By: Michael Barone
What is to become of the Democratic Party? The world’s oldest political party, which traces its roots to 1792, is in as dire straits as it has ever been.
It has lost a presidential election most of its followers expected to win. It failed to win a Senate majority, gaining just two seats in a year when it had nearly a dozen plausible targets. Its minimal gain in the House leaves it with just about as few House seats as it has controlled since the 1920s. It holds only 18 governorships and fully controls, through governorships and legislative majorities, only five state governments — giant California, midsize Oregon and small Hawaii, Delaware and Rhode Island. The total party strength index calculated by Sean Trende and David Byler at RealClearPolitics has them at their lowest point since 1930.
Its congressional leaders are able but getting on in years. House leaders Nancy Pelosi and Steny Hoyer have held party or elective office since the 1970s and interned in Sen. Daniel Brewster’s office in the 1960s. Senate leader Chuck Schumer was elected to the New York Assembly in 1974, when whip Dick Durbin was already a congressional staffer.
The Democrats’ plight is all the more poignant because up to election night, many of them believed that the future would be forever theirs — and with some reason.
Ruy Teixeira and John Judis’ 2002 book, “The Emerging Democratic Majority,” pointed the way, predicting that blacks, Hispanics and single women would produce increasing Democratic margins over time. National Journal’s Ronald Brownstein and Democratic pollster Stanley Greenberg, in his 2015 book, “America Ascendant,” thoughtfully elaborated on this theme.
But a vulgarized version of this idea got many Democrats — apparently including the high command of Hillary Clinton’s campaign in Brooklyn, New York — thinking that an eternal Democratic majority would be a dead certainty. Between 9 and 10 o’clock Eastern time on election night, it became clear that this was, in the title of Trende’s shrewd analysis, “the god that failed.”
Now it’s beginning to seem possible that Barack Obama’s two electoral majorities were an exception to the rule. In 2008, when Republican foreign and domestic policies seemed in ruins, Obama gave Americans the chance to do something many had been longing to do for years: elect a black president, a landmark in our history.
But the Obama coalition turned out to be too heavily clustered to be easily replicated in an election decided by electoral votes and much too heavily clustered to make the party competitive in congressional and legislative elections conducted in equal-population districts.
Clinton’s campaign blithely assumed that rallying “people of color” and millennials would produce victory. They didn’t figure that Midwestern non-college-educated whites, who had long voted Democratic as a bloc, wouldn’t be dazzled by Lady Gaga concerts.
The Democrats’ initial reflex seems to be to lurch further left. Schumer joined Bernie Sanders in backing Rep. Keith Ellison as Democratic national chairman. Ellison may be articulate and charming, but he’s also a Muslim representing a Minneapolis district that went 73 percent for Obama in 2012. Back in 2007, he said the 9/11 attacks were “almost like the Reichstag fire” in that they enabled a leader to “have authority to do whatever he wanted.” That sounds uncomfortably close to 9/11 trutherism and equating George W. Bush to Adolf Hitler.
It’s not likely to win votes for Democrats in Wright County, 40 miles outside Ellison’s district, where Hubert Humphrey had a lakefront home and Donald Trump beat Hillary Clinton 62-29 percent. A party with a leftist national chairman and congressional leaders from Brooklyn and San Francisco is not ideally positioned to appeal to voters where Clinton fell short.
Exit polls showing Republican improvement among blacks, Hispanics and Asians suggest regression to the mean — with people considered minorities behaving more like the national average. The results also suggest that when you keep telling white Americans that they soon will become a minority — a message that sometimes sounds like “hurry up and die” — then many non-college-educated “deplorables” may start acting like members of a self-conscious minority and vote more cohesively against your side.
The election results certainly don’t guarantee an eternal Trump Republican majority. Trump’s margin was thin, and it’s reversible if events turn out badly or policies fail. But the results also suggest that the arrival of a leftist “ascendant” Democratic majority is not inevitable, either. The polarized partisan patterns familiar for two decades have been shaken up this year — and not, so far, to Democrats’ advantage.