2016 Election: Dems in Disarray

The Briefing, Vol. IV, Issue 48: The Democrats
  • Dems struggle after another bench-clearing loss
  • Tim Ryan is the answer to no one’s prayers
  • Dems chose the wrong target audience

As Republicans consider their new opportunities, Democrats are left thinking about how to pick up the pieces. Their loss, as completely unexpected as it was, was all the more devastating. And not just at the presidential level, but all the way down.

In the U.S. Senate, where they were favored to seize control, they came up far short, gaining only two seats, one of them by about 1,000 votes. But this week we look to the House, where Democrats were already expected to come up short. And they came up far, far shorter than had been expected.

They were supposed to gain at least 15 seats, even by our assumptions, putting them within much easier striking distance for the 2018 midterm. But when the last district is decided in a Louisiana runoff next month, they will have gained only six seats.

Democrats also lost the national popular vote for House by about 3.3 million votes, despite having fielded about half a dozen more candidates than the GOP nationwide, and despite running behind a presidential candidate who won the national popular vote.

And so House Democrats, restlessly suffering with one of their smallest minorities since the Coolidge era (the only smaller one being during the Congress now ending), are questioning whether it is wise to keep the same leaders who won them a majority ten years ago but have since plunged them back into the wilderness.

House Leadership race: When you lose, you need to find someone or something to blame. Whether it is the CIB121014-Pelosifault of House minority leader Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., or not (we will argue below that it isn’t, at least not directly), the party has a real perception problem in that its congressional leadership will consist of “both kinds” of Democrat — New York City and San Francisco. Do they want to continue along this path, given the results up to now? Or do they want to let their elder leaders step aside and inject some younger blood? 

Rep. Tim Ryan, D-Ohio, is is Pelosi’s challenger. But he had picked up only three public endorsements from members as of Friday, all of them from junior and back-bench House Democrats.

Ryan is far from the ideal vessel for Democrats’ frustrations with Pelosi’s leadership. He has been mostly a do-nothing back-bencher since he was elected to replace the late Rep. Jim Traficant in 2002. He has never chaired an important committee, sought a leadership post, or done anything terribly newsworthy during his entire time in Congress, aside from writing a book on food (which might be good, we haven’t read it).

There is one point in Ryan’s favor: He represents precisely the kind of district where Hillary Clinton just lost enough of the Democratic white working-class base to lose five Midwestern states that Obama carried and their 54 electoral votes. Trump came within three points of carrying heavily Democratic Mahoning County, which Mitt Romney had lost by more than 28 points. He is thus somewhat attractive as a Pelosi alternative with his talk of giving Democrats in “flyover country” more of a voice within the party.

But that’s about as far as it goes. And the reason has to do with the simple math of the House Democratic caucus. Democrats will finish this cycle with just 194 House members. Of those, only 31 represent districts in the Midwest, including Chicago. Only 27 represent districts in what can now be accurately called the South (including Southern Virginia and North Florida).

But 123 of the Democrats in the new House will come from the three West Coast states, New England, the mid-Atlantic region (including Philadelphia but not Scranton) or South Florida. These areas, and not flyover country, account for more than 60 percent of their caucus. You can blame gerrymandering (or rather, Democrats’ failure to keep their decades-long control of gerrymandering). You can blame Democrats’ loss of the national popular vote for House in three of the last four elections. You can blame an uninspiring and distrusted Democratic presidential candidate.

But whomever you blame, the Democratic House members who will elect the new leader have absolutely no incentive to look beyond coastal elite interests in choosing their new leader. Why should flyover country have a say in a party where it is dramatically underrepresented?

Add to this the fact that Pelosi raises so much money for Democrats in every geographic region, and you can see why she is a lock to remain leader when House Dems vote this week.

You can also see why her party is less likely to learn anything from its recent defeat.

National problem: By the same token, though, it is by no means clear that Tim Ryan represents a better way forward for his party. Is a do-nothing backbencher going to wow the big donors, as party leaders must do? His election would not be offensive to anyone, but it probably isn’t the answer to anyone’s prayers, either.

There is already speculation that Ryan is just trying to raise his profile for a run for Ohio governor in 2018, and it’s probably not off-base.

Besides, it would be wrong to blame Pelosi for an election in which she was not really the significant figure. In 2010, yes, she loomed large with her comments on passing Obamacare before finding out what’s in it. But not in 2016. This was the year of Hillary Clinton and, to a lesser degree, Barack Obama.

But Pelosi is part of what might be a losing ideological culture for the Democrats. That culture cost them far more of the regular party voters in key states than anyone had anticipated. It’s unclear whether the lost Trump Democrats will return to the fold in two years’ time, but it’s obviously not something the party can take for granted.

Democrats’ main problem is that in just the last ten years, they have become a party that speaks to an upper-class and mostly white urban gentry with a language of social liberalism that not all of their own voters care for. While they and their left-leaning media organs address that crowd, they count on social pressure to keep the votes they need from a broader and more diverse coalition that doesn’t necessarily share the priorities, outlook, or core values of the party’s elite members. (This insight was encapsulated pretty well in a hilarious Saturday Night Live skit created by Dave Chapelle and Chris Rock.)

This has already resulted in their losing touch with the Trump Democrats, who were real, honest-to-goodness Democrats who voted Democratic until now. Not only that, but it’s not hard to imagine a situation, in some years’ or decades’ time, where the same disconnect that cost Democrats a large share of low-income white voters could also someday cost them at the margins with other racial groups as well.

It wasn’t that hard to keep the Democrats’ coalition together when Obama was their candidate. But he’s gone now, and their party is left scrambling for answers, with a bench that has been decimated by two midterm losses plus a presidential-year implosion everywhere outside Nevada, Illinois and California.

There had been a time when Democrats spoke and sounded a lot more like Trump. The “dark” and “dystopic” vision they criticized Trump for pronouncing this year was, amusingly, the very same kind of rhetoric that Al Gore and Dick Gephardt once used — an America where senior citizens collect aluminum cans and eat dog food to get by. A “crippled America.”

Dems lost that connection, instead preferring to talk to an audience that ponders college-campus-type questions about microaggressions, “privilege,” transgender bathroom use, and other concerns that just don’t resonate outside with most normal people. The Democrats chose to become the party of upper-class whites who read the Huffington Post and have liberal social values, and now they need to re-establish touch with voters who don’t fit that profile or else they’re in for quite a bit more losing in years to come.