Democrats who happily think Donald Trump is helping to lead the Republican Party over the cliff could be looking at the state of American politics through too narrow a lens. Whatever problems the GOP could be facing in the coming months and beyond, Democrats ought not underestimate their own future challenges.
Demography as destiny underpins much of the Democrats’ optimism these days. That confidence is built on a foundation of census data and other trends that show a country that is becoming increasingly diverse and more culturally tolerant. The more Trump insults one group or another in this new America, the more Democrats assume the future will be theirs.
That ignores, however, the realities and the contradictions of the politics of this divided era — which have left Democrats in control of the White House and big cities and Republicans in control of both houses of Congress and a majority of state governments. These contradictions and the challenges for both parties are well explored in the new book, “America Ascendant,” by Democratic pollster Stanley B. Greenberg.
Not surprisingly, given his partisan leanings, Greenberg is and long has been bearish about a Republican Party that he sees as fighting against irreversible trends in the makeup and attitudes of the future America. But those conclusions do not lead him to offer unabashed enthusiasm for the future of the Democrats at a time of wrenching economic and cultural changes.
Greenberg sees his own party as having fallen short in addressing many of the economic and other conditions that have soured so many people on a political system that they feel has ignored their interests in favor of the privileged or the elites.
He argues that, unless Democrats find a way to break through the disaffection and indifference and deal with the structural economic issues, their ability to energize enough support to command a true governing majority will continue to escape them. As he writes, “The rising American electorate could be the Democrats’ salvation — but that electorate first has to be engaged and motivated to vote.”
In a telephone interview, Greenberg offered some context for his conclusions with an analysis of the evolution of the Democratic Party, from the election of former president Bill Clinton to the administration of President Obama. He served as Clinton’s pollster in the 1992 campaign, which restored the Democrats to power in the White House, after Republicans had held it for 20 of the previous 24 years.
Greenberg described Clinton’s politics in terms more nuanced than the popular notion of a centrist politician. Clinton’s pre-1992 identity as a southern governor was as someone who had forged bipartisan consensus through his work in the National Governors Association and elsewhere. He was best known for his advocacy of welfare and education reform. Hence, he was a New Democrat.
But Greenberg noted that Clinton also has had a strong streak of populism, advocating higher taxes on the rich, decrying the salaries of chief executives and declaring his roots in the party of Franklin D. Roosevelt. Clinton was both left and right at the same time, and in doing so he managed to expand the appeal of his party.
“Clinton had a formula for making the Democratic Party electable nationally,” Greenberg said. The formula included taking advantage of some of the demographic and voting trends of the time — greater support for Democrats among college-educated women and suburban voters — while bringing back some of the white industrial-class workers who had defected to Reagan and the Republicans.
One electoral legacy Clinton left for the Democrats was to turn states in the industrial heartland and elsewhere — Illinois, Michigan, Pennsylvania, Wisconsin, California and New Jersey, for example — from general election battlegrounds into Democratic strongholds. He also helped Democrats find ways to carry Ohio in four of the past six presidential elections.
In the years since Clinton left office, the problems of wealth and income inequality and middle- and working-class economic insecurity have worsened. But Greenberg argues that these issues, now in the forefront of the Democratic Party’s debate, have not been the principal focus of the Obama administration. The president’s economic agenda was shaped to deal with the economic crisis he inherited after 2008.
“His economic project was the recovery,” Greenberg said of Obama. “But that only takes you back to where we were. What I argue is that there are big structural economic and social problems, and the reason why this new majority is disengaged is because Democratic leaders have not addressed these problems.”
Obama’s winning coalitions of 2008 and 2012 pointed toward the future of America, a coalition built on solid support from non-white voters, single women, young people and more secular voters, not on the appeal of a populist economic message. “The bigger forces that were creating this new majority were the key to his winning,” Greenberg said.
Obama’s electoral majorities were hefty. His popular-majorities were more slender (and narrower in 2012 than in 2008), reflecting deep red-blue divisions of these times.
The huge losses suffered by Democrats in the 2010 and 2014 midterm elections, which have put Republicans in control of the House and the Senate and expanded their hold on a majority of the governorships, point to the standoff between the parties as the country weathers transformational changes akin to those of the Industrial Revolution.
Greenberg still sees a much brighter future for the Democrats than for the Republicans. But he acknowledged that he turned out to have been overly bullish about his party’s prospects in 2014. “We made assumptions that 2010 was atypical,” he said. “I didn’t think ’14 would be as bad as ’10. I didn’t think this new majority would be as disengaged as it was in ’14.”
That’s a lesson worth remembering for Democrats as they watch the Republicans struggle among themselves. As Matthew Dowd — the former political adviser to George W. Bush and now an independent analyst — wrote last week, the Republican Party’s upside in 2016 is considerably brighter than that of the Democrats, and the GOP’s downside prospects decidedly less gloomy.
If Republicans win the presidency in 2016, they would then control nearly everything — the White House, the House, probably the Senate and certainly a majority of governorships. If Democrats hold the White House, they might win the Senate but probably would not have the House and would be in a distinct minority in the states. If they lose the White House, they would be virtually wiped out of power.
For Democrats, that means a victory in the general election still would represent only a down payment on the future and a continuing struggle to implement the kind of progressive economic agenda that Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders have begun to talk about in their campaigns.
Long-term demographic trends certainly appear to be running against the Republicans. But the success of Trump’s appeal to date, particularly with whites without college degrees, underscores the resistance to the changes the country’s transition have brought forward.
That means that, even if Democrats win the White House next year, they must still build down from there, and from their urban base build outward. Unless they do that, neither Democrats nor Republicans will be able to claim the kind of majority support that they desire — and the country will remain divided, at odds, and not easily governed.