Chris Bowers has a truly fascinating post up over at MyDD, ostensibly about Hillary Clinton’s lack of popularity in the progressive blogosphere, but really encompassing a sort of political sociology of the the world of “progressive activists.”He begins by stipulating a few important points about the “netroots:” they are by no means co-extensive with or even representative of the Democratic “base;” but nor are they “tinfoil hats” or people marginal to the regular political process. They are, in fact, a segment, and a growing segment, of the small but influential universe of “progressive activists.”Chris then goes on to argue that while the “netroots” should not be confused with the actual party base, they are the “base” among progressive activists: i.e., despite their relative wealth and educational attainments, they are (or just as importantly, perceive themselves as being) engaged in a sort of inside-the-upper-crust class warfare against the “elite” progressive activists who dominate Washington, the major political institutions, and many national campaigns. It’s this warfare that animates netroots hostility to HRC, suggests Bowers, because she is perceived as the perfect vehicle for those “elite” activists.I do think Chris is accurately capturing the predominant netroots view of the supposed struggle for the Democratic Party. His careful focus on netroots perceptions keeps him from having to definitively identify himself with the belief that Washington’s Democratic activists are a single tribe that regularly gathers in Georgetown salons to share twelve-dollar martinis and biting comments about bloggers, and plot the next Establishment campaign (a belief as remote from reality, IMO, as the “tinfoil hat” view of the netroots).Interesting and valuable as it is, Chris’ analysis doesn’t quite come to grips with two issues.The first issue is that there is another class of “progressive activist” out there that’s not necessarily part of the netroots or of the “elite” DC establishment: state and local elected officials and party personnel and volunteers, union political organizers, racial and ethnic group activists, single-issue devotees, and hyper-engaged plain citizens. Sure, some of them read or contribute to blogs, and some of them are affiliated with Establishment institutions as well. But many of them (especially in red states) don’t particularly trust either of Chris’ two categories of “progressive activists,” and as a whole, they are probably closer in views and lifestyles to the actual “party base” than either one. And overall, I suspect this third class of activists tends to like HRC a lot more than the netizens do, and that matters.The second issue is the bigger one: the question of exactly how much impact any activists have on rank-and-file opinion, especially in a widely contested presidential nominating process like the one we’ll probably see in 2008.We already know Washington Elite Activists have never had the power to simply impose their will on the Democratic electorate, long before there was any netroots. Lyndon Johnson in 1968, Ed Muskie in 1972, a whole host of candidates in 1976, Ted Kennedy in 1980–these were all “DC elite activist” candidates who crashed and burned. And by the same token, Democratic nominees George McGovern, Jimmy Carter, Michael Dukakis, and Bill Clinton had limited support from those quarters when they first ran for president.The “netroots” activists are too new to have that kind of humiliating track record, but the fate of their two favorite 2004 candidates, Howard Dean and Wes Clark, cannot simply be dismissed as irrelevant. This is by now an ancient argument, but I’m struck by the unwillingness of many Dean veterans (more now, oddly enough, than at the time it was happening) to worry about the fact that the campaign peaked before a single actual Democratic voter had a chance to say anything about it. Yes, there were many factors that contributed to Dean’s demise, with media obsession about “the scream” being one of them, but the widespread assumption in the netroots that Dean was “taken down” by Washington Democrats unfortunately avoids reflection on the possibility that all the cash and energy and excitement simply were not communicable to actual voters.In other words, activists of every class and every stripe are important to what happens in 2008, and perhaps netroots hostility to Hillary Clinton is a leading indicator of an attitude that could eventually engulf an HRC campaign (if she actually runs, which I for one am not that sure about). But in the end, it truly is about the party rank-and-file, and even the independent voters who participate in many key stages of the nominating process. All of us activists need to remember that, and regularly balance our self-regard with a slice of humble pie.
TDS Strategy Memos
Latest Research from:
By Ed Kilgore
After absorbing a lot of Democratic gloom-and-doom about the midterms, I offered some silver lining at New York:
The 2022 midterms don’t look great for Democrats, who will try to buck history by hanging on to super-slim congressional majorities. Thanks to the particular lay of the land, Democrats have a decent chance of maintaining control of the Senate. But the House? Not so much: The two times since the New Deal when the president’s party won net House seats in a midterm (1998 and 2002), the president in question had sky-high job-approval ratings. Even if you believe Joe Biden’s plunge in popularity has been stemmed or even turned around a bit, he’s not going to have 60 percent-plus approval in November 2022 unless really crazy things happen. There’s just too much partisan polarization for that these days.
Thankfully for Democrats, even if they lose their congressional majorities next year, Biden himself won’t be an underdog for reelection in 2024. After all, the last two Democratic presidents were reelected after historically terrible midterms. Democrats lost 54 U.S. House seats in 1994 and 63 in 2010. Yes, they had bigger majorities going into those elections than Democrats have now. But they lost the national House popular vote by an identical 6.8 percent in both midterms, which is pretty bad, particularly since Democrats suffer from a voter-inefficiency problem in House elections (too many voters concentrated in too few districts).
It’s possible for a president’s party to lose a midterm so badly that bouncing back in the next cycle is all but impossible. Consider the man whose unique comeback accomplishment Donald Trump will be emulating if he runs in 2024, Grover Cleveland. The president Cleveland defeated in an 1892 rematch, Benjamin Harrison, was a Republican whose party lost an incredible 93 House seats in the 1890 midterms. This, mind you, was at a time when the House had only 332 members, which means the GOP lost over half their caucus in one cycle (an even worse percentage than in 1894, when Democrats lost a record 125 House seats during the midterm after Cleveland’s comeback triumph). In this era of polarization, nothing like that is going to happen to Democrats in 2022.
Looking more broadly at the power of incumbency, there have been 13 sitting presidents since World War II who were on the general election ballot. Nine of them won. The four losers all faced special circumstances. Gerald Ford had not previously been elected to anything more than the U.S. House; he ascended to the vice-presidency and then the presidency when disgraced predecessors resigned, and he pardoned the president who appointed him, the especially disgraced Richard Nixon. Jimmy Carter was caught up in a historical realignment that he had held off four years earlier by carrying his native South, which then resumed a massive Republican trend. George H.W. Bush suffered from a terrible economy but then also a party split (third-party candidate Ross Perot won a lot of previously Republican voters). And we all know about Donald J. Trump, who was impeached twice and seemed determined to offend swing voters.
In retrospect, what’s most remarkable is that Ford and Trump very nearly got reelected despite their handicaps, exhibiting not the weakness but the strength of incumbency. And it’s with that perspective that any early handicapping of a potential 2024 rematch should be considered. Trump benefited from incumbency in 2020, as will Biden in 2024. So the idea that the 45th president has some built-in advantage over the 46th — absent the renewed election coup so many of us fear — doesn’t make a lot of sense.