Three Critical Questions For A Post-Obama Democratic Party

The recent underwhelming employment figures released by the Bureau of labour Statistics amplifies a gloomy voice lurking in the back of Democrats’ minds: Barack Obama could lose in 2012, and he could lose big. Despite the hubbub over health care reform, financial regulation, and Osama bin Laden, there is consensus across the ideological spectrum that the upcoming presidential contest will hinge solely on the economy.

Unfortunately for Obama, the numbers don’t look good. Only 18,000 jobs were created in June, less than one-fifth the number expected by even the most conservative economists. No President has been reelected with the nation’s unemployment rate above 8% since FDR. Today it stands at 9.2% and inches higher every month. Private sector wages and salaries are at a thirteen-year low point when measured on a per capita basis. Gas prices are near $4 per gallon and forecasted to rise. US corporations are set to report the slowest earnings gain since the recession officially ended in the summer of 2009.

These economic doldrums are putting the electorate in a bad mood. According to Rasmussen polling, well over 60% of the American populace say the country is on the wrong track. While Obama’s approval numbers had remained relatively flat over the last year, his 46% approval rating in June was down 4% from one month earlier.

Political historians point out that Ronald Reagan and Harry Truman both had lower approval ratings at this stage in their presidencies before storming back to impressive reelection victories. However these same observers used historical data to forecast the 2010 midterms and predicted Obama’s 51% approval rating in November of that year would ensure the Democrats lost no more than 36 House seats.

Instead, Republicans picked up a net total of 63 thanks to their base’s 19-point enthusiasm advantage over their Democratic opponents, and Democrats appear to be just as deflated going into 2012 as they were in 2010. Liberal stalwarts Bernie Sanders and Dennis Kucinich have even gone so far as to float the idea of a primary challenge to Obama to rally the moribund Democratic base.

Although recent polling suggests the GOP electorate is less than thrilled over its own crop of candidates, Republicans have a long history of coalescing around their eventual nominee. When they ultimately do, the Tea Party’s zeal coupled with a sour economy could easily deliver them the White House. 

Throughout American political history, one party has dominated presidential elections for 30 years or more. Franklin Roosevelt reshaped the country by brilliantly convincing Southern conservatives and northeastern liberals to stand together for a generation. Ronald Reagan envisioned a nation of greatness and inspired a conservative army to fight like hell for it. In 2008, Obama’s victory was supposed to bring about a new Progressive Era.

Yet four years later the Democratic Party stands a very good chance of being completely out of power. If the Democrats do lose in 2012, how they respond to three critical questions will determine whether that period of progressivism truly is inevitable, or whether the Democratic Party squandered away a momentous opportunity.

Will They Hang Together? Democrats have a history of abandoning their political brethren when electoral times are tough. After Senator Thomas Eagleton stepped down as George McGovern’s running mate in 1972, McGovern spent several frantic days calling upon five prominent Democrats to replace the disgraced Eagleton.

Each one declined. McGovern went on to lose 49 states. Would anyone’s presence on the ticket have delivered Democrats the election? Undoubtedly, no. But their hesitation towards McGovern sent a strong message. If elected members of the Democratic Party couldn’t even stand behind their own nominee, how could the American people?

30-one years later Vermont Governor Howard Dean ignited the same progressive base of the party with fiery anti-Bush rhetoric. In the months leading up to the Iowa caucuses, Dean amassed humongous crowds of enthusiastic supporters and accumulated endorsements from Democratic heavyweights Al Gore, Bill Bradley, and Bruce Babbitt.

After finishing a disappointing third in Iowa, the throngs of supporters vanished. Rather than stick by their previous endorsements, the party’s heavyweights abandoned Dean. They saw another McGovern moment, and their desertion signaled to the progressive base that it should curb its enthusiasm. Liberals reluctantly shifted their focus onto Massachusetts Senator John Kerry, who failed to ignite the same passion and lost to George W. Bush in the general election. Dean later rebounded by leading the Democratic National Committee during the party’s 2006 and 2008 victories, but the rift between him and the party luminaries remains.

Democrats appear to be duplicating their previous missteps in the Age of Obama. It is already difficult to find full-throated administration defenders on any of the Sunday morning talk shows. As the election nears and in the absence of a surging economy, it is doubtful any Democratic elected official would be willing to put her reputation on the line for a doomed presidency. However, by studying the presidential election of 1976, Democrats could learn that by standing together – even in the face of an impending loss – the rebuilding process post-Obama will be much easier.

In the early summer of ’76 a Gallup poll showed incumbent President Gerald Ford trailing former Georgia Governor Jimmy Carter 62% to 29%. The country was in a bad mood from the scandals of the Nixon administration and the rampant inflation plaguing the economy. Voters thought the nation was on the wrong track.

The conservative ascendancy begun under Barry Goldwater and catalyzed by Richard Nixon looked deflated after former California Governor Ronald Reagan challenged the incumbent for the Republican nomination and lost. Nonetheless, after their Kansas City convention, the differing factions within the party put aside their differences and rallied around the President. The reinvigorated Ford campaign set to alter the mood of the nation by adopting the song, “I’m Feeling Good About America.”

His television ads emphasised American exceptionalism, and the desire for the country to be proud again. Suddenly the collective mood began to shift, and the race became too close to call leading up to Election Day. Even though Ford ended up losing 50% to 48%, his reinvigoration of the Republican Party set the stage for Ronald Reagan’s landslide victory that realigned American politics. 

