Washington (CNN)The fight for the soul of the Democratic Party is on. In the wake of Hillary Clinton's stunning 2016 loss -- and the resulting complete GOP control of Washington -- the party is in a political desert the likes of which they haven't seen in decades. So, where do they go from here? That conversation is of critical import to how Democrats position themselves vis-a-vis Donald Trump and Republicans in the 2018 midterm elections and who they ultimately choose to be their party's standard-bearer in 2020. In hopes of shedding some light on that running conversation, I'm embarking upon a series of Q&A's with elected officials and party strategists to get their takes on where Democrats should head -- and why.
The fight for Democrats' soul has begun
I kick the series off today with a conversation with Ron Klain, who has been chief of staff to two vice presidents -- Al Gore and Joe Biden -- and also served in the Obama administration as the Ebola czar. (Ron, like me, is also a proud Georgetown Hoya.) My conversation with Ron, conducted via email and lightly edited for flow, is below.
Cillizza: Over the last eight years, Democrats won the White House twice and lost, badly, everywhere else: House, Senate, governors and state legislatures. Why? And what does that contradiction say about the party going forward?
Klain: Some of this is structural -- Republicans consolidating gains in their base areas. Some of it is due to redistricting, which Democrats are launching a major effort to reverse. Some of it is because Republicans invested more in political infrastructure and technology than we did -- and that needs to change.
But some of it is reaction: People voting Republican down ballot, to "provide balance" to a Democratic president. On that last point, the shoe is on the other foot now, and I believe that will be to Democrats' advantage, starting with Virginia and New Jersey later this year. [Editor's note: Both states hold gubernatorial races in November.]
Cillizza: Diagnose why Hillary Clinton lost. Is it a simple as James Comey and WikiLeaks (as Clinton herself says)? If not, what else was going on in 2016 -- and with the Democratic Party --- that caused it to lose what looked like an incredibly winnable race?
Klain: First of all, I think that the idea that 2016 was "in the bag" was incorrect. Since World War II, only one party has won the presidency three times in a row -- the GOP in 1980-88. There's a reason why winning three in a row is hard. If it wasn't, it would have happened in 1960, 1968, 2000 and 2008.
Second, it's worth remembering that more people voted for Hillary Clinton than Donald Trump -- so that also has to be part of the analysis. In the end, she lost the electoral college by literally a handful of votes -- two or three per precinct -- in three states. Did Comey shift that small number of votes? Yes. Did Russian active measures? Yes. Did about a dozen other things? Yes. Remove any one of these things, and Hillary Clinton is the 45th president.
Cillizza: In your WaPo op-ed earlier this week, you argued for frank talk with working-class voters about how immigrants "have always made America greater, bringing new energy, ideas and job-creating businesses to our country." What leads you to believe -- particularly from the 2016 results -- that working class voters would respond to such a message?
Klain: Because I think Donald Trump sold them a faux populism that will wear poorly over the next four years as he fails to deliver on his promises. He promised a "Buy American" mandate -- even though he didn't as a businessman, and the Keystone XL Pipeline will be built with foreign steel.
He promised them better and cheaper health care, which he will not deliver. He promised them to bring back jobs from overseas, and already, the deals he did to save jobs at Carrier and other places are falling apart. He promised infrastructure jobs, and he still doesn't have a plan, and the only ideas he has outlined are tax breaks for big investors.
I think the allure of false promises and false premises will dissipate, and voters will be ripe for straight talk about what really builds economic growth -- if also coupled with a new economic and social contract for working families (as I outlined in my piece).
Cillizza: Clinton pollster Mark Penn wrote this in a New York Times piece on Thursday: "The path back to power for the Democratic Party today, as it was in the 1990s, is unquestionably to move to the center and reject the siren calls of the left, whose policies and ideas have weakened the party." Assuming you disagree, what does Mark get wrong, specifically, in his analysis?
Klain: I emphatically disagree that the ideas and policies of progressives have weakened our party -- I think they have strengthened it. I think if we have done anything wrong, it is in having an agenda that is often too wonky, too complex, and doesn't connect.
It's unfair and incorrect to say that Hillary Clinton didn't have a positive message in 2016 -- she did, it was "Stronger Together", or a positive agenda (she did, and it was quite extensive and progressive). What I think we have to do a better job [of] is articulating it and making it relatable.
Here's an example. I understand why the idea of "debt free college" was better policy, and indeed, I saw polls that showed that voters liked it. But I think it would have been better to have a simpler approach that spoke to a broad principle: Four years of public education after high school should be free and universal, just like high school is today.
We need a policy agenda that hits people in the gut, not just in the head.
Cillizza: Finish this sentence: "The Democratic Party's bumper sticker message for 2018 and 2020 should be: _____________." Now, explain.
Klain: I'm not a bumper sticker writer! Sorry!