Thinking Past November

Over the past three decades, for how many years have Democrats held the White House and both houses of Congress? The answer is four. Those would be the first two years of the Bill Clinton administration and the first two years of the Barack Obama administration. This is a big reason we can’t have nice things.

The 1994 midterm elections are still spoken of as the “Republican Revolution,” or sometimes the “Gingrich Revolution.” The GOP picked up 54 seats in the House and 8 in the Senate, which flipped both houses. Democrats briefly took the Senate back in 2001, when Senator James Jeffords of Vermont switched from the Republican to the Democratic party, giving the Dems 50 seats. In October 2002 Democratic Senator Paul Wellstone of Minnesota died in a plane crash, and an independent was appointed to replace him. Then a special election in November flipped another Senate seat, and the Republicans had the majority again.

The 2006 midterms were a triumph for Democrats, who took back both the House and the Senate for George W. Bush’s final two years. (The Senate actually had a 49 to 49 seat tie, but the two independent senators, Lieberman and Sanders, caucused with Democrats.)  But after Obama was elected, Republicans took back the House in the 2010 midterms and the Senate in 2014.

It’s true that most of the time the executive and legislative branches are at least partly divided between the two parties. But Congress was solidly Republican for five years of George W. Bush’s tenure and for the first two years of Trump’s occupation of the White House, giving Republicans a much freer hand in wrecking the country.

Another set of numbers that I bring up from time to time: During the Obama Administration the Democratic Party lost a net total of 13 governorships and a whopping 816 state legislative seats, along with 12 and 64 seats in the U.S. Senate and House, respectively. Although there is much nostalgia for the Obama years, those numbers ought to tell us there was trouble a-brewin’ then.

I bring this up because, along with defeating Trump, we absolutely must also break the Dems’ congressional curse. That means taking both houses of Congress in November and keeping them through the 2022 midterms and beyond.

Paul Starr writes in WaPo:

This is the core problem for the party today: finding the leadership and policies that not only win in 2020 but also increase support instead of dampening it and igniting the opposition.

“Big, structural reforms,” to use Elizabeth Warren’s phrase, require sustained power. The federal government is riddled with “veto points” — opportunities for blocking change in Congress, the courts and the states that create a bias in favor of the status quo. The life tenure of Supreme Court justices and slow turnover of the Senate also put a brake on change.

Large-scale change requires Democrats to do what they did in the 1930s and 1960s and have been unable to do since — win a series of elections, build both popular and judicial majorities, and fundamentally alter not just individual policies but also the basic understanding of government’s role.

If Democrats want to effectively address income inequality, climate change, voter suppression, and other critical issues, they will need to do more than defeat Trump. They will need to control both houses of Congress also, and they will need to keep that control through the 2022 midterms and beyond. They will need more than two years to get sustainable programs and policies up and running.

Paul Glastris wrote in Washington Monthly awhile back,

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.)

One of the reasons I support the more progressive candidates is that I believe they will push harder to do something in those critical first two years of the next Democratic administration. And I hope also that next Democratic president will put a lot of effort into explaining to the people what the administration is doing.

It’s true that Barack Obama got the Affordable Care Act passed in his first two years, after a hard fight. But one of his failures — and this is a bit hard to understand, given his considerable talents as a speaker — is that he allowed news media and the Republican opposition to frame and explain the ACA and use it against him in the 2010 midterms.  And then he was boxed in for the rest of his tenure in office.

A significant cause of the midterm loss in 2010 was that young voters failed to turn up at the polls. John Nichols wrote in The Nation:

In 2008, polls showed that young people were overwhelmingly supportive of Obama and the Democrats. And they turned out in droves. According to the research group CIRCLE—The Center for Information & Research on Civic Learning and Engagement—which tracks civic engagement among young voters, 51 percent of 18- to-19-year-olds voted that year.

In 2010, polls showed that young people were still supportive of Obama and the Democrats. But only 20.9 percent of them bothered to vote.

It’s worth reading what Nichols wrote back in 2010 about why the young folks stayed home. In brief, the Dems either did not address issues of concern to younger people, or when they did make some progress on those issues, they failed to communicate what had been accomplished.

