Democrats Try To Find A Future Post-Obama With Fault Lines Around Economics, Race Democrats suffered a stunning defeat in the November election. As the party tries to rebuild, one place that might offer some lessons is Ohio, a state long considered a presidential battleground.
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Democrats Try To Find A Future Post-Obama With Fault Lines Along Economics, Race

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Democrats Try To Find A Future Post-Obama With Fault Lines Along Economics, Race

Democrats Try To Find A Future Post-Obama With Fault Lines Along Economics, Race

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ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:

As Republicans in Washington get down to the business of governing, Democrats are still trying to dig themselves out of a stunning presidential defeat. The party has no clear leader. People are pointing fingers in opposite directions.

In Ohio, some Democrats say Hillary Clinton's loss was not a surprise. They saw the warning signs, and they have solutions. So NPR's Asma Khalid traveled to Ohio.

ASMA KHALID, BYLINE: Back in March, David Betras realized something was horribly wrong. Betras is the chairman of the Democratic Party in Mahoning County, an area that always goes blue. But during the primary, 18 of his own precinct committee people defected.

DAVID BETRAS: 'Cause Donald Trump - I don't get it, but amazingly, a man that [expletive] in gold-plated toilets was talking more to working people than the party's standard bearer.

KHALID: OK - quick fact check - while Trump Tower does have some gold-plated bathroom fixtures, there's no evidence of a gold toilet. But you get the point. Betras was frustrated with his own party.

BETRAS: Stronger together - that's real nice. Let's sit around and sing "Kumbaya." But that really doesn't get anyone a job, does it?

KHALID: He was so frustrated, he typed up a memo and sent it to the Hillary Clinton campaign.

BETRAS: I told the campaign they were in trouble with blue-collar workers and that if they didn't retool their message, that they were not only going to lose Ohio but that they were going to lose Pennsylvania and Michigan.

KHALID: He says no one ever responded to that memo. Betras is worried that his party has become too coastal, too elite. He told me, just listen to how Democrats criticize Trump because he exaggerated the number of jobs in that Carrier deal.

BETRAS: You know, I want to tell these elites, he was fighting for someone's job. That's what we used to do, (laughter) right?

KHALID: This area of Ohio is home to thousands of white, working-class voters. Leo Jennings III is a Democratic consultant and an old union organizer. In between bites of country toast and bacon, he told me he grew up in the shadow of the steel mills. But those days are long gone.

LEO JENNINGS III: There's no one around this area who believes for two seconds that the steel mills are coming back because we all watched them flatten. I mean they're gone.

KHALID: Jennings was a Bernie Sanders supporter, and he wants to see his party adopt a more progressive economic agenda. He says that's the only way to win around here.

JENNINGS III: If we don't start talking about the things that we can do to make it better for all working-class voters, we're bankrupt as a party.

KHALID: Jennings says the issues that affect working-class white folks and black folks are the same, and the Democratic Party needs to start talking about the economy that way. So I hopped in the car and drove about an hour and a half west to Cleveland where a group of young, black Democrats had gotten together to watch President Obama's final speech. And that's where I met Chinemerem Onyeukwu. He was an organizer for the state Democratic Party working to get Clinton into the White House.

CHINEMEREM ONYEUKWU: If the Democratic Party wants to be around in the future, they need to go left.

KHALID: Onyeukwu agrees. The party needs to focus more on the economy. He points out that's how a guy named Barack Hussein Obama won Ohio twice. But Onyeukwu is 23, and he says the other way the party could start winning again is by listening more to young voters. He's worried that Democrats are going to keep running '90s-style campaigns.

ONYEUKWU: The people that they're talking about running in 2020 - they need to be in a retirement home. And I don't say that to, like, be ageist. I say that in the fact that these people have sat at the top for so long; they don't even know what's going on in the rest of America.

KHALID: There is one other thing that bothers him about this moment of Democratic introspection - the idea that identity politics is increasingly taboo.

ONYEUKWU: I want to make sure that we do not abandon minority demographics to go and pander back to white Americans. I don't think there's anything wrong with identity politics. As a party, you should be robust enough to have multiple conversations with multiple groups of people at the same time.

KHALID: This debate over identity politics gets people like Jessica Byrd frustrated. She's an Ohio native leading a group called Democracy in Color that calls for Democrats to invest more in minorities. Byrd says Democrats need to figure out how to create the most inclusive party possible, and part of that is about looking internally. Byrd says black and brown voters are the most loyal Democratic voters, but they don't have much of a voice. And so she just wants more of a say in her own home.

JESSICA BYRD: In a time where we are rebuilding our home and we're, like, deciding what's going to go on the walls and what kind of couch we sit on, we want everybody to come to our housewarming. We just also want to be able to make some decisions about, you know, what that vibe is like.

KHALID: Byrd says the party doesn't need a huge overhaul. It just needs to do a better job connecting with the people already in the Democratic Party to make sure they show up on Election Day. And that is the crux of the debate. Democrats are trying to figure out in a post-Obama world how to balance race and an economic message. Asma Khalid, NPR News.

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