There appears to be a trend developing among liberal progressive pundits.
Steve Benen today looks at Tuesday’s election results and notes, Democrats struggle with the down-ballot blues :
Republican strategist Rory Cooper published a tweet that included some eye-opening data this morning. It quickly received widespread attention, which was well deserved.
“Under President Obama, Democrats have lost 900+ state legislature seats, 12 governors, 69 House seats, 13 Senate seats. That’s some legacy.”
I’ll confess I haven’t fact-checked each of the specific data points, but roughly speaking, Cooper’s tally sounds about right. I think the suggestion that President Obama is responsible for the losses is largely misplaced, but quantitatively, the figures paint a damning, accurate picture.
And it’s assessments like these that have led to all kinds of commentary, especially on the heels of yesterday’s election results, about the Democratic Party’s deep rooted, institutional-level challenges. The critiques are hard to avoid and they ring true: the party’s problems at the state level have reached crisis levels; the party has no credible farm team to cultivate future gains; there’s an entire region in which the party finds it difficult to run competitive statewide campaigns; etc.
Without specifically referencing it, I believe Benen is referring to Matt Yglesia’s piece from last month, Democrats are in denial. Their party is actually in deep trouble. Here is a taste of what Yglesias said:
The presidency is extremely important, of course. But there are also thousands of critically important offices all the way down the ballot. And the vast majority — 70 percent of state legislatures, more than 60 percent of governors, 55 percent of attorneys general and secretaries of state — are in Republicans hands. And, of course, Republicans control both chambers of Congress. Indeed, even the House infighting reflects, in some ways, the health of the GOP coalition. Republicans are confident they won’t lose power in the House and are hungry for a vigorous argument about how best to use the power they have.
Not only have Republicans won most elections, but they have a perfectly reasonable plan for trying to recapture the White House. But Democrats have nothing at all in the works to redress their crippling weakness down the ballot. Democrats aren’t even talking about how to improve on their weak points, because by and large they don’t even admit that they exist.
Instead, the party is focused on a competition between Bernie Sanders and Hillary Clinton over whether they should go a little bit to Obama’s left or a lot to his left, options that are unlikely to help Democrats down-ballot in the face of an unfriendly House map and a more conservative midterm electorate. The GOP might be in chaos, but Democrats are in a torpor.
I have read numerous commentaries both pro and con on Yglesias’ piece, see Ed Kilgore’s response at the Political Animal blog, Are Democrats Complacent Going Into 2016?
After reading Matt Yglesias’ cri de coeur against “complacent” Democrats who don’t seem to be aware the Donkey Party is a presidential loss away from a total conservative makeover of the country, my basic reaction is that Matt needs to get out more.
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But aside from Matt’s questionable assessment of Democratic self-knowledge, his hypothesis also suffers a bit from the assumption that the party’s downballot problems can be dispelled by more effort or some undefined “plan.” He does note one built-in dilemma: midterms tend to be characterized by reaction against the party controlling the White House, so unless you lose the White House it’s hard to win midterms. But he doesn’t mention the midterm turnout patterns that have suddenly turned against the Democratic Party since 2008, and that contributed significantly to GOP gains in 2010 and 2014. Nor does he mention another structural factor: controlling a majority of the states can be accomplished with far less than a national majority thanks to the number of small (and often conservative) states.
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More generally, Matt’s idea that Democrats should stop obsessing over the presidential race and focus on state elections right now is questionable. For one thing, even if you regard the presidency as a thin, fragile thread by which the Democratic Party holds onto a share of power, it’s a pretty damn important thread. And for another, a focused GOTV effort in a presidential year is going to produce Democratic downballot gains next year, almost infallibly, especially but not exclusively in battleground states. Yes, it is unfortunate for Democrats (but absolutely beyond anyone’s control) that relatively few governorships are up for grab in 2016. But if Matt really is interested in a “plan” for recovery instead of just a healthy sense of panic, then the actual 2016 battlegrounds are a good place to start.
This is a just a sampling of the back and forth that has gone on among liberal progressive pundits over Ygelsias’ piece, for context.
Back to Steve Benen today:
I still think some context is in order.
Much of today’s commentary is the result of yesterday’s results, but the three states with the most statewide races in the 2015 election cycle are Kentucky, Mississippi, and Louisiana – three Southern “red” states that haven’t backed a Democratic presidential candidate in a generation. In other words, these aren’t three random states that help reflect broader national trends; they’re three states where Republicans have a built-in advantage.
And while the GOP certainly had a great day yesterday, let’s not forget that Dems still managed to win some key statewide contests, and may yet win the gubernatorial race in Louisiana in a couple of weeks.
There’s also some recent history to keep in mind: what’s happening to Democrats right now isn’t that unusual for the party of a two-term president. When the Reagan/Bush era came to an end, Democrats controlled the White House, the Senate, the House, most governors’ offices, and most state legislative seats. At the end of the Clinton/Gore era, Democrats had lost most of what they’d gained. At the end of the Bush/Cheney era, Republicans had suffered through two consecutive wave elections and looked like a small, regional, leaderless party.
In fact, therein lies an overlooked detail: in 2006 and 2008, Democratic voters got off the couch, fueled by George W. Bush’s failures, and gave Dems a historic advantage. The party then took its political capital, invested it in a series of progressive, landmark victories, and slowly bled its post-Bush gains.
Rory Cooper’s tally is probably right, but what it neglects to mention is that the total number of Democratic seats that existed at the beginning of the Obama era was exaggerated to ridiculous heights by public disgust with GOP failures in the Bush/Cheney era. The nation was still largely divided along ideological lines as 2009 got underway, but Democrats managed to have 60 Senate seats that year. It was an unsustainable level, which predictably faded. (It’s a minor miracle Senate Dems held their majority for eight consecutive years.)
Put it this way: in the 109th Congress, a decade ago, Democrats had 45 Senate seats. Ten years later, after five election cycles, Democrats now have … 46 Senate seats. That’s not a collapse; it’s a return to a norm.
The list of Democratic problems isn’t short. They’ve been hurt by gerrymandering. They’ve been crushed in state legislatures. The party’s voters inexplicably refuse to show up unless it’s a leap year. The Republican “war on voting” adds a wrinkle to any attempt at a comeback. Democratic officials have plans on how to put things right, and no one can say with confidence when – or if – those plans will succeed.
But the talk this morning about Democrats facing insurmountable challenges is almost certainly overstated. The party had political capital, which it invested, and which has led Dems back to where they were before.
We’ve seen dynamics like this before; we’ll see them again.
I would add that the unprecedented amount of money unleashed in politics since Citizens United may very well disrupt this historical ebb and flow between the party in power. The old axioms of political science may no longer hold true.
The political system can be so overwhelmed and corrupted by the sheer force of money spent in political campaigns that it can produce the desired outcome for the Plutocrats who are overwhelmingly funding political campaigns today. They can tip the scales in their favor. With an apathetic and indifferent electorate that does not vote, the Plutocrats can maintain this advantage.
If Democrats would just get off the couch and vote, this Republican advantage could still be blunted if not reversed. Democrats need to learn to vote in every election and down ballot, not just the top of the ticket in presidential elections in a leap year.
UPDATE: Greg Sargent at the Washington Post has a pair of posts on this topic. Morning Plum: A brutal reality check for the Democratic Party and How badly has the Obama era damaged the Democratic party? It’s complicated.