And, as I remember, the DCCC and DSCC did a bang-up job running white-bread centrists in 2010 who provided little contrast with Republicans for too many offices. “About two dozen moderate to conservative Democrats in the House of Representatives were defeated this week, leaving a more liberal party in Washington,” McClatchy reported. Naturally, this persuaded the Democrats to keep doubling down on centrists in the next election cycles.

Oh, and did I mention that during the Obama Administration the Democratic Party lost a net total of 13 governorships and a whopping 816 state legislative seats, along with 12 and 64 seats in the U.S. Senate and House, respectively? I believe I did.

Democrats will need to control government for a sustained amount of time to undo the damage Republicans have done and to show America that they can make government work for the people and not the powerful. Plus a few years out in the wildnerness would be a powerful incentive to Republicans to kick out the whackjobs and start behaving like a responsible political party in a representative democracy again.

My fear is that even if we defeat Trump in November, if we don’t control both houses of Congress we’ll face bigger defeats in the midterms. And if we don’t show some real progress to the American people, the next Republican president and Congress could be even more despotic and corrupt than what we have now. They’ve been going from bad to worse, you might have noticed.

I have some quibbles with Paul Starr’s column, as he seems still too cautious to me, favoring “incremental moderates” over “transformational progressives.” “Incremental” to me has become a code word for “invisible to everyone outside the Beltway.” If we achieve a takeover in 2020, it will not be time to play it safe. Dems will have two years to show people what they can do. It had better be good.

21 thoughts on “Thinking Past November

  1. Said in a different context but no less true here; "Incremental progress yields excremental results".

  2. "Good?"  "Good" won't cut it, maha.

    It'll have to be great!

    The biggest problem, at least as I see it, is the means of propaganda available to the RepubliKKKLANS/KKKonservatives (in no particular order):  Fux "news," Reich-wing talk radio, Drudge, internet KKKeyboard KKKommando

    's, social media, Editorial and Op-ed pages in print mediums, etc…

    All, ALL, of these will focus their evil, un-American, anti-humane powers of "persuasion" on the Democrat's efforts.

    I'm very pessimistic.

    Maybe the only solution is mutual secession. 

    We'd better start at least thinking of how to effectively separate Red from Blue areas (don't ask me how, that would be well above my intellectual capability and job description).

    Without a secession plan for both sides, there may be a lot of violence.  Maybe even another civil war.  What form that might take, I have no clue.

    The White Evangelical "Christians" (WEC) feel like cornered rats.  They feel more and more estranged from the present-day America; let alone how they'd feel about the America we liberals/progressives want to see: a more secular, more inclusive, less polarized, less bigoted nation.   

    I hope I'm being overly pessimistic.

    Someone walk me off this ledge, please.

    • Too pessimistic.  Hogwash.  Believe in the power of positive pessimism.  It is the era of diminished expectations.  Setting the bar too high just means you will be disappointed more often.  

  3. Good post, Maha. FDR did a lot but it was over a period of over a decade when Dems maintained majorities in Congress. Nothing meaningful is done overnight. 

    Obama had a huge popular following which propelled him to the White House BUT, (IMO) Obama didn't use the army he'd assembled to get elected after he was in office. Obama followed the advice of experts like Rahm and played beltway moderate (leaving the army substantially disengaged – they got bored and left.) Contrast with Trump who has never stopped doing rallies for the faithful (and they have never left.) "Dance with the one that brung 'ya."

    Dems (in the Clinton rut) deliver results for their donor class usually at the expense of meaningful results. That's beltway politics, played by both parties and it's why young voters don't give a damn about politics. They get screwed over either way.

    Maintaining power over the long haul means peeling away a fraction of GOP opposition. Democrats need to deliver working rural medical care (IMO a federally run clinic system designed to meet medical needs in bright red communities. The commercial profit-run system is failing and will fail to deliver big bucks for corporations in low-density towns. Deliver socialized medicine that works and ask in elections if they want to return to a GOP failed system.  

    Make farm subsides work for the SMALL farm – kill the farm subsidies for super-corporations and make it possible for a small farm to survive. (The federal government is funding the extermination of the small farm.)  A way of life in rural America is dying – the corporate ag model is not a natural replacement of family farms. Mega-farms are a federally-subsidized takeover but big-ag contributes to both parties. 

    Democrats have better solutions for the problems in rural America. Failing to deliver those solutions feeds the narrative that Dems hate everyone out of the big cities. Rural Americans are being stabbed by GOP politics but Dems are feeding the resentment by being the party of city folks.

