As they awoke Wednesday, Democrats found many ways to soften the sting of the shellacking they took Tuesday night. The Senate map was bad. The party in the White House always suffers in midterm elections. Demography is still on their side in presidential elections.
However true, those efforts to find silver linings after a storm of repudiation ignore larger questions for the party: As Democrats look toward 2016, just who are they and what do they stand for? Are they a party that narrowcasts messages to select constituencies — think “war on women” — and speaks largely in the language of fear? Or are they a party whose leaders can articulate a big, fresh and positive message?
Much has been made about the absence of a Republican governing agenda in this year’s campaigns. Democrats combing through results from Tuesday and from exit poll crosstabs can point to the fact that on some issues, the public clearly does favor them. But the small-bore issues on which Democrats tried to wage the campaign proved insufficient for the task of winning.
Raising the minimum wage is an example. The idea is hugely popular, but it did nothing to save Democratic candidates in what were supposedly contested races. Voters in Arkansas approved an increase in the minimum wage and at the same time tossed out Sen. Mark Pryor (D) by a margin of 17 points.
Democrats will write off the Pryor loss as another example of the Republicans tightening their grip on the South, but no Democrat would have told you two days ago that Pryor would lose by the margin he did. Voters in Arkansas also traded a retiring Democratic governor for a new Republican one. Backing the minimum wage didn’t help in other places, either.
If Democrats had a bigger, more appealing economic message, it was as hidden this fall as the GOP’s governing agenda. The party is split between its centrist-business wing — long dominated by the Clintons — and its populist wing, now embodied by Sen. Elizabeth Warren (Mass.).
One part of the party wants to attack Wall Street and tax the rich; the other is wary of that approach but nervous enough about the political impact of wage stagnation, income inequality and the restlessness on the left that it has not formulated a clear alternative, if it truly believes there is one.
Hillary Rodham Clinton, already the presumed Democratic presidential nominee even without declaring her candidacy, got so bollixed up over this that she misfired at a campaign stop just days before the midterms by declaring that businesses do not create jobs. She later blamed her mistake on trying to shorthand her message.
Democrats looking toward 2016 have reasons to think optimistically. They are more in tune with the rising electorate — young people, minorities, unmarried women — than Republicans. On social issues such as same-sex marriage or legalization of marijuana, their coalition already or soon will represent the majority position in the country. They are on the side of public opinion on climate change and immigration reform.
The electoral map still looks better for them than for the Republicans. Eighteen states and the District of Columbia have voted for the Democratic nominee in six consecutive presidential elections. Together, they total 242 of the 270 electoral votes needed to win the White House.
The Democrats’ structural advantages are not to be underestimated. Smart Republicans know that whatever happened Tuesday, however big the wave was — and it was very big — their party may still not be in shape to win a national election. A prominent Republican elected official, who spoke on the condition of anonymity as he threw some cold water on Tuesday’s victories, put it this way Wednesday morning:
“We’ve got to be careful not to misread the results of this election. We had a great victory last night, but we have to be careful not to assume that because we won the majority in Romney-red states, this is easy to translate into a general-election victory in 2016.”
Democrats ought not misread in the opposite direction. However much they believe in their structural advantages, they should be clear-headed in assessing their weaknesses as they prepare for 2016.
For starters, winning the White House three consecutive times with two candidates is not easy. Republicans did it twice in the 20th century. Democrats had an unusually long run with Franklin D. Roosevelt’s four terms and Harry S. Truman’s 1948 victory after already occupying the White House. But Democrats have to go back to the 19th century to find another example of three straight wins.
The Democrats’ 2016 nominee will run in the shadow of the Obama presidency. Perhaps Obama will reinvigorate his presidency in the next two years and will be an asset to the party’s nominee in 2016, but odds are not in the Democrats’ favor. Obama was a huge drag on candidates Tuesday, and by the time of the next election, the country may be looking for a genuine alternative.
Some Democrats think it was a mistake for their candidates to run away from him this fall, that his absence from the playing field neutralized his ability to rally the his party’s base. But in one way or another, the 2016 nominee probably will be bedeviled with the question of how closely to associate with the president and how much distance to create.
Nor can the party simply outsource its problems to the Clintons. The former secretary of state and former president Bill Clinton went everywhere this fall, but their popularity didn’t translate to Senate candidates, not in red states nor in several purple states. New Hampshire might be the exception.
In the exit polls Tuesday night, more people thought Hillary Clinton would not be a good president than thought she would be a good one. For context, judgments about several of the prospective Republican candidates — Jeb Bush, Chris Christie, Rand Paul and Rick Perry — were significantly worse. But after recording lofty numbers while at the State Department, Clinton the politician has begun to come back to Earth.
The Democratic wipeout Tuesday provided another reminder of how thin the party’s presidential bench is. As one Democrat put it, the party does itself no favors to define itself simply as the party of the Clintons. A political party is bigger than one person. Other than Hillary Clinton, who will help define the debate about what the party stands for?
Warren has a message that resonates, but she still appears reluctant to take it into a national campaign. Maryland Gov. Martin O’Malley, who has moved around the country more aggressively than almost any other Democrat in anticipation of a 2016 race, got his comeuppance Tuesday when his lieutenant governor, Anthony G. Brown, was soundly defeated by Republican Larry Hogan. Will Vermont’s independent Sen. Bernard Sanders be the only one to play the role of Clinton rival?
Among the challenges ahead for the Democrats are these two: After six years of the Obama presidency, questions about his and the Democrats’ competence to manage the federal government are widespread. The other is whether any of them have a genuine answer to voter complaints about dysfunction in Washington. The next Democratic nominee will need to show convincingly how both could be done.
But the biggest challenge of all will be to define an economic message that is more than an extension of Obama’s and distinct from a return to the policies that worked two decades ago. As Democratic pollster Peter Hart put it: “We talk to our constituencies. We talk to our own little groups. But we don’t talk about the big picture.”
Despite their big victory Tuesday, Republicans recognize the challenges they face trying to win the presidency in two years. The question is whether, after their thumping defeat, Democrats recognize theirs.