international analysis and commentary

The harsh reality facing post-Obama Democrats


To put things into perspective, it was only seven years ago when the Democratic Party controlled the Presidency (Barack Obama), the Senate (60 seats out of 100), the House (257 seats out of 435) and had a decent record of victories in the Supreme Court (four, often five, votes out of nine).

Today, the Democratic Party has been wiped out. Forget the fact that in the recent presidential elections Donald Trump won six states that had voted for Obama twice – Michigan, Iowa, Wisconsin, Ohio, Pennsylvania and Florida – pushing Democrats even further in their coastal metropolitan redoubts. And put aside the other fact that Republicans now control the House, the Senate, the White House, and (after President Trump picks a new justice to replace Antonin Scalia) there will be a new, solid, conservative majority in the Supreme Court.

What is really astonishing is that at the local level, with Obama in the White House, Democrats have lost a total of 939 state legislative seats, 30 state legislative chambers and 11 governorships. In 2009, Republicans held just 3,223 state legislative seats. After the November 8, 2016 vote, that number is 4,162. There are now more Republican state legislators than at any time since the Golden Age of robber barons, including 33 GOP governors out of 50, a ratio last seen in the 1920s.

What happened?

Barack Obama was a great statesman but a bad politician. He saved the banks, the car industry, and gave healthcare to 20 million Americans but did not know how to make his party the beneficiary of his policies, like Franklin Roosevelt did. FDR’s party controlled the House of Representatives for 58 years, two generations, standing on the New Deal’s accomplishments. To be fair, FDR’s legacy would have perhaps been different without his triumph in World War II, but nevertheless Obama (almost) restored peace and prosperity to a country left in disarray by George W. Bush. Voters didn’t care. (To be fair to Hillary Clinton, 63 million voters didn’t care, and voted for Trump: almost 66 million voted for her).

What will Democrats do now? Who will be the Moses leading them across the desert? And, more important, how long will the crossing last? There are no easy answers. In the short term, they will fight to save what they can of Obama’s legacy, and will be quickly defeated. The Affordable Care Act, for example, will be dismantled in a matter of weeks because of its core mechanism: subsidies to buy health insurance. Take away the subsidies and the entire construction crumbles. The same will happen with the Supreme Court: Senate Democrats may filibuster Trump’s nominee for a while, but eventually the Republican majority will prevail. Withdrawing from the Paris Agreement on climate change will be done by a simple signature of the new President.

This means that Democrats will not revive their fortunes fighting rearguard actions, what they need is a vision, a message appealing to a majority of voters. What they need, badly, is a leader articulating this vision or, to be more precise, a generation of new leaders capable of doing that from Anchorage, Alaska, to Amarillo, Texas and beyond.

As Democratic Representative Seth Moulton of Massachusetts recently wrote, “Our economic message has been one of fairness, but worrying about fairness is a luxury reserved for those who already have opportunity. (…) Economic mobility is at an all-time low, and what little exists is concentrated on the coasts.” No wonder rural America voted for Trump to the tune of 70%. Most certainly, some of the new President’s supporters will be quickly disappointed by his inability to provide good, well-paid, jobs (something no president, or messiah, can provide in the current economic and technological environment), but that will not be enough to restore their faith in the Democratic Party. 

It is worth noting that after Congressional elections in 2018, the party will probably be weakened even more because of a difficult Senate contingency: 25 Democratic, or Independent, senators will be on the ballot and five of them are from states where Trump won in a landslide: West Virginia, Indiana, Montana, North Dakota and Missouri. Five more come from states where Trump won by smaller margins: Florida, Ohio, Michigan, Wisconsin and Pennsylvania. Three more seats are considered competitive: Virginia, Maine and New Jersey. This means that, in the better case, Democrats will lose five or six seats, reducing their representation to 42 or 43 senators: Republicans will be just one step from a filibuster-proof majority of 60 senators.

Probably, the key question over the next four years will be the leadership: Hillary Clinton was not only a bad candidate, but she was 69. Nancy Pelosi, the House Minority Leader, is 76. Chuck Schumer, the Senate Minority Leader, is 66, but has been in Congress for 36 straight years. This generation of politicians failed, and they cannot pass the torch to Bernie Sanders who is 75. By far, the best candidate in this group would be Elizabeth Warren, but she will be 71 in 2020. The party will have trouble selecting a strong bench simply because the local base has been greatly weakened in recent years.

There are younger Democratic legislators, but none has shown the needed intelligence, competence and charisma: Keith Ellison, the Muslim candidate to be the next Democratic National Committee chairman, is no Barack Obama. In the House there is Tim Ryan from Ohio, who is 43, in the Senate there is Cory Booker from New Jersey, who is 47, and in the backstage there is Zephyr Teachout from New York, who is 45. All of them could be competent leaders: so far they seem to be rather conventional politicians.

What the observer can say today is that the 2016 collapse of the Republican Party machine first, and of the Democratic Party machine later – two totally unexpected events – has emptied the political scene, leaving it to the puppet-like antics of Donald Trump and his fellows knaves and fools. What this bizarre coterie of opportunists with wildly different policy ideas will really do when in government on January 20, 2017, is a mystery better left to fortune-tellers. The only certain thing is that Democrats are faced with a Long March in hostile territory.