Professor Perritt: We Lost!

By Professor Henry H. Perritt, Jr.

America is a democracy, and a lot of my fellow Democrats seem to have forgotten that. Donald Trump got elected president of the United States, and he has been doing pretty much what he said he was going to do during the campaign. That’s the way democracies are supposed to work.

To be sure, they are also supposed to work through checks and balances. Democratic pressure on the President’s cabinet nominees is part of that. So also is the scrutiny given to the President’s immigration order by a panel of the United States Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit on Tuesday.

I’ve been involved in politics all my life. I’ve helped run mayoral campaigns in Boston and Atlanta, state representative campaigns in Boston and Atlanta, aldermanic campaigns in Chicago, and a national campaign in Kosovo. I’ve worked on the White House staff and on two transitions, the one from Ford to Carter and the one from Bush to Clinton.

Having run unsuccessfully for office myself (as the Democratic nominee against Mark Kirk for the U. S. House of Representatives in 2002), I know that all you have a right to ask for is an opportunity to be able to deliver your message. If it resonates with enough people you get elected. If it doesn’t, you don’t. I often said to my friends in Kosovo, Bosnia, and Iraqi Kurdistan, as I worked on various nation-building exercises there and wrote two books on Kosovo, the test of a democracy is not how well you win, but what do you do when you lose.

The fact is that the Democratic Party and its nominee for the presidency did not have a message that resonated with a majority of the American people necessary for Electoral College victory. Donald Trump did. Good government and good political leadership require that we understand why his message resonated so deeply and how to craft one of our own.

Hysteria and mass demonstrations by people who got outvoted are not going to help much.

Many of his cabinet appointees are extremely well qualified. General Mattis as Secretary of Defense and Rex Tillerson as Secretary of State are clear examples. Of course, their priorities are not those of Hillary Clinton. They are not supposed to be. Their nomination and confirmation do not show that the democratic process is broken; it’s working pretty much as it is supposed to.

I’m not so sure that President Trump has done anything or is likely to do anything as bad as President Bush’s starting a war based on “alternative facts” about weapons of mass destruction in Iraq. The Democratic Party, the press and media, and the foreign policy elites largely rolled over and played dead, failing to protest a misstep that has destabilized the Middle East for generations and killed and maimed thousands of Americans and untold numbers more of Iraqis.

People who lose elections are not silenced, of course. The people who oppose the administration’s policies on immigration and trade should use the tools of oversight and obstruction in the Congress, the courts and other public arenas.

As they do so, however, the focus should be goal oriented. The goal should be re-crafting a Democratic message that appeals to a majority of the electorate. Intensifying identity politics and a series of tantrums about the election outcome are not going to help. Our alumnus Joe Carlasare, and Mark Lilla in his November 18 op-ed in the New York Times, got it right.

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