Standing with some 30,000 people in front of Independence Hall in Philadelphia the night before the election watching Hillary Clinton speak, exhausted aides were already worrying about what would come next. They expected her to win, of course, but they knew President Clinton was going to get thrashed in the 2018 midterms—the races were tilted in Republicans’ favor, and that’s when they thought the backlash would really hit. Many assumed she’d be a one-term president. They figured she’d get a primary challenge. Some of them had already started gaming out names for who it would be.Still more.
“Last night I stood at your doorstep / Trying to figure out what went wrong,” Bruce Springsteen sang quietly to the crowd in what he called “a prayer for post-election.” “It’s gonna be a long walk home.”
What happened the next night shocked even the most pessimistic Democrats. But in another sense, it was the reckoning the party had been expecting for years. They were counting on a Clinton win to paper over a deeper rot they’ve been worrying about—and to buy them some time to start coming up with answers. In other words, it wasn’t just Donald Trump. Or the Russians. Or James Comey. Or all the problems with how Clinton and her aides ran the campaign. Win or lose, Democrats were facing an existential crisis in the years ahead—the result of years of complacency, ignoring the withering of the grass roots and the state parties, sitting by as Republicans racked up local win after local win.
“The patient,” says Colorado Governor John Hickenlooper, “was clearly already sick.”
As Trump takes over the GOP and starts remaking its new identity as a nationalist, populist party, creating a new political pole in American politics for the first time in generations, all eyes are on the Democrats.
How will they confront a suddenly awakened, and galvanized, white majority? What’s to stop Trump from doing whatever he wants? Who’s going to pull a coherent new vision together? Worried liberals are watching with trepidation, fearful that Trump is just the beginning of worse to come, desperate for a comeback strategy that can work.
What’s clear from interviews with several dozen top Democratic politicians and operatives at all levels, however, is that there is no comeback strategy—just a collection of half-formed ideas, all of them challenged by reality. And for whatever scheme they come up with, Democrats don’t even have a flag-carrier. Barack Obama? He doesn’t want the job. Hillary Clinton? Too damaged. Bernie Sanders? Too socialist. Joe Biden? Too tied to Obama. Nancy Pelosi and Chuck Schumer? Too Washington. Elizabeth Warren? Maybe. And all of them old, old, old.
The Democrats’ desolation is staggering. But part of the problem is that it’s easy to point to signs that maybe things aren’t so bad. After all, Clinton did beat Trump by 2.8 million votes, Obama’s approval rating is nearly 60 percent, polls show Democrats way ahead of the GOP on many issues and demographics suggest that gap will only grow. But they are stuck in the minority in Congress with no end in sight, have only 16 governors left and face 32 state legislatures fully under GOP control. Their top leaders in the House are all over 70. Their top leaders in the Senate are all over 60. Under Obama, Democrats have lost 1,034 seats at the state and federal level—there’s no bench, no bench for a bench, virtually no one able to speak for the party as a whole.
“The fact that our job should be easier just shows how poorly we’re doing the job,” says Massachusetts Representative Seth Moulton, an Iraq War veteran seen as one of the party’s rising stars.There are now fewer than 700 days until Election Day 2018, as internal memos circulating among Democratic strategists point out with alarm. They differ in their prescriptions, but all boil down to the same inconvenient truth: If Republicans dominate the 2018 midterms, they will control the Senate (and with it, the Supreme Court) for years, and they will draw district lines in states that will lock in majorities in the House and across state capitals, killing the next generation of Democrats in the crib, setting up the GOP for an even more dominant 2020 and beyond.
Most doubt Democrats have the stamina or the stomach for the kind of cohesive resistance that Republicans perfected over the years. In their guts, they want to say yes to government doing things, and they’re already getting drawn in by promises to work with Trump and the Republican majorities. They’re heading into the next elections with their brains scrambled by Trump’s win, side-eyeing one another over who’s going to sell out the rest, nervous the incoming president will keep outmaneuvering them in the media and throw up more targets than they could ever hope to shoot at—and all of this from an election that was supposed to cement their claim on the future.
Some thinking has started to take shape. Obama is quickly reformatting his post-presidency to have a more political bent than he had planned. Vice President Joe Biden is beginning to structure his own thoughts on mentoring and guiding rising Democrats. (No one seems to be waiting to hear from Clinton.) At the law office of former Attorney General Eric Holder, which is serving as the base for the redistricting reform project he is heading for Obama, they’re getting swarmed with interest and checks. At the Democratic Governors Association, all of a sudden looking like the headquarters of the resistance, they’re sorting through a spike in interested candidates. And everyone from Obama on down is talking about going local, focusing on the kinds of small races and party-building activities Republicans have been dominating for cycle after cycle.
But all that took decades, and Democrats have no time. What are they going to do next? There hasn’t been an American political party in worse shape in living memory. And there may never have been a party less ready to confront it.
“We’re at a space shuttle moment,” says Atlanta Mayor Kasim Reed, who is widely expected to run statewide soon in Georgia.
“The most vulnerable time for the space shuttle is when it re-enters the environment, so that when it comes back into the environment it doesn’t blow up. The tiles need to be tight. I’m concerned about the tightness of the tiles on the space shuttle right now. We have to get through this heat.”
Thursday, January 19, 2017
Big Fur Hat is pleased as punch with this piece, at Politco, "Inside a decimated party’s not-so-certain revival strategy":