Erika D. Smith

The right plan to beat Trump? It won’t come from California Democrats

Since her return to California after 33 years in Congress, former Sen. Barbara Boxer has been raising money through a new super PAC to elect more Democrats.
Since her return to California after 33 years in Congress, former Sen. Barbara Boxer has been raising money through a new super PAC to elect more Democrats. Associated Press file

The last most people saw of Barbara Boxer, she was saying her goodbyes on the Senate floor, noting how “fortunate” she was to be “going home to a state that believes in everything I believe in.”

For her, that was a good thing.

Not so much for the Democratic Party, which continues to rely on Boxer and a collection of aging leaders who remain stuck in their coastal bubbles when the only thing that will save us from President Donald Trump are disenchanted voters from the middle of the country.

Boxer is doing what she can. Since her return to California after 33 years in Congress, she has been raising money through a new super PAC to convince voters to elect more Democrats.

By her math, the party has a shot at picking up three seats in the Senate in the 2018 midterm elections, giving Democrats a majority, but it’ll be “tough.” The bigger goal, she says, should be to protect seats that are vulnerable, including senators from Missouri, Montana and Ohio.

“I’m more worried about the ones who are in the deep red states,” Boxer told The Bee’s editorial board recently.

She should be.

It’s imperative that Democrats regain some modicum of control because what’s going on in Republican-controlled Washington is downright scary. I won’t use the words “constitutional crisis” yet, but Trump’s ego, ignorance and authoritarian tendencies have led to situations so disturbing that I doubt even the writers for “House of Cards” could dream them up.

Press secretary Sean Spicer hiding from reporters in the bushes? Trump issuing a vague threat to former FBI Director James Comey over Twitter?

It’s appalling.

What’s more appalling is that, even with all of this going on, Democrats still don’t seem to have a viable strategy for winning elections.

This month, the DNC’s new Unity Reform Commission met for the first time to start drafting recommendations to attract more voters. The meeting was cordial, but some were angry over Bernie Sanders stumping for a candidate who supports restrictions on abortion rights, and others were livid over over Barack Obama accepting $400,000 to give a speech to Wall Street.

“The party is going through a bit of an identity crisis in terms of what it is going forward,” Jeff Weaver, Sanders’ former campaign manager, told McClatchy DC.

No kidding. In the meantime, the only thing Democrats seem united about is despising the president and his minions.

They should know by now that “we’re saner than Trump” isn’t a winning strategy. It didn’t work in the 2016 election, and there’s no guarantee it will work in 2018 or 2020.

Some 40 percent of Americans continue to support the president, absolutely convinced that he is a victim of bitter, hysterical liberals. They actually prefer the chaos of a Trump administration to the orderly establishment politics of the past. But too many Democratic Party leaders don’t seem to get that. They think people back Trump because the left’s same old message hasn’t been packaged well enough.

I thought about this listening to Boxer decry Trump’s attacks on the environment, pushing to allow drilling off California’s coast, damaging the tourism industry, and trying to restart mountaintop mining, releasing poison into people’s drinking water.

That led to a side story about the time she sipped ancient water directly from an iceberg off Greenland, “like drinking rare wine.”

Boxer also told us how she was outraged over Trump’s refusal to release his tax returns, even as he talks about revamping the tax code and his family seems to be profiting from the presidency.

“I just think that’s not an American value,” she said.

Boxer is right to be alarmed. I certainly am. And I really would love to drink water from an iceberg one day. But to call these things “American values” is a stretch.

These are California values – a belief in a government that’s supposed to protect citizens and an expectation for a high quality of life, on par with the pristine Pacific coastline that’s a drive away and the wondrous wilderness that people travel around the world to experience.

In Trump’s America, you put ointment on your body before you get in the lake so you don’t get that mysterious itch that’s going around. But you get in the lake anyway, because, well, why wouldn’t you?

In Trump’s America – some of the same places where Boxer is concerned about losing Senate seats – smoking cigarettes is still allowed indoors. So if you’re a nonsmoker, you leave your coat in the car when you go into a bar so it doesn’t reek when you leave.

In Trump’s America, you expect food to be processed and be coated in pesticides, if you think about it at all. A few chemicals never hurt anyone, kind of like that lead paint that still covers many buildings.

Motorcycle helmets aren’t required in Trump’s America. And the culture wars seem silly since most people are white, straight and Christian – or black and hopelessly marginalized. Meanwhile, coal plants turned the creeks orange, but no one in Trump’s America really remembers when the water was clear, so that’s normal.

Boxer insists that it’s an American value to have clean air and clean water, and, therefore, everybody is an environmentalist.

No, everybody is not an environmentalist. Do you know how many people in swing states would happily work in a coal mine until they die or toil away in a manufacturing plant, sucking on Marlboros every break, just to be able to afford a gas-guzzling sports car or a family trip to Hawaii?

In Trump’s America, the expectation isn’t that life will someday be “better” – and even so, it’s not the kind of “better” that Californians value.

Californians say: “Whoa there. That might be dangerous or unhealthy. We should create a law and spend a lot of money to prevent that thing from harming us.” Midwesterners and Southerners say: “We’ve all gotta die sometime. So let’s have fun.”

It’s fatalistic, I know, but it’s also realistic. Many Californians – particularly middle-class and wealthy Californians – just don’t seem to understand that, though. And that lack of understanding is reflected in national Democratic politics.

Going forward, party leaders would do well to remember one of my favorite quotes: “Just because I don’t care,” the great philosopher Homer Simpson once said, “doesn’t mean I don’t understand.”

There are plenty of Trump supporters who understand very well what Democrats are saying about climate change, about losing health care coverage, and about Trump and his questionable ethics.

They just don’t care.

Figure out how to make people care, Democrats, and you’ll win elections. But don’t ask me how. Like Boxer, I’m fortunate to live in California now.

Erika D. Smith: 916-321-1185, @Erika_D_Smith