May 31, 2015


The Great Democratic Crack-Up of 2016 : They may have a strong presidential candidate, but at every other level, the party's politicians and activists are fighting to survive -- and fighting with one another. (ROBERT DRAPER, MAY 12, 2015, NY Times Magazine)

"It isn't that the Democratic Party is struggling," says Jonathan Cowan, the president of the centrist policy center Third Way. "It's that at the subpresidential level, it's in a free fall." The Democrats lost their majority in the Senate last November; to regain it, they will need to pick up five additional seats (or four if there's a Democratic vice president who can cast the tiebreaking vote), and nonpartisan analysts do not rate their chances as good. The party's situation in the House is far more dire. Only 188 of the lower chamber's 435 seats are held by Democrats. Owing in part to the aggressiveness of Republican-controlled State Legislatures that redrew numerous congressional districts following the 2010 census, few believe that the Democratic Party is likely to retake power until after the next census in 2020, and even then, the respected political analyst Charles Cook rates the chances of the Democrats' winning the House majority by 2022 as a long shot at best.

Things get even worse for the Democrats further down the political totem pole. Only 18 of the country's 50 governors are Democrats. The party controls both houses in only 11 State Legislatures. Not since the Hoover Administration has the Democratic Party's overall power been so low. A rousing victory by Hillary Rodham Clinton might boost other Democratic aspirants in 2016; then again, in 2012 Obama won 62 percent of Electoral College votes yet carried 48 percent of Congressional districts and a mere 22 percent of the nation's 3,114 counties. Through a billion dollars of campaign wizardry, the president did not lift up but only managed to escape a party brand that has come to be viewed in much of America with abiding disfavor.

For a giddy moment seven years ago, Democrats dared to believe that Barack Obama's election would significantly reconfigure partisan alliances. Instead, his presidency has only calcified them. "When Obama swept the 2008 primary and general elections, Democrats' image suddenly came to be defined by a city-dwelling law-school professor whose life experiences had been far different from those of most working-class whites," said David Wasserman, a congressional analyst for The Cook Political Report. "It was the culminating moment of a half-century of realignment. Democrats had already ceded Southern whites, but in the last few years they have lost droves of Midwestern, small-town and working-class whites who feel like they have little in common with the party anymore."

As to how Democrats should be responding to their poor showing below the executive branch, there are two competing schools of thought, each of which began to emerge in the middle of the last decade, when the Republicans controlled all branches of government and Karl Rove, the G.O.P. strategist, was crowing about a party majority that would endure for many decades to come. Moderates believe the only remedy is for Democrats to refashion themselves as pragmatists who care more about achieving results than ideological purity. When I asked Cowan about what he hoped for in a Hillary Clinton presidency, he said: "Senator Clinton has been in politics long enough to realize you're governing in a divided country. You use the mandate you have to get stuff done."

Progressives, on the other hand, believe that the Democrats lost their way by obsessing over what President Bill Clinton once termed "the vital center." That fixation, they say, has rendered the party brand incomprehensible and raised the question as to what exactly Democrats stand for. To them, it is the sharp-tongued populist rhetoric of Warren, whose signature line is that "the game is rigged" against working-class Americans, that represents the party's only viable future. Moulitsas of Daily Kos says: "The Democrats' branding problem isn't that people don't agree with the Democratic agenda. It's that voters don't trust them to actually carry it out. That, in huge part, is why Democratic-base turnout is so low across the board and especially so in midterms. So that's where the Warrens and Edwardses of the party come in: Democrats who aren't just saying the right thing and believing the right thing but doing the right thing and forcefully fighting for it."

We've often noted the strange but persistent phenomenon--played out across every country of the Anglosphere--that once a party is returned to power by a Third Way leader, the party activists convince themselves that they now have an opportunity to return the state to either the Second Way (parties of the left) or the First (parties of the right).  This then allows the opposition party, which has in the intervening years been forced to recast itself as a party of the center, to reclaim the Third Way.  Failure to do so is catastrophic, as Labour just demonstrated in Britain.

With Republicans poised to nominate a governor (particularly if it's the compassionate conservative Jeb) and Democrats trying to pull Hillary to the Left, this is the most dangerous election for a political party since 1992, when a George H. W. Bush re-election, giving the GOP exclusive credit for the Peace Dividend, would have returned us to a permanent Republican majority a couple decades sooner. 

Posted by at May 31, 2015 9:25 AM

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