Fallon’s “Panera theory” suggests Democrats do not have a plan

Democratic strategist and former Clinton press secretary Brian Fallon

Yesterday, Democratic strategist and senior advisor to the Priorities USA Super PAC opined on Twitter that “the path to retaking the House…runs through the Panera Breads of America.” He meant that Democrats should focus on affluent suburban districts that went for Romney in 2012 but showed substantial movement toward Clinton in 2016. The former press secretary for the Clinton campaign cited Georgia’s sixth-district special election, where Democrat Jon Ossoff will face a runoff in June but still got more votes than both of his Republican opponents last night. It’s important to note that Ossoff is talking about retaking the House, not winning the 2020 presidential election. In his interview with Jeff Stein of Vox, he acknowledges that Democrats should try to appeal to working-class voters then. But he seems convinced that his party should focus on moderate Republicans in 2018. Quote:

There’s no doubt in where you start in forming the target list — it will be those 23 districts that switched from [Mitt] Romney to Clinton that look a lot, demographically, like the one in Georgia tonight.

This strategy strongly resembles the one that Hillary Clinton pursued in the 2016 election, which she did not win. That rumbling sound you hear is Sanders Democrats across the country grinding their teeth. But as the interview progresses, Fallon explains that his remark only described one strategy among many—one he qualifies to the point of utter meaninglessness. It kind of sounds like he has no plan. Fallon’s overall message seems to be that the Democrats should keep doing the same thing they did last year, but win.

First of all, it’s impressive that Fallon has fallen upward since November, given that his handling of the press in 2016 was not exactly masterful. Throughout the campaign, Trump dominated the news cycle with tactics he honed on the New York tabloids, while Clinton went literally hundreds of days between press conferences. The media’s interminable coverage of her email scandal and indifference to the Russia story until after the election can be blamed on a lot of factors, but the Clinton campaign’s press team has to be among them. Whether it’s Fallon’s fault or not, the news cycle got away from his candidate worse than it did during any election since Watergate.

But it’s easy to criticize stuff like that in retrospect. Another example of something it’s easy to criticize in retrospect is the Democratic Party’s utter abdication of wealth inequality as a campaign issue. Bernie Sanders made it the center of his campaign, and party leadership is still mad at him. Even as Trump steadily betrays the white working-class voters that propelled him to the White House,1 Fallon insists that Democrats cannot capture their votes with economic policy:

Trump’s nearly 40 percent approval is, on the one hand, historically low. But the other way of looking at it is that it’s surprisingly sticky — he’s shown a lot of resilience with those core Trump supporters. These are working-class voters who supported him and are still unwilling to tell pollsters they regret their choice.

Fallon goes on to argue that, “over the next two to four years,” Democrats need to “message to those voters who are economic-minded voters.” However euphemized, that sounds like a plan to address issues of inequality or at least pander to the working class. But he follows it up with a call to let support for Trump collapse on its own.

But on the 2018 timetable, most of those districts, like in Georgia’s Sixth tonight, many of those districts that Hillary Clinton won or are even more attainable than the Georgia Sixth — those voters are already disillusioned with Trump or are already saying that they disapprove of his job performance.

This strategy sounds a lot like Clinton’s plan during the 2016 election: do nothing and wait for Trump to alienate moderate Republicans and the upper middle class. It’s a comforting approach, because it assumes that the superiority of the Democratic Party is self-evident. But why should disdain for the president convince wealthy suburbanites to abandon the party whose platform serves their interests during an election when said president is not on the ballot? Why should the plan to let Trump shoot himself in the foot work better in 2018 than it did in 2016?

While we’re asking rhetorical questions, why should the working class defect from the guy who merely pays lip service to their problems and join the party that won’t speak of them at all? They may see through Trump’s bullshit, but at least he’s got bullshit on offer. At this point, the Democrats’ refusal to address economic issues looks pathological. Fallon’s strategy seems to be for the party to do what it did in 2016 but experience completely different results. Maybe mimicking moderate Republicans—the bloc that spent the last decade losing control of the Republican Party—is not the killer app Democrats want it to be.

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  1. Ah, the reassuring sound of political strategy and messaging ping pong. The continual plinking of the back-and-forth makes me feel like I have a grasp on all the moving pieces. And I play ping pong in real life, so I’m comfortable with my handle on the game. It’s a useful distraction from the nagging questions of how to live a good life, build a just society, and pursue happiness. When some asks those noisy political questions I change the channel. But, just for curiosity’s sake, let’s put aside the optics of how Democrats can win the next elections.

    How should they address economic inequality? What policies should they choose? It’s a lark, but perhaps the viability of those policies can tell us something about why Democrats aren’t including them as part of their strategy and messaging.

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