The catastrophic fall of the Democratic Party
How Obama's hope wilted into Democratic despair
Over the past eight years, Democrats went from an ascendant majority to a marginalized party that has all but ceded enormous swathes of the country. The man who presided over that collapse, Barack Obama, now allows that he may have had a little something to do with that failure. You don't say.
Next week, President Obama will transition into retirement as one of the most personally popular presidents in modern times. In that sense, he follows in the footsteps of Ronald Reagan, who weathered storms of scandal in his second term to become a beloved fixture not just of his own party but eventually of the entire nation. Obama also follows Bill Clinton, whose personal affability saw him through personal scandals and impeachment in his second term, and who survived well enough to keep his wife politically viable until unexpectedly losing the election to succeed Obama.
Obama, still a relatively young man, will have ample opportunities to earn millions from his memoirs and leverage his popularity in service of any agenda he chooses to pursue. However, he leaves behind a much different political legacy for his party than some of his recent predecessors did. When Reagan left office, the Republican Party won the White House — the first time since Martin Van Buren that a sitting vice president won the White House through an election without the death or resignation of the president. Democrats lost control of the House after a 40-year run during Clinton's first term, but Democrats managed to win back control of the Senate as his term ran out — helped in part by Hillary Clinton's successful Senate run in New York.
For Democrats at the end of the Obama era, the situation looks much more bleak. In fact, it's so bad that Washington Post analyst Philip Bump referred to the precipitous decline in Democratic fortunes as the "Thelma and Louiseing" of the party. Democrats have lost 10 percent of their Senate seats from the 111th Congress, 19 percent of their House seats, and 20 percent of their seats in state legislatures during Obama's time in office. On top of that, the party has lost more than a third of its gubernatorial seats. The Democratic Party finds itself in its worst shape since before the Great Depression — just a few short years after its ascendancy to dominance during the Great Recession.
How can a president with Obama's personal popularity have presided over such a collapse in his party's fortunes? Obama took some of the blame in an interview with ABC's George Stephanopoulos, but only for the initial pushback in 2010. Obama blamed the normal midterm correction for giving Republicans the opportunity to control the redistricting process in 2011, but also noted that he was kept too busy to participate in his party's organizing efforts.
"[M]y docket was really full here, so I couldn't be both chief organizer of the Democratic Party and function as commander in chief and president of the United States," Obama said. "We did not begin what I think needs to happen over the long haul, and that is rebuild the Democratic Party at the ground level."
Obama sells his impact far too short. Almost all of the decline in Democratic fortunes occurred in those first midterms before the Census-driven redistricting had begun. Democrats lost 64 House seats, putting them at a 242-193 disadvantage, almost identical to their current status. The plummet in state legislative seats also mainly took place in 2010, with another significant decline in last year's elections; that same pattern holds for their U.S. Senate seats and gubernatorial seats.
The 2010 midterms were a large-scale backlash against the agenda of Obama and Democrats — not just in Washington, D.C., but across the country — and Democrats never recovered from it. Had this multi-year shellacking been the result of the timing of the Census, we would have expected to see Democrats recover their positions in the Senate and gubernatorial elections, which do not rely on population-balancing districting. But here in reality, Democratic leadership led the party off a cliff in 2009-10, and to this day have not acknowledged their error — except in this instance by President Obama, and then only in the most limited fashion.
But Obama isn't the only culprit. Despite having lost four elections in a row, House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi offered this warning on her Twitter feed Monday to Republicans looking to fulfill their promise to repeal and replace ObamaCare. "How long will it take for @HouseGOP to acknowledge they don't have the people's support?" Republicans fought all four of the past elections on repealing ObamaCare, including Donald Trump's pledge to make repeal his top legislative priority, and managed to beat Pelosi all four times — and win the White House in 2016 to finally accomplish it.
That kind of tone-deafness to voters' concerns is precisely why Pelosi's party finds itself retreating into coastal enclaves and academia. Democratic leadership won its majorities because Republicans stopped listening to voters, but at least Republicans figured that out in two election cycles. Obama and Pelosi have spent the last eight years ignoring the will of voters even when expressed in two successive midterm disasters for their party, and all but handed the GOP the keys to Washington as the party threw its weight behind Hillary Clinton and the promise of four more years of pandering to a narrow elite. And after voters put an exclamation point on their frustration, what did House Democrats do? Put Pelosi back in charge for another two years.
So, who's the culprit? Obama and Pelosi, certainly, but also Harry Reid, Hillary Clinton, and everyone else who ignored the frustration of voters for the last six years. Until they replace that leadership with people who can at least acknowledge the reality of those failures, it will be a long time before voters give Democrats another chance to govern at any level.