Winning Is Not Enough.

Author:Glastris, Paul


Democrats are feeling cautiously optimistic about the 2018 midterms. The evidence from polls and special election results suggests that they are likely to win back the House. There's even a small hope of taking back the Senate, where the number of Democratic incumbents in states that Trump won once made regaining the majority seem unthinkable.

It's still a long way off, but things look even better for 2020. The Senate map will be much more even. Trump's approval numbers are at or near historic lows and are likely to slide further if Democrats do regain a House majority this fall and use it to launch aggressive investigations into Trump's manifold improprieties. Among the dozens of potential presidential primary candidates, the party ought to be able to find one who can beat him. If they do, then Democrats could find themselves in control of both the White House and Congress in January 2021.

But how long would that power last? Well, here's a quiz for you: Since 1981, for how many years has the Democratic Party controlled the White House and both houses of Congress?

The answer is four: the first two years of Bill Clinton's first term, and the first two years of Barack Obama's first term. That's it.

As Democrats think and argue about how to win back power, and what policies to implement when they do, one crucial fact is missing from the conversation: it will take something very special--some very new thinking--to avoid the fate that always befalls Democrats, namely, losing control of government after two years.

There was a time when divided government didn't have to mean bad government. That time has passed. If the Obama years showed anything, it is that, when in opposition, the modern Republican Party has no goal beyond blocking the Democratic agenda, whatever that may be, and will transgress hitherto undisputed democratic norms to do so. Operationally, the GOP's governing objectives have devolved to two base goals: transferring wealth upward, and staying in power. Because the former goal is unpopular, achieving the latter increasingly requires the party to rely on anti-democratic means: voter ID laws and voter roll purges designed to suppress minority and youth turnout; hyper-partisan gerrymandering; filling the federal judiciary with ideological conservatives committed to weakening the power of unions and enhancing that of corporations; and so on. (That's all on top of constitutional features, like the Electoral College and the Senate, that give the GOP representation that is out of proportion to its votes.)

The election of Donald Trump has pushed the Republican Party even further in this direction, to the point where it is now openly enabling corruption and autocracy. Republican leaders have tried to stymie the Russia investigation. They have supported Trump's effort to get the Justice Department to prosecute his political enemies. They have refused to investigate his brazen violations of the emoluments clause of the Constitution (from, among other things, foreign governments spending lavishly at Trump hotels). They have barely raised a word of protest, much less taken meaningful action, when Trump undermines relationships with America's democratic allies, does favors for authoritarian adversaries, and says nice things about white nationalists here and abroad. Republican lawmakers uncomfortable with their party's drift are being forced either to fall in line or leave office, because base GOP voters, fed by right-wing media, demand nothing less. Under such circumstances, no good--and a lot of harm--can come from Democrats losing Congress in 2022 and sharing power with the Republicans.

The fact that America now has only one party committed to small-d democracy changes everything. It's no longer acceptable for Democrats to look at politics as a way to win the next election so as to jam through a bunch of their preferred policies before the Republicans inevitably take back power. They must instead see the purpose of politics as building sustained power for Democrats, period--but, unlike the other side, they must do this in part by strengthening the democratic process, not by undermining it. If passing this or that liberal policy helps in that effort, fine, pass it. If not, don't. The overriding aim has to be getting and holding power--not for its own sake, but to keep the flame of democratic self-government alive unless and until the Republican Party abandons its authoritarian ways or is replaced by a new, small-d democratic party. Indeed, such a transition, which many committed conservatives and lifelong Republicans are now desperate to see happen, is only likely to come about if the Republican Party is locked out of power for several cycles in a row.

Since 2016, various factions on the left have debated whether Democrats' strategy should revolve around boosting turnout among its base while drawing in more highly educated suburban white voters, or, on the other hand, trying to regain the support of rural and working-class whites.

They're asking the wrong question. The truth is, a Democrat could probably eke out a win in 2020 by following either approach. But merely winning isn't enough. To save our democracy, Democrats need to win big. They not only have to beat Donald Trump in 2020, but also have to achieve majorities in the House and Senate that are big and stable enough to survive the 2022 midterms. Doing that will require winning back states and districts that they lost in 2014 and 2016, taking others that have long been in GOP hands, and governing in a way that keeps those states and districts from turning red again. That will mean both turning out their base and making inroads among the white working class.

Though shrinking as a demographic, whites without a college degree still make up 45 percent of the electorate, and they dominate in many swing states and in exurban and rural areas where Democrats need to make inroads. As the Center for American Progress has shown, if Hillary Clinton had enjoyed the same high turnout among African Americans in 2016 as Obama did in 2012, she still would have lost, but had she matched Obama's share of the white working-class vote, she'd have taken Michigan, Wisconsin, Pennsylvania, Iowa, Florida, and Ohio and won easily.

The dilemma for Democrats is that many of the issues that resonate with their base--gun control, racial justice, support for immigrants--hurt them in exurban and rural areas. That leads many moderates to advise downplaying "identity politics." The problem with that advice is that, besides being wrong on principle, following it would risk alienating the base voters whose votes are crucial to winning.

How, then, do Democrats square that circle?

The answer is twofold. To maximize the voting power of its core supporters, the party must get over its squeamishness and aggressively push policies designed to raise turnout among young people and minorities. At the same time, to expand its geographic reach, it needs to introduce new ideas into its agenda that appeal both to the base and to rural and working-class whites, or at least to the persuadable among them, such as the millions who voted for Barack Obama in 2012 and Donald Trump in 2016.

Fortunately, if Democrats do take back at least one house of Congress in November (and I'm...

To continue reading