will not win back House seats in Michigan's first congressional district where Bart Stupak served for many years, or Kathy Dahlkemper's old seat in Pennsylvania's third district, or John Boccieri's old seat in Ohio’s 16th district. These are districts where working class voters who care more about getting a job than getting an abortion are needed to win a seat in Congress. And, speaking to working class issues will also help you to unite the party because Sen. Sanders did such a good job teeing up those issues for you. If you campaign in any of the districts noted above, bring him along! Certainly, on the issue of trade, it would be a mistake to "run to the center" as most politicians are counseled to do after a primary, because Trump hits that issue in ways that sound a lot like Sanders. You will have noticed that in 2008 you received 1.2 million votes in the Pennsylvania primary and 900,000 this year. Trump got almost as many as you. You need a compelling, serious and sober explanation for how the hopes your husband's administration had for the benefits of globalization have not been realized by many people, and drawing on Robert Putnam's call for "on-ramps" for those who have been left behind, and promote a hopeful vision for those communities where hope is less readily available than heroin.
I am an "Ella Grasso Democrat" meaning I am pro-labor, pro-Israel, pro-women, and pro-life, and there are a lot of us in the Democratic Party. We do not leave the party over the abortion issue, because the Republicans fail to grasp that poverty is the leading abortifacient in this country and that children need to be cared for after they are born too. In 2008, at the convention in Denver, the prominent speaking slot given to Sen. Bob Casey made me so proud. In 2012, not so much. I know that you, Secretary Clinton, are pro-choice and I do not expect you to change your position. But it was not so long ago when a Democratic president called for abortion to be "safe, legal and rare." Today some in the pro-choice movement seem to celebrate abortion as a positive good. At least you and the party can adopt a "big tent" approach to the issue so that pro-life Democrats do not feel like you are sticking your finger in our eye.
I wish you well, Secretary Clinton. It is not only important that you win the election in November. It is vital that you do so in such a way that you can govern effectively. I need scarcely point out that 2020 is another census year, after which congressional districts will be redrawn, so your four years as president must be a success if the Democrats are not going to be at a disadvantage for another decade. I believe you are more attuned to the needs of the party than President Obama has been, and that attention will make it easier for you to govern effectively. Winning is not everything, it is only the beginning.
[Michael Sean Winters is a Visiting Fellow at Catholic University's Institute for Policy Research and Catholic Studies.]