It’s an election year and the Republican Party seems to be falling apart. This is potentially a rare opportunity for the Democrats to follow eight years of Barack Obama with another president who can consolidate the Obama legacy, place a few liberal Justices on the Supreme Court, and change the long-term direction of American politics. Unfortunately, the Democrats have chosen this very year of opportunity to follow the Republicans into self-destruct mode, making it more likely than not that the person taking the oath of office on January 20, 2017 will be a Republican.
Here are the reasons for this gloomy prediction.
The history of American politics since the death of Franklin Roosevelt is that the American people are reluctant to allow a party to continue in the White House after two terms. Though this history is based on a relatively small sample, it is quite consistent. The two-term (and effectively two-term) presidencies of Truman, Eisenhower, Johnson, Nixon and George W. Bush were all followed by party flips in the White House, with Reagan providing the only exception. The reason why 2016 looked likely to be another exception was that the Republican Party was in obvious disarray at the national level, not only because of major challenges in governance, credibility, social policies and demographics, but also because of a primary battle of epic violence. This suggested that a well-organized and articulate Democrat with broadly popular policies would be able to offer an attractive alternative and get elected. And just such a candidate seemed to be available in Hillary Clinton, who was both the most qualified and the most thoroughly vetted Presidential candidate in recent history. A Democrat with clear policies and broad appeal running against a Republican bloodied by months of brawling in the primaries and hobbled by the resentments of voters who had supported their rivals would be in an excellent position to win. However, that is not what has happened. The primary fight between Clinton and Senator Bernie Sanders, which started out looking to be a side-show, has created a fraught situation for Democrats, and revealed some disturbing facts.
First, instead of one party in meltdown and the other offering plausible solutions, we now have both parties in turmoil. To be sure, the melee on the Republican side is far more destructive, and the Democrats are both still grounded in issues rather than personal invective, but that is just detail. The average voter, in their few seconds of lucidity between watching sports and hanging out on Instagram only sees the brawl, and is likely to conclude that the parties are “the same” – a pox on both their houses! This only benefits the party that has no ideas to offer.
Second, by the time the Democratic primaries settle down, both candidates will be so bloodied and – more importantly – their supporters so charged, that the victory of one will inevitably cause great dejection in the other camp. This is especially true because the losing candidate may well end up with a substantial tally of primary delegates. Of course, this also happened in 2008, but there are significant differences this time. The losing candidate in 2008 – Hillary Clinton – was able to deliver her voters to Obama, but that will be more difficult for both sides this time because of the level of passions already aroused. There was also the financial crisis and the extreme unpopularity of George W. Bush to propel any Democratic candidate that year. And most importantly, Obama himself was an exceptional candidate who was able to excite all the constituencies of the Democratic electorate in his own right, and pull in other groups that might otherwise have sat out the election or voted Republican. That is arguably not true of Sanders, and probably not of Clinton. It still looks more likely that Clinton will win the Democratic primary, but the primaries have revealed the very disturbing fact that, in spite of superficial appeal, Hillary Clinton’s image among a significant section of the Democratic electorate is quite negative. These voters have essentially bought into the stereotyping propaganda that the Right-Wing attack machine has pushed about the Clintons for almost a quarter century. The fact that many of these voters are too young to remember the roots of that propaganda and its culmination in the Clinton impeachment battle makes it especially hard to counteract the negative stereotype of the “corrupt Hillary”. Unfortunately, those Democratic voters who have accepted this viewpoint – rightly or wrongly – are never going to become enthusiastic Clinton supporters, making it unlikely that she would get the kind of “wave” support that carried Obama to election in 2008 and 2012. An election between an angry Republican Party and an apathetic Democratic Party is more likely to look like an off-year election such as 2010 or 2014, and will almost certainly produce Republican gains in Congress and a Republican President.
Another important factor is the resources that would be available to Hillary Clinton as a general election candidate. While money from billionaires is always welcome, national campaigns must rely largely on small contributions from a large number of supporters. The pool of such contributions is not unlimited. As more of these contributions go now into the Sanders and Clinton primary campaigns – and thence into the coffers of television networks and campaign consultants – less remains available for the general election campaign. If Hillary Clinton gets to the nomination with a large fraction of Democratic contributors tapped out, that will be a huge liability for her – especially against a candidate like Trump, who can spend from his own resources, or against a Republican machine candidate such as Bush or Rubio.
But what if Sanders wins the nomination?
There are several good reasons why, in spite of his unexpectedly brilliant campaign and his obvious appeal to young voters, most analysts do not think that Bernie Sanders could win a general election. There is, of course, the obvious impediment of his “socialist” label, which will hurt him with certain voter groups in crucial states such as Ohio, Florida and Virginia – states that Obama needed to win the presidency. Were the GOP to nominate Trump or Cruz, most moderates and even many Republicans could well consider voting for Hillary Clinton, or at least sitting out the election and let her be elected as “the lesser evil”. A self-avowed “socialist” as the Democratic nominee could motivate many of them to hold their noses and vote for Trump or Cruz under the same logic. The young voters who are currently driving the Sanders campaign probably will turn out in larger numbers, but that is unlikely to be enough to overcome his liabilities. Also, young voters are notoriously fickle, and counting on a huge youth turnout has usually been a losing proposition in US elections.