    • Big YES to all.  I'd add in publicly owned Rural fast Internet, framed as modern version of FDR's Rural Electrification. 

  4. Barbara, all good stuff and all true but you left out one key element both political and historical.  When Obama took office he fired Howard Dean as chair of the Party and with it his 50-State strategy.  Party insiders did not like being told they had to start investing in red States if they wanted a chance to win nationwide.  Historically, Dems have chosen to invest their campaign funds only in States where they felt they had a chance to win.  This meant ignoring traditional red States like Alabama, Georgia et al in the South and in the Midwest and the West as well.  Anywhere known as Republican country got little to no support from the national Party.

    So what happened was inevitable.  By not running any serious candidates in those States the Dems conceded them to the Republicans.  By not having serious challengers the Republican Party began to see ever more extreme candidates energizing their primary voters and chasing out any possibility of reasonable moderate Republicans of the type Democrats had worked with for decades with some success.  So we wind up with Jordan and Nunes and McSally and a host of other full on crazy pants candidates who wind up in the House and Senate.   In addition, a clear message was sent, if you are a Republican and want to keep getting elected you have to toe our extremist line because we, the extremists, control these elections now.

    Maybe Dems wouldn't have won in those States but if they had run legitimate candidates, supported by the national Party, Republicans would have been discouraged from running the real crazies, at the very least, and if they did anyway Dems would  have had a better chance of capturing a seat they hadn't expected (Stacy Abrams is one example)

    Basically, if they want us to vote, nationwide, they have to give us real candidates.  If they continue to fail at this going forward we will never again take the House and Senate in the same cycle in the future and may never again take the Senate at all.

    • “When Obama took office he fired Howard Dean as chair of the Party and with it his 50-State strategy (etc).” Of course, but that wasn’t the beginning of the process of abandoning the “red” states. That abandonment was well underway long before Howard Dean became chair of the DNC. To get the whole story, IMO, you have to go back to the 1970s and 1980s when the “New Democrats” rose in the party and began to abandon labor unions. Dean’s policy was an attempt to reverse something that had already happened. And in a way, it failed; the blue dogs elected under Dean’s tenure may have called themselves Democrats but they were right-wingers, and they did a lot of damage. Some of them were the biggest holdups to the Affordable Care Act.

      • Oh, I agree about the history going back further.  My point about Dean was that he was serious about the plan, getting rid of him was really the establishment Dems cracking down on that plan, and it was the last chance we had to start rebuilding a national Party that was willing to compete in all States.

        And yes, that plan would mean conservative Dems got elected but that might not always be the case.  Once Democrats get a reasonable foothold in a State it increases the likelihood of getting more progressive candidates over time, especially if more progressive policies prove beneficial, which I believe they would.

        Also, Dems would likely lose at first and that's OK.  Being afraid to lose is a way to guarantee never winning.  Respect all voters enough to compete in their States and they'll remember that if the candidates are good enough (not a certainty of course).

        But the initial benefit, I believe, would be to make it harder for wingnut candidates to get elected because their primary electorate is so reactionary.  That alone would make it worth it since putting a crazy Republican up against a sane, even if conservative, Democrat will generally work to Democrats' favor over time.


  5. "One of the reasons I support the more progressive candidates is that I believe they will push harder to do something in those critical first two years of the next Democratic administration."

    Absolutely. How can we even pretend there's a workable "center" between American values and Trumpism's lawless, authoritarian, plutocratic scheme? Whenever Democratic candidates claim they'll "heal the country" or "work with Republicans" they sound like they're parroting some old, out-of-touch consultant like James Carville. It's as if these people didn't notice Bill Clinton was impeached for lying about a personal dalliance, Hillary was "investigated" over the same bogus accusations repeatedly, Trump got his foot in the White House door with birtherism, etc.

    The idea of "red" and "blue" states is vastly overused and at this point is a means to divide and conquer. The real division is mostly between urban and rural areas. It's only true to the extent that some states have more of one than the other. Howard Dean was right.

    Propaganda also has limits. It works most effectively on authoritarian personalities because they have low defenses against paranoid ideas like Obama being a foreigner, Trump being hunted by the "deep state" and so on. Trump's talent for salesmanship adds to the numbers, but it's unlikely they'll ever be a majority. "Mainstream" media should also be viewed with skepticism. They are, after all, money making enterprises first and foremost.

