A year after his inauguration, US President Donald Trump's approval ratings are at a record low. But is the Democratic Party ready to take him on? DW talked to Jaime Harrison, associate chair of the DNC.
DW: In 2016, the Democrats suffered an unexpected and devastating loss against Donald Trump and the Republicans. Has the Democratic Party recovered from that defeat?
Jaime Harrison: I think we are still recovering. And, in essence, we are focusing on rebuilding the party's infrastructure. Although we achieved a lot of great things under President Barack Obama, what we didn't prioritize as a party was our infrastructure in the states: nurturing candidates, maintaining strong leadership, and strengthening our local structures. When Obama won in 2008, part of why he won was that the Democratic National Congress (DNC) had heavily invested in our "50 States Strategy," making sure that we had the resources everywhere to compete and to support candidates not just in the presidential election, but in races on all levels.
There's a rising number of women wanting to run for office in the Democratic Party. How is the DNC supporting that movement?
A year of Trump
That is a tremendous thing. But actually, that trend started even before Donald Trump became President. In my home state of South Carolina, we started a program a couple of years ago to attract and recruit and train a new generation of party leaders and candidates on the local level. And at the national level, gender balance has always been an important thing at the DNC, and is part of the rules of how we organize ourselves. That is something we believe in and that we will continue, of course.
How does it help you to have more female candidates as a party?
It's essential: There are more female voters than there are male voters in this country. And women are more likely to go out and vote than men. And it is important that the leadership reflects the electorate, and that women are leading the charge to change the country.
Outrage over Donald Trump is running high among supporters of the Democratic Party. It could be tempting for you to just to rely on that, and simply run an anti-Trump campaign in 2018. But in many ways, Hillary Clinton did that in 2016, and lost. So how are you making sure that you don‘t fall into that trap again?
I think the core part is: Trying to connect with voters. Listening to them about the things they are concerned about, things that they would like to see change. And then taking that and turning it into action. So one of the things we started at the DNC is an initiative we are calling "Dems For You." In essence, this is based on understanding that people don't want us to talk about our values — they want to see us act on those values. And so we are going into the communities, trying to help people solve the issues that they are facing right now. Things like: How do I write a resumé to apply for a job? How do I get school supplies for my kids? That's how we rebuild the trust that has been lost between the party and the electorate.
Another point of criticism leveled against the Clinton campaign was that it was based on a coalition of minorities, initiatives and interest groups – but lacked a unifying message that would also appeal to Americans who are not part of one of those groups. What is your message now? What do Democrats stand for?
What we stand for now is what we stood for under Obama and before that: We believe that every American, regardless of your race and background and sex, should have the ability to live the American dream. And we are not so naive to believe that there are no barriers for many people to achieve that. And for us it is part of the responsibility of government to eliminate those barriers, so that more and more people who work hard have a fair chance to live that American dream. From health care to education to jobs and taxes.
But you lost a lot of voters in areas that had been strongly Democratic for a long time, for instance in the so-called rust-belt of the Midwest: Blue-collar workers who were simply fed up with politicians from the Democratic Party talking about change and equality and opportunities for all, while in reality their lives and their communities deteriorated. So what do the Democrats have to offer to those "forgotten men and women" who abandoned you for Trump?
We have to become a grass-roots organization again. And grass-roots organizations are based on actions. They are based on doing things, and eliminating the root of the problem. We haven't been doing that for too long. We have just been talking about the problems, instead of acting on them.
What are your chances of winning the House of Representatives and the Senate in November this year — or at least one of these chambers of Congress?
I think they are really good. I'm a little bullish. Many of the factors that played a role when we took the House in 2006, two years before Obama won the presidency — I see them again right now: You've got an energized Democratic base which is very upset about the direction the country is taking. You have a Republican base which is not very energized, as we have seen last year in elections in Virginia and Alabama. You have independent voters that are very sour about the nasty rhetoric that is coming out of the White House, and who are not happy with the Republicans rubber-stamping Trump's efforts. And you have more candidates than I have ever seen on the Democratic side, who want to be part of the change, while Republican incumbents are retiring in droves.