Shirts vs. Skins 2017

WASHINGTON — Back before kids sports — with their pricey equipment, expensive coaches and summer camps — had become a major American industry, American boys, when playing pickup basketball on a neighborhood court, would simply separate themselves into competing teams, the Skins (without their T-shirts) and the Shirts (with their T-shirts).

American political parties, in trying to figure out what to do after badly losing a national election, generally follow a similar pattern of splitting between the Shirts and the Skins. The Skins’ argument goes like this: “We lost because we wavered and strayed from our party’s core beliefs and founding values. What we must do now is obvious. We must, without compromise, recommit to our party’s true faith and return to the glory days.”

The Shirts disagree. “We lost,” they explain, “because our party had become smugly self-satisfied and failed to adjust to changing times and a changed electorate. That delusional overconfidence meant the party had failed to see, let alone reach out to, voters who had been on our side but who now felt an attitude of snobbish estrangement from the party’s elites and experienced the pain of their families’ declining circumstances. Unless the party makes major changes, we will remain in the minority.”

Early returns indicate that the Skins are energized and ascendant in this year’s Democratic Party. The most recent poll from the Pew Research Center reports that only 20 percent of Democrats think their party will “go too far in opposing President Trump,” whereas a combative 72 percent of Democrats are concerned that their party “will not do enough” to oppose Trump.

Let’s hear a case for the Shirts that comes from one of the more disagreeable characters in the national Democratic Party, the embattled mayor of Chicago, Rahm Emanuel, who is so abrasively antagonistic he could provoke a punch in the nose from the saintly Mother Teresa. If Emanuel wrote a book, the working title would be “Dale Carnegie Was Wrong.”

But in fairness to the man, Emanuel has never lost an election, and he was the totally engaged chairman of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee in 2006, when his party finally took back control of the House from the Republicans, who had maintained a majority since 1995. So Emanuel’s recently offered advice to the Democrats, delivered to an audience at the Stanford Graduate School of Business, deserves a hearing.

Always practical (“I don’t go to moral victory speeches”), he reminded listeners that if “you don’t win, you can’t make the public policy.” How would he, the architect and engineer of the most recent big Democratic House victory, begin? First, “create a farm team” of Democratic candidates who can win in competitive Republican-leaning congressional districts. Forget the purist ideologue and enlist instead “Iraq War vets, football players, sheriffs, businesspeople.” Why? Because such candidates will enable Democrats to “take (thorny) cultural issues off the table.”

What about congressional redistricting where the GOP has used its state legislative majorities to draw favorable districts? Emanuel: Completely support turning redistricting over to a commission or to the courts, where Democrats have a chance of getting a more even break.

How about opposing President Trump? Remember that “time is not the incumbent party’s friend. Time is the opposition’s friend. Slow. Go slow.” Encourage dissension across the aisle. “Wherever there’s a disagreement among Republicans,” be on one side. If the president is for Russia, then be with John McCain and Lindsey Graham for NATO. Also, you have to be for something — have a vision — and Democrats “must stop bickering” among themselves.

It was advice that was short on lofty prose but long on practical experience from one Democrat who knows how to win.

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To find out more about Mark Shields and read his past columns, visit the Creators Syndicate webpage at