    Trump's "fake it 'till you make it" style of discouraging opposition also has limits. He wants us to think he's invulnerable and inevitable. In fact he's one of the weakest presidents we've had, despite all his abuses of power. His most effective strengths are knowing how to play not only on his zombie hordes' insecurities, but ours too; identifying people who lack character to surround himself with, and wearing down the judgement of almost everyone by constantly repeating nonsense.  Despite it all, if we make up our minds to beat him and the ruined Republican party to a pulp, we will.


  6. I agree with much of what Doug and Tom said.  Even though I have been thoroughly focused on the horror of what we call "Trumpism" unfolding since 2017, lately my attention has shifted to the Senate.  Even if Trump is a one-term president, without taking majority control in the Senate, we remain screwed.  If the Dems get the White House in the 2020 election, we can clean up the administrative branch, but without a change in Senate control, nothing that needs to get done to restore our democratic republic will be possible. (Mr. Grim Reaper).

    In order to accomplish this, we need to get the Dem party to move away from policy and toward values. We need to stop quibbling about which presidential candidate has the best policies and focus on the values. That is the only way to have a country-wide coalition that can include every Senator candidate across the spectrum from Doug Jones to Bernie Sanders.  The USA is a huge country, a diverse country. A party that wants to compete in 50 states needs to articulate values and what we stand for in those terms.

  7. It’s true that Barack Obama got the Affordable Care Act passed in his first two years, after a hard fight. But one of his failures — and this is a bit hard to understand, given his considerable talents as a speaker — is that he allowed news media and the Republican opposition to frame and explain the ACA and use it against him in the 2010 midterms.

    You're not the first person I've seen say this, much like I see people say that Hillary Clinton "allowed" the e-mail server issue to continue to dog her throughout the election cycle.

    I won't argue with what anyone "allowed" to happen, but someday, people are also going to report that the Democrats "allowed" Donald Trump to remain President for his entire term, and even maintain a >40% approval rating; they'll similarly describe the actions covering for his crimes and aiding and abetting from positions of strength and victory.

    Let's agree to disagree on whether Obama could have aced the ACA marketing, if he'd focused on it sufficiently. I still think that the framing of that as a failure – he failed to anticipate or adequately respond to people – is like the passive voice, in that it hides the real action. "Obama failed to respond in an adequate manner…" yes, but "… to unbelievably vicious; and extraordinarily bad faith; attacks on the ACA, that included extraordinary self-inflicted financial, and general welfare, wounds by Republican governors."

    The Republicans were (and continue to be) willing to let people die to score their political points, and insist that it's a good thing that people are dying, and claim it's vile and horrible to call them on their cruelty.

    Even if we agreed that Obama was the  world's most epic failure in countering that sort of response, the strength and sheer hatefulness of it is still left out of the story, and it's the most important part of the story.

    • Much more could have been done by Obama to explain and defend the ACA directly to the American people. That was clear to me at the time, and it's still clear to me. I'm sorry you don't see it. 

      • That more could have been done is true – the question is, would it have been enough, or would it have been wasted effort?

        There's a very subtle bit of misdirection being played on the American people, a mixture of argumentum ad populum, and appeal to authority.

        What do I mean by that? Well, the following statement is *FALSE*:

        If enough people, who profess authority, proclaim an idea, or policy, is  good, we should consider that idea valuable.

        Again, that is a *FALSE* statement. It seems reasonable, because it's missing something.

        If enough *honest* people, who profess authority, proclaim an idea, or policy, is good, we should consider the idea valuable (not *correct* – just valuable).

        The problem with the Republican Party of today is, they have no essential honesty. They'll say that the ACA is terrible, and a complete failure. Why? Costs are rising (they always are), premiums are rising (they always are), there are problems (there always are).

        The ACA extended Medicare's lifetime by a decade – that is, the Medicaid fund would be solvent for an additional decade, because of the ACA. The GOP response? "The ACA slashes Medicare!"

        The ACA provided Medicaid expansion which would be a great blessing to rural areas, bringing in new money to provide health care to the most vulnerable residents of every state. Republican governors generally turned it down, harming their own citizens, and their state's economies, claiming it was a terrible law, because they wanted to erase a major Democratic victory.

