Washington Post chief correspondent Dan Balz addresses the formidable challenges facing Democrats, not only in winning the 2016 presidential election, but also in reducing the GOP’s edge down-ballot\.
…The realities and the contradictions of the politics of this divided era…have left Democrats in control of the White House and big cities and Republicans in control of both houses of Congress and a majority of state governments. These contradictions and the challenges for both parties are well explored in the new book, “America Ascendant,” by Democratic pollster Stanley B. Greenberg.
Not surprisingly, given his partisan leanings, Greenberg is and long has been bearish about a Republican Party that he sees as fighting against irreversible trends in the makeup and attitudes of the future America. But those conclusions do not lead him to offer unabashed enthusiasm for the future of the Democrats at a time of wrenching economic and cultural changes.
Greenberg sees his own party as having fallen short in addressing many of the economic and other conditions that have soured so many people on a political system that they feel has ignored their interests in favor of the privileged or the elites.
He argues that, unless Democrats find a way to break through the disaffection and indifference and deal with the structural economic issues, their ability to energize enough support to command a true governing majority will continue to escape them. As he writes, “The rising American electorate could be the Democrats’ salvation — but that electorate first has to be engaged and motivated to vote.”
As Bill Clinton’s pollster in the 1992 presidential campaign, which Balz notes “restored the Democrats to power in the White House, after Republicans had held it for 20 of the previous 24 years,” Greenberg provided a unique perspective on Clinton’s political skills as “a new Democrat” in a telephone interview with Balz.
…He was best known for his advocacy of welfare and education reform…But Greenberg noted that Clinton also has had a strong streak of populism, advocating higher taxes on the rich, decrying the salaries of chief executives and declaring his roots in the party of Franklin D. Roosevelt. Clinton was both left and right at the same time, and in doing so he managed to expand the appeal of his party.
“Clinton had a formula for making the Democratic Party electable nationally,” Greenberg said. The formula included taking advantage of some of the demographic and voting trends of the time — greater support for Democrats among college-educated women and suburban voters — while bringing back some of the white industrial-class workers who had defected to Reagan and the Republicans.
Balz adds that Clinton was instrumental in converting states in “the industrial heartland and elsewhere,” including Illinois, Michigan, Pennsylvania, Wisconