Back in 2004, commentators, possibly including me, were speculating about the possibility of a “permanent majority” for Republicans along the lines of the Democratic dominance of national elections following the Great Depression. Two years later, a wave election delivered the House of Representatives to the Democrats. By 2009, Barack Obama was president, with majorities in the House and the Senate.
By 2014, I was hearing a lot of claims that the Republican Party was on its way out: “a regional rump party, confined to the South” was the popular line for a couple of years. Sure, they might win some midterm elections here and there, but they were demographically doomed at the presidential level. This became such conventional wisdom that when I confessed I thought Republicans were likely to retake the White House in 2016, people stared as though I had said my columns were dictated to me by the ghost of Walter Winchell.
The midterm elections of 2014 did not necessarily shake this conventional wisdom. But two recent pieces of news ought to. Tea Party favorite Matt Bevin just won an upset election in the Kentucky governor’s race. Not only did he take back a seat that Democrats have controlled for 40 of the last 44 years, but also, he won by a smashing margin, 53 percent to 44 percent. This after polls had shown his Democratic opponent, state attorney general Jack Conway, in a narrow lead and the New York Times was speculating that Bevin might “eke out” a victory by driving conservative Christians to turn out.
Meanwhile, the latest Quinnipiac poll shows Clinton losing to every major Republican primary contender except Trump. Even if you believe the more favorable polls, a Democratic strategist probably does not want to see them so close — not when Clinton is a widely known name with the nomination practically sewed up, while most Americans probably know Rubio as “Marco Who?”
Whatever your opinion on the merits of Barack Obama as a president, his tenure has been rough for his party. As Republican strategist Rory Cooper tweeted last night, “Under President Obama, Democrats have lost 900+ state legislature seats, 12 governors, 69 House seats, 13 Senate seats.” And while this may be coincidence, unrelated to anything Obama has done, I suspect that these two things may be connected — that parties are most vulnerable at precisely the moment when they feel themselves strongest.
The passage of Obamacare despite the fact that it was unpopular, despite the fact that no one in the opposition party wanted to touch it, despite the fact that the voters of Massachusetts sent a Republican to the Senate to vote against it, was hubris. Did Democrats just accept that their goal of national health care was worth alienating voters and losing control of lower offices? I don’t think it was a conscious decision, but they did sacrifice a lot of down-ticket Democrats in the House and Senate, who, it turns out, were actually pretty necessary to get anything further done.
Many of the law’s subsequent struggles have stemmed from the apparent belief that they didn’t need down-ticket races, or public opinion; all they needed was Barack Obama sitting in the Oval Office.
Kentucky illustrates the dangers of this strategy. Most policy happens at the state and local level, not federal, something that’s easy to forget as local media outlets fail and news coverage becomes increasingly focused on national elections. Under outgoing Democratic governor Steve Beshear, Kentucky was a poster child for the success of Obamacare; under incoming Gov. Matt Bevin, it may well become a poster child for its failure.
Beshear built Kentucky’s comparatively successful exchange and expanded Medicaid by executive order when the legislature wouldn’t give him what he wanted. This is a great strategy — as long as you think your party will continue to hold the executive pen. Now both the exchange and the Medicaid expansion are in danger, though Bevin has recently weaseled over exactly what he’s going to do with the folks in Kentucky who got insured through the Medicaid expansion. This should give pause to fans of Obama’s similar strategies at the national level.
Moreover, what you get through executive order is probably more radical than you’d get via the legislative process, because it has input from only one half of the political spectrum. That appeals to the base, but also has political costs. I doubt that the Obama administration would have put its weight behind a bill to force schools to let trans girls change in open locker rooms, but that’s the rule the Department of Education’s Office of Civil Rights has apparently now adopted with a school district in Palatine, Illinois. Its actions on greenhouse emissions from power plants are almost certainly stronger than what would have emerged from a bargaining process with the Republican-controlled congress. And however laudable these moves may be, they make a difference in down-ticket races. I’d guess that the Palatine school board elections will make this a prominent issue, to the detriment of liberal candidates. And it seems quite likely that the power plant regulations contributed to Conway’s loss in a coal state.
Policy wonks will be keeping a close eye on what happens in Kentucky in the next year. The conventional wisdom on both sides is that programs like Obamacare have a sort of ratchet mechanism: Once they’re in place, no matter how popular they are, no one will dare to take away the benefits. If Bevin actually dares (conventionally, I suspect he won’t), and he seems to survive all right politically, Republican governors and members of Congress, and perhaps a Republican presidential candidate, will become more daring with their moves to roll back Obama’s legacy.
Of course, those aren’t the only reasons that losing down- ticket could hurt Democrats. Redistricting matters. Local policy questions matter. And where you get your future presidential candidates matters. If Democrats become “a rump party, confined to the coastal north,” then where are they going to get their presidential candidates? From a handful of governors, or a congressional caucus that has moved left as the Republicans moved right?
It should worry Democrats that their two leading contenders for the nomination are a self-proclaimed socialist and a center- left candidate with her roots in a much earlier, more bipartisan era — and that both of them are over 65. Nor is it easy to generate a long list of great young candidates who sat out 2016 because of Clinton’s name and fundraising advantage; there are a few, but not nearly as many as the party needs to have in reserve, because like Scott Walker, promising hopefuls often flame out under the pressure of a presidential campaign. If Democrats don’t have good candidates to put up, then whatever their demographic advantages, they are going to lose the White House in election after election.
Not that I am predicting this will happen. Nothing is forever in politics — not “permanent majorities,” and not structural defeats. I expect that Democrats will reverse their down-ticket problems through assiduous labor. But that labor will not be done by 2016. And it will not be done at all unless the non-professionals — the donors and the activist base — stop pouring all their energies into winning Pyrrhic victories.