If Sanders wins the nomination, he would probably have used up even more of his financial resource base than Clinton, and would probably run into serious money problems. Because of his anti-corporate rhetoric, he already begins with a much smaller pool of potential funds, and a few early polls showing him trailing the Republican nominee will quickly cool the enthusiasm of any prospective big money donors. Small donors may keep contributing, but the $20 million a month that has worked wonders in the primary is chump change in the main event.
But beyond all these nuts-and-bolts factors, there is a bigger impediment for a successful Sanders campaign: Its logic. Sanders has been running on the idea that things are not going well for ordinary people and big changes must be made. That would work well if the current incumbent in the White House was a Republican. It is exactly the argument Obama made against George W. Bush. The problem for Sanders is that the current White House incumbent is not only a Democrat, but probably the Democrat most idolized by the base of the Democratic Party. Any major critique of the current economy is, indirectly but quite obviously, a critique of President Obama. That will not sit well with many Democrats. But without this critique, the Sanders campaign loses its central message. Indeed, this issue has already caused some problems for Sanders, and Hillary Clinton has been working hard to position herself as the protector of the Obama legacy. President Obama himself seems to agree with this, and has implicitly expressed his support for her candidacy on more than one occasion recently. If Sanders ends up being the nominee, he will have great difficulty arguing simultaneously that President Obama is leaving a shining legacy and that the country has gone to hell with corrupt fat cats controlling politicians like puppet-masters. After all, the Obama campaign was the recipient of great campaign largesse from Wall Street donors, he did appoint Tim Geithner as his first Treasury Secretary, and no major bankers went to jail on his watch. Senator Sanders has tried to argue that such facts indicate corruption, but if so, he will be hard pressed to deny that the corruption extends to Barack Obama – an obvious liability for the Sanders campaign. As the primary fight proceeds, Clinton will make sure that every Democratic voter understands Sanders’ logical dilemma, making it even more difficult for him to motivate the traditional Democratic base in November.
To summarize, here is the situation that the Democrats face. In an election where the opposition looks to be in trouble, the Democratic candidate most likely to get nominated generates limited enthusiasm within the party, while the one with enthusiasm on his side faces serious impediments and must run as an outsider against his own party’s beloved president. Neither option is very promising from a Democratic viewpoint, making a Republican president more likely than not. Of course, given the unpredictable presence of Donald Trump in the mix, it is impossible to be sure of anything. Many Democrats hope that his nomination – if it happens – will so horrify all sensible voters (i.e., all non-Tea Partiers) that they will vote for the Democratic candidate by commission or omission. This may well have been a valid argument once, but the Democratic primary is making it less so every day by diminishing the appeal of the realist candidate and highlighting the Quixotic romanticism of the other.
One may also ask how all this affects the long-term prospects of the Democratic Party. In a very perceptive piece, Matt Yglesias of Vox.com recently argued that the Sanders campaign presages the future of the Democratic Party. Based on the immense enthusiasm generated by Sanders’ unabashed liberalism, Yglesias concludes that Sanders is likely to play the role that Reagan played for the Republicans in 1976 – losing the nomination, but shifting the ethos of his party to the right, which helped propel him to the White House in 1980. Similarly, Yglesias suggests, the Sanders campaign could move the Democratic Party to the left, and make it a more enduringly liberal party in the coming decades. In a broad sense, this thesis is probably correct, but some caution is in order. It is well to remember that the Reagan candidacy in 1976 was a major factor in Ford losing the presidential election, and the same could happen to Clinton if she is the Democratic nominee. In 1976, Reagan was young enough to reap the rewards of his revolution by running and winning four years later. Sanders, who is already 74, will have to leave this task to someone else such as Elizabeth Warren. Also, the rightward move of the Republican Party may have consolidated its power for some time, but also led directly to the hyper-ideological mindset that has produced the modern Tea Party and is destroying the party from within. The same sort of mindlessness can take root on the left over time. The largely young and white voters powering the Sanders campaign are not the only forces moving the party. An even bigger factor is the increasing importance of non-white voters who, while they support specific liberal positions, may not be as persuaded by the Sanders ethos. Liberalism – or “progressivism”, to use the currently polite appellation – is too diffuse a label, encompassing several subcultures within itself. How the many identity groups that comprise today’s Democratic “big tent” interact to form the core agenda of the new Democratic Party – or even if these identity groups survive as such – is unanswerable at this time. All that can be said is that this is a moment of transformation for the Democratic Party as much as it is for the Republicans. The Democratic transformation is likely to be more constructive in the long run, but it may exact a high short-term price in terms of a lost election and a lost chance to reshape the Supreme Court.
Chess players and mountain climbers know that, in order to win a game or reach the highest peak, one must be willing to lose pieces and occasionally move downhill. For decades now, large segments of the Democratic electorate have yearned for a more progressive party. The reason many serious liberals such as Rep. Keith Ellison, Ta-Nehisi Coates and Ben Jealous are willing to support Bernie Sanders is that they see the promise of a better Democratic Party with a new generation of supporters in the long-term. Perhaps they sense that it will be difficult for a Democrat to win the 2016 election anyway, and the opportunity might as well be used for strategic transformation. What they are missing, however, is the degree to which such thinking can become a self-fulfilling prophecy whose fulfillment will create its own unwelcome long-term consequences. History is almost all contingency, and those who try to shape the long-term by glossing over the near-future often find themselves stranded in the wrong timeline.