        Could Obama have done more? Sure! But would it have worked? If Obama says that there are millions of more insured people, and lives are being saved, would the GOP have let that go out unchallenged, or would they have engaged in a full court press to call Obama a fearsome liar and cheat? (Remember: they already called him that over everything he did!)

        Would trying to have helped the ACA have kept the GOP attacks in the news that much longer, building up a stronger case for a GOP-led "repeal and replace" movement?

        *Especially* since the benefits kicked in slowly, over a course of several years, there was a lot more bad news that could be reported early on. So, while we agree that more could have been done, could we not agree that we really don't know if it would have helped, in the face of such a dishonest set of attacks? Better outreach and education would definitely have helped if the GOP had a bit of good faith, but they didn't and don't. They were going to attack, with partial truths and outright lies, regardless.

        And it's always easier to get people to believe lies about something with obvious flaws than to tell them (and get them to believe) the truth.

  8. "Incrementalism" is a dodge. Incremental change is what you settle for; it's not what you aim for. And the day after you achieve that incremental change, you start agitating for another big change the next day.

  9. Long-haired Weirdo, you said something very valuable. Obama was opposed for his mere existence as a black man.  There was a Republican Senator who had been his friend, he thought, who he offered a post. He was then backstabbed by the guy.  That should have been taken as the warning it was, and as the predictor it was of just how far the Republicans would go to oppose anything Obama tried to accomplish.  Trump is playing his base like a drum.  Two pardons today, Milken and Blageoivitch or however you spell corruption.  Why did he do that? To signal his complete domination of the Judicial/Justice.  The fact that these will be seen as positives to his base is clear evidence that facts do not matter as long as he is seen as sticking it to the liberal man, liberal meaning anyone going by the law and not stealing. Thus they now feel they could get away with doing what they really want to do.


  10. Calling Obama a failure seems a bit harsh. Considering the mess he inherited from Duhbya, he was amazingly successful. It's possible the right wing backlash he created by being the first black president and accomplishing the first major progressive legislation since LBJ's Great Society would have been impossible to overcome even if the DNC weren't a nest of capitulating cowards.

    Progressive times are rare in America, but we're currently living in conditions similar to those of the most notable:


    • Obama's a mix of intense Republican opposition, but also he really wasn't a progressive. He had no interest in moving outside of his centrist comfort zone.

      When I see photos of him now, post presidency, I see someone who did the best he could, but it sadly wasn't enough. And he doesn't care – he had no intention of moving the country leftward. You could almost say of him there’s no there there.

      • He's a third way centrist, but he did actually deliver on some progressive programs, unlike Bill Clinton, who was reactionary by comparison. It was disappointing the administration never really took on Wall St., but they did make some progress on civil rights and health care.

  11. Excellent article Maha, the best I've ever read on how we got here.  The comments hit on every point I would jave made in response.

    I felt the same as many did after 2008.  I fully expected, as head of the party, that he would nurture the coalition that got him elected and build on the the small donor fundraising machine he had built, and use it to move the party away from its heavy reliance on corporate and wealthy donors.  Appealing to the youth vote required progressive policies that the donors the democrats decided to rely on didnt favor, and the rest is history as they say. 

    I see the same thing playing out again, with the bumbling attempts to undercut Sanders and his supporters.  I saw that since NH, he's had five rallies drawing 50,000 people, with 17,000 showing up in WA. He raised $25 million in January on small donations and $100 million last year.  I don't believe all the claptrap about electability, likeability, etc. Hes proven all that wrong.  I believe what we're seeing is a replay of 2009 in a sense, where party leadership wants to maintain control and is fighting this time, to keep progressives and unfortunately their voters at bay.  


  12. I know these aren't necessarily in the country's best interests, but here's what I want:

    1. indictments, lots of them,

    2. impeachment of Brett Kavanaugh,

    3. undoing EVERY one of Trump's vile executive orders;

    and these proposed Constitutional Amendments which are absolutely in the country's best interest:

    1. to nullify Citizens United & Buckley v Valeo,

    2. to deny personhood to all but actual persons,

    3. to abolish or seriously redesign the electoral college, and

    4. to impose term limits on Supreme Court justices (if not all federal judges).

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