Looking at the decimated landscape for Democrats – out of the White House, holding fewer than 20 governorships, and in the minority in the House, Senate and vast majority of statehouses – it is tempting to blame President Barack Obama for the party’s plight.
In one real sense, this is correct: With the White House in Democratic hands for eight years and sclerotic House and Senate leaders, a generation of young and capable talent has not developed. The Democratic Party stuck with Hillary Clinton in large part because there was no viable alternative.
However, Republicans miss the mark, we would argue, in declaring with certainty that Obama’s results – Obamacare, foreign policy retrenchment, fiscal irresponsibility – caused the downfall of Democrats. Maybe.
Then again, governors and state legislatures generally did not run on Obamacare and were not forced to account for the exploding national debt. Moreover, many Republicans were proponents of foreign policy retrenchment and guilty of fiscal irresponsibility. Maybe Democrats’ collapse occurred in spite of Obama and not because of him.
In his rather self-reverential interview with David Axelrod (could we have expected anything else?), Obama declared, “If I had run again and articulated (my vision), I think I could’ve mobilized a majority of the American people to rally behind it.”
He might be right, and that’s the problem staring Democrats in the face. Obama had the ability to supercharge his base in part because he was the first African American president. His ability to skewer opponents while maintaining an air of moral superiority served him well in two elections. That is personal to him, not reflective of the party as a whole or even of Obama’s ideology.
We should also remember the circumstances under which he won. In 2008, he ran as a historic figure just as the economy melted down. It would have been extraordinary had he lost. In 2012, he ran against a candidate who bet on dissatisfaction with the economy and suggested 47 percent of the electorate were welfare-grubbing oafs. Obama won, but by a smaller margin than in 2008.
Perhaps, then, Obama’s identity as a historic figure and as a heartthrob for liberals, combined with the collapse of the economy (while Republicans were on watch) and less-than-stellar opponents – rather than anything the Democratic Party was offering – was the key to his success, a success that masked a hollowness in the Democratic Party’s message and agenda. A party has to have selling and staying power beyond a single individual.
Democrats are not alone in reaching an ideological dead end. Republicans’ stale 1980s agenda allowed right-wing populism (however wrongheaded we may think it is) to emerge and replace conservatism as the ethos of the GOP. (And lest Republicans get too cocky, it surely would have been hard-pressed to win the presidency had Vice President Joe Biden, for example, run.) Democrats’ dilemma is not unique or insoluble.
First, a message of straight identity politics and reflexive appeal to federal welfare-state expansion needs updating, to put it mildly. Unifying themes and objectives – reducing poverty by X percent, graduating X number of engineers, rebuilding X percent of the country’s physical infrastructure – have the potential to add to the Democratic coalition.
Second, like the original progressives of the early 20th century, 21st century progressives must be the party of good, clean government dedicated to rooting out corruption, self-dealing and favoritism. They’ll have a poster boy for their anti-corruption efforts in the person of Donald Trump.
Third, the electorate, for better or for worse, does not necessarily consider politics to be preparation for elected office. In looking for a new generation of talent, the party should cast a wide net to business, philanthropy, etc., to figures who embody a forward-looking, modern ethos, not one that relies on 20th century nostalgia.
Fourth, if Republicans are going to be the party of nativism and anti-globalism, the Democrats have to be the party that prepares and supports Americans as they compete in the 21st century economy. Promising to cut off trade or suggesting Wall Street is synonymous with fraud will not do it. When working-class whites in the Rust Belt find health care is less secure and a trade war does not produce good-paying jobs, they will look for practical solutions. Democrats had better have some.
Finally, Obama may be retiring, but voters still want inspiration, a sense of belonging and, yes, hope and change. A president who continues to appeal to the worst instincts and who sees the economy as a fixed pie (ironically, two unconservative sensibilities) leaves an opening for a party that preaches “more” is better – more innovation, more high-skill workers, more trade, more educational opportunities.
In sum, parties tend to be victims of their own success. With Obama exiting, Democrats have the opportunity to turn the page on moldy ideas and build a unifying message. Let’s see if they seize it.