The conventional wisdom on whether the shellacking experienced by the Democrats in the 2014 midterm elections was good for Hillary Clinton’s prospects is shifting slightly. It began even before the elections, when the writing was on the wall. “If Democrats lose the Senate, the 2016 Democratic nominee can run against Congress and Senate Democrats would be poised to recapture it in two years,” a senior Capitol Hill Democrat told TIME magazine’s Zeke Miller for an October 15 story.
Miller continued: “In Democrats’ telling, likely-candidate Hillary Clinton could run on a narrative of Republican obstruction to passing legislation on issues like income inequality, raising the minimum wage, and equal pay for women.” Indeed, President Obama’s attempts to run against a “do-nothing Congress” were always ridiculous, since the Democrats controlled the Senate, shut the GOP out of the process, and everything had to go through Harry Reid (and thus, Obama) to make it to the Senate floor. But once the Republicans actually won the Senate and controlled both houses of Congress, the thinking went, the fiction of a do-nothing Congress controlled by the other side becomes plausible.
After the election turned out even worse for Democrats than expected, this spin held steady. It was argued that when Democrats lost the race to succeed Maryland Governor Martin O’Malley, it weakened an already shaky prospective challenger to Clinton. And as one Democratic operative told the Washington Post, Republicans would likely spend the next two years trying to undo some of the Obama administration’s handiwork, enabling Hillary to “both make the case against the Republicans while currying favor with the Obama base.”
As time went on, however, the Democrats’ attempts to spin the loss caused a clash of two self-soothing narratives. The idea that a Republican majority could help Hillary be the savior in 2016 ran up against the White House’s preferred narrative: that the low turnout of the midterms compared to presidential elections meant the Democrats really didn’t have a crisis on their hands. They didn’t need a savior because, they argued, demographics still favored them in presidential years. That meant that not only were they in good shape for 2016, but that a good turnout could give them back the Senate only two years after losing it.
Such consolation was temporary, however, when Democrats realized the implications of their spin: gridlock, not liberal triumph. After all, if they would struggle in midterm congressional elections, it meant they could kiss their emerging Democratic majority goodbye. All of a sudden it didn’t matter quite so much if 2014 was good for Hillary’s 2016 hopes: they already held a built-in advantage in presidential elections. And yet, here’s the situation in which they found themselves the morning after, as the Washington Post reported:
While the GOP is likely to control 54 percent of all Senate seats and 56 percent (or so) of the House come January, it also will now control more than two-thirds of state legislative chambers across the country — as in nearly seven in 10. And given Republicans also won at least 31 governorships, they are basically in control of the state government in 24 states. That could soon hit 25 if they win the still-undetermined governor’s race in Alaska.
That meant, according to the WaPo, “47.8 percent of Americans will now be led by GOP-controlled governments with little/no ability for Democrats to thwart them. …Democrats, meanwhile, will govern unilaterally in states with just 15.6 percent of Americans — less than one-sixth of the country. And that’s with the nation’s biggest state, California, firmly in their back pocket. Without that, they would govern over just 3.5 percent (less than one-25th) of the nation’s residents.”
The new spin was that Democrats had to find some way to animate their base so they could chip away at local Republican dominance. One way to do that would be to draft a challenger to Hillary Clinton from the left. There are not many to choose from after Elizabeth Warren, who almost certainly isn’t running. Jim Webb isn’t a threat to Hillary, and neither is the self-described socialist Bernie Sanders. What to do?
A better idea, as Noam Scheiber points out in a smart piece for the New Republic, is to expand the coalition. That’s what Republicans did to win these midterms so resoundingly. Democrats need to win back some–not all, nor even most, just some–white working-class voters, Scheiber writes. Democrats’ ability to do so has deteriorated because the populism that appeals to some of their voters repels other voters, and the same goes for social issues.
What can Democrats do to solve this puzzle? Scheiber has good news: once again, it’s a problem that is in the process of solving itself. Thus:
there’s a coalition available to Democrats that knits together working class minorities and college-educated voters and slices heavily into the GOP’s margins among the white working class. … The basis of the coalition isn’t a retreat from social progressivism, but making economic populism the party’s centerpiece, as opposed to the mix of mildly progressive economic policies (marginally higher taxes on the wealthy, marginally tougher regulation of Wall Street) and staunchly progressive social policies that define the party today.
Scheiber raises one glaring weakness in this strategy: Hillary’s not a great fit for the role. And that, in the end, tells us why Democrats will end up with Hillary anyway, and that even if she doesn’t give them their permanent majority she’s still their best choice. The Democrats don’t have anyone on their bench who is both a populist firebrand and can win. So we’re back to square one: Democrats can run a populist from Hillary’s left. Hillary will mimic whatever populism she needs to, even though she doesn’t mean it, to win the nomination. And the Occupy Democrats will recede back into irrelevance.