Will Anyone Switch Parties? Over the last 30 years, Democrats haven’t just lost elections to Republicans, they’ve lost their membership to them as well. Texas Governor Rick Perry, former Mississippi Senator Trent Lott, and Alabama Senator Richard Shelby all once proudly called themselves Democrats. But as the party platforms evolved, and the South grew more conservative, it became expedient for these political creatures to switch parties.

After the 1994 midterms, Shelby and five Democrats in the House who had withstood the Newt Gingrich tidal wave nevertheless switched their party affiliation to the newly empowered GOP. The exodus has continued in recent years. Following the 2010 midterms, 24 state senators and representatives made the switch from Democrat to Republican in Louisiana, Mississippi, Alabama, Georgia and Texas including the former President of the College Democrats of America.

There are persistent rumours that West Virginia Senator Joe Manchin and Florida Senator Bill Nelson (both of whom face the voters in 2012) are being courted for a party switch. With 21 Democratic Senate seats to defend in the upcoming election, the GOP will almost certainly pick up the four needed to regain control. When that occurs, expect renewed focus on Manchin and Nelson as they contemplate remaining in the minority or joining the new Republican majority.

Here again is a lesson from 1976. Following Ford’s loss, it appeared the Republican Party would be in the political wilderness for years. Several members of the GOP considered forming a third party. At the height of the GOP’s despondency, Ronald Reagan was asked repeatedly whether it was time for him to leave the Republican Party.  “I do not believe the Republican Party is dead,” he wrote in response. “I believe the Republican Party represents basically the thinking of the people of this country, if we can get that message across to people. I’m going to try and do that.” Reagan rededicated himself to conservative principals, and spent the next four years convincing fence-straddling Republicans to recommit to the party. It remains to be seen whether any Democrat is persuasive enough to convince Manchin and Nelson to stay – assuming they win reelection – while the Democratic Party experiences its own nadir.

How Will They Rebuild? Two recent midterm elections showcase differing strategies the Democrats can pursue if they lose control of the Senate and White House in 2012. When Rahm Emmanuel was tasked with recapturing the House of Representatives for the Democrats in 2006, he recruited moderate candidates that would appeal to voters who were fed up with the missteps of the Bush administration but weren’t normally inclined to vote Democratic.

While the strategy was successful for Emmanuel, the influx of moderates proved difficult to herd for incoming Speaker Nancy Pelosi. As the party attempted to accomplish its decades-long goal of universal health coverage, it was infighting amongst Democrats – rather than the unified Republican opposition – that proved disastrous at each step of the process. Over 100 moderate Democrats, who dubbed themselves the New Democrat Coalition, joined forces with the Blue Dogs to oppose the President’s public option provision in the Affordable Care Act.

Once removed, many of these same members once again held up the legislation over Medicare reimbursement rates to rural hospitals. Congressman Bart Stupak of Michigan formed a coalition of pro-life Democrats to hold up the bill even longer over abortion language. By the time the Affordable Care Act finally passed in March 2010, it had become a Frankenstein of favours to win over moderate Democrats and public opinion had soured. While 34 of those moderate Democrats still voted against the bill, defying the party line couldn’t save 23 of them from losing their reelection bid that fall and delivering the House back to the Republicans.

Similar to the hurdles Democrats faced in 2006, the Republican Party was in need of serious rejuvenation in 2008. Not only had they lost control of all branches of government, they were facing a 60-vote Democratic supermajority in the Senate. Popular culture had turned against them as well. Immediately following Obama’s election, bookstores were flooded with hyperbole such as “The Death of Conservatism.” On May 18, 2009 Time magazine’s cover even depicted the GOP’s elephant mascot with the words: “Endangered Species” emblazoned over it.

While the media frenzied over the possible death of the Republican Party, there was one group who paid it little attention: the Republicans themselves. Instead of moderating their rhetoric like the Democrats had done two years earlier, Republicans claimed the party had been rejected not for being too conservative but for not being conservative enough.

The GOP relied on its political infrastructure (think tanks, conservative media, PACs) to rebuild almost overnight. Resistance to President Obama’s health care reform led to organised town hall disruptions by FreedomWorks. Fox News became the voice of the opposition, calling Obama a socialist and a bigger threat to the country than Nazi Germany. Conservative donors poured millions into 527 groups like American Crossroads that ran TV ads decrying the president as a left-wing extremist. Obama’s approval ratings from self-identified independents fell sharply, and the Republicans seized the opportunity to run a base campaign in the 2010 midterms without fear of offending the middle. The purity strategy paid off, as tea party candidates won handily, including in heavily Democratic districts. In just two years the GOP had created a conservative majority in the House to stand steadfast against President Obama’s agenda.

The recent Democratic majority proved to be a house of cards, and many liberal activists placed the blame on Emmanuel’s crusade for moderation. But as the Democratic Party studies the lessons of 2010, opinion polling dictates it may be impossible to build an ideologically pure majority of its own. After all, a plurality of American voters (42%) now call themselves “conservative” as compared to just 35% who say they are “moderate” and only 20% who say they are “liberal.” Thus Republicans have a much easier time forming a governing alliance than Democrats. How the Democratic Party builds a sustainable coalition following a potential electoral wipeout in 2012 is anyone’s guess.

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