Checking In With the Democrats

(A post for those who aren’t obsessed with Trump, Comey, and the Russian Federation…)

There’s an old Confucian proverb: what a difference 77,000 well-placed votes can make.[1]

Since November, analyses of the Democratic Party have focused on its struggles at every level of government, including:

    • Local: Republicans control 57 percent of state assembly seats in the nation, up from 55 percent in 2014, which was already the biggest Republican slice since the 1920s.
    • State: Much in thanks to that dominance, Republicans control two-thirds of state legislatures and governor’s mansions. This edge gives them the advantage in state laws, referenda, and gerrymandering.
    • Federal: The GOP now controls the presidency, both chambers of Congress, and it’s one liberal retirement/death away from wresting control of the Supreme Court.[2]

Those shortcomings should not be ignored, but imagine if those 77,000 votes — just 0.12 percent of the 63 million votes cast — went in the other direction. Do you know what the post-election analyses would instead surround? How the Democrats won three straight presidential elections for the first time since the 1940s. How the Democratic coalition had a stranglehold on the Electoral College. How Democratic nominees had won six of the last seven popular votes.[3] Plus, President Hillary Clinton would have the opportunity to appoint Supreme Court justices to tip its balance to liberals for a generation. In sum, two of our three branches would be left-leaning for the foreseeable future instead of the current conservative trifecta. In other words: elections have consequences.[4]

But that’s not what happened. What did happen is that Republicans extended their domination of local and state governments to the federal government as well, and they could well control it for a long time. That might sound overly dramatic, but there is precedent. Heading into the Election of 1968, the Democratic Party had won seven of the previous nine presidential elections (a streak interrupted only by an all time great general). However, Richard Nixon’s subsequent win marked the beginning of a five-out-of-six stretch for the GOP (a streak interrupted only by an all time great peanut farmer).

Worse for Democrats, even when Republicans dominated the White House in that stretch, there was never a Republican House and only briefly a Republican Senate:

Combined--Control_of_the_U.S._House_of_Representatives_-_Control_of_the_U.S._Senate

In other words, Republicans haven’t dominated Americans politics like this in nearly a century.[5] Democrats might therefore find themselves wandering in the desert for quite some time. With neither chamber of Congress showing signs of flipping, the potential for a long period of a Republican-controlled White House should scare Democrats. Nixon’s election was clearly a turning point. Is Trump’s?


Perhaps. So what must Democrats do to reclaim momentum?

I’d first suggest learning from their enemy. For all the advantages PPFA and others ascribed to the Clinton Campaign — superior fundraising, demographic advantages, bigger surrogates, a better ground game, a popular sitting president of her own party, et cetera — there was one major advantage Trump had, and he capitalized.

Hillary Clinton had the difficult task of convincing Americans that things were going great. As A) a member of the president’s party; B) a former member of his administration; and C) the heir to his platform, she tethered her campaign to the Obama White House. That meant making the case that America and the world around her were doing well, that times were still improving since the Great Recession, and that Obama’s policies should continue. While partially accurate, large segments of the American white population did not agree. Domestically and abroad, things were far from perfect, and no matter how much Obama and Clinton pointed to Wall Street gains, falling unemployment, returning soldiers, and private sector jobs added, many working class Americans felt their own returns were coming up short.

Donald Trump at least acknowledged everyone wasn’t doing as well as Obama and Clinton suggested they were. (And, let’s not forget, Bernie Sanders unleashed similar jabs, creating a wound in the primary that Trump ripped open in the general.) At least he said there was a problem. He was the candidate telling hurting Americans that America wasn’t as great as the Washington insider who lined her pantsuit pockets with big Wall Street checks said it was. That connected.

Now, don’t get me wrong — PPFA readers know I’m not a fan of our 45th president. I felt, despite all his diagnoses of America’s problems, he lacked the necessary understanding of those problems to prescribe the cures, just as he lacked the necessary understanding of the government to administer them. However, at least he recognized problems existed, and he repeated them over and over to a nodding Middle America. For all of Clinton’s superior wonksmanship, Trump was the better connector-in-chief.

As evidence of voters just going with the guy saying there’s a problem, even if he was pretty insufferable while doing it, check out this exit poll statistic:

Untitled

Nearly a fifth of the electorate disliked both candidates. You’d expect, of those who still ended up picking between the two, they’d break fairly evenly. However, that group sided with Trump by 17 points.[6]

Democrats must take a page out of the Trump playbook. Fortunately for them, in a weird sort of way, they are now the challengers, and it’s Trump who will soon have to defend his record. So far, despite his party controlling the White House and both houses of Congress, he has shown little ability to coordinate the government, relying instead on executive orders that he and his party largely decried during the Obama Administration.[7] Considering the close results of the difference-making states, Democrats don’t need to convince too many people of Trump’s failures to swing the next election back to the blue team.


At the same time, Democrats must represent more than the anti-Trump party. An incumbent hasn’t lost a presidential election in 25 years. In fact, by 2020, there will be only one incumbent loss dating back nearly 40 years (the afore-footnoted George H.W. Bush in 1992). It’s not enough to merely be a detractor of the president. A favorable competing vision must be offered. Here are some PPFA ideas for Democrats moving forward:

    • Celebrity opinions are increasingly annoying and, more importantly, counterproductive. Sarah Silverman isn’t changing anyone’s mind. Her and other celebrities merely strengthen the resolve of conservatives standing up to Hollywood liberals.
    • Stop saying 46 percent of the country was fooled. They think you were fooled.[8]
    • Stop unfriending conservatives. Be considerate of their opinions. Learn about their position. Bubbles might seem clean, but they aren’t healthy.
    • Conservatives must be allowed to speak on college campuses and everywhere else. This is a no-brainer. Ann Coulter should not be scared away from speaking at Berkeley. Liberals should stand up for First Amendment rights. That’s what a good liberal does. There’s a reason the normally Republican-despised ACLU denounced anti-speech protests and threats of violence.
    • In order to avoid repeating the Republicans’ health care fiasco after having promised a swift repeal and replace for most of President Obama’s administration, Democrats should learn from their mistakes. Instead of merely reacting in opposition to the actions of Trump and Republicans, Democrats should proactively formulate an agenda and draft bills, even if they know those bills won’t make it through their respective chamber. That way, if they do regain power, they can quickly act and show some cohesiveness. Therefore, I advise they focus on the issues that matter to them: health care, the budget, transportation, trade policy, and the rest.

Speaking of trading policy, today’s political discourse lacks a national figure who embraces a once pretty popular approach. PPFA wants to know: can we get a free trader up in here? The protectionist Trump/Sanders phenomenon of the last two years seems to have scared off free traders from what was once a generally accepted idea among most economists: free trade is, on balance, good for the economy, human rights, and standard of living around the globe. Republicans used to be the party of free trade, but Obama’s negotiation of the Trans-Pacific Partnership combined with Trump’s ascension repolarized the electorate, as Pew shows us:

Republicans turn negative on free trade agreements

A Democrat who embraces free trade — remember, Hillary Clinton predictably flip-flopped away from TPP once she stuck her finger in the air — can gain traction in a space where there’s little competition.

Most importantly, whether it’s trade or something else, a prominent Democrat would do well to be for something, especially if there’s a positive, convincing case to be made that doesn’t just depend on criticizing the President. Such a person would be in good position to return the White House into Democratic hands.

Finally, Democrats should find a way to recapture some of the white, working class vote it once dominated but has since given away. The browning of the country isn’t moving nearly fast enough to sustain the party, and Trump’s mostly bleached base was enough to drive Republicans to unprecedented success across local, state, and the federal government. Blacks and Latinos live mostly in coastal cities, which limits what Democrats can do everywhere else, and our Constitution set up a system that props up rural areas so they can compete with cities and small states so they can compete with big ones.

In other words, Democrats must reach out to counties, districts, and states forgotten by Democrats over the course of this century, because this is probably not what the Democrats had in mind when they became the minority party.


Footnotes: 

[1]As noted by the Weekly Standard, Trump won Pennsylvania by 0.7 percentage points (44,292 votes), Wisconsin by 0.7 (22,748 votes), and Michigan by 0.2 (10,704 votes). If those tipped in the other direction, Hillary Clinton pairs her popular vote win with a victory in the Electoral College. Also, that was not a Confucian proverb. (Click BACK to return to main body.)

[2]For the next four to eight years, Democrats will pray for the continued good health of every liberal’s favorite octogenarian, the notorious RGB.

[3]Which is still true regardless of Trump’s electoral victory. The only exception: President George W. Bush’s 2004 re-election with 50.7 percent of the vote. Even then, the result was uncertain until Ohio was called on the following day. Before Trump, you’d have to go back to the elder Bush in 1988 to find the last time the Republicans celebrated on election night itself. Republican celebrations, of course, are comprised only of going to church, cleaning their guns, and reading the Wall Street Journal.

[4]This is where Democrats stare daggers into their nearest Sanders/Stein friend and snark, “Hey, it’s fine, it’s just climate change and health care and some other stuff. Don’t worry about it.”

[5]Even then, a century ago the Republicans were a more moderate party, as close to liberal Lincoln as to conservative Reagan. On the aisle’s other side, Southern conservatives dominated the Democratic Party, as they had dating back beyond the Civil War and all the way to Andrew Jackson. By the way, Andrew Jackson saw what was happening with the Civil War, and he said, “There’s no reason for this.” People don’t realize, the Civil War — you think about it, why?

[6]My favorite part of that exit poll question is the two percent of Americans who liked both Clinton AND Trump. Is that number surprisingly low? Surprisingly high? I can’t decide.

[7]Of course, Democrats argued that Republican obstructionism justified President Obama’s EOs. Now the Democrats obstruct and criticize the EOs, while the Republican President justifies them due to Democratic obstructionism. The hypocrisy from our parties ceased to amaze me a long time ago.

[8]That being said… some of them were totally fooled. But that goes both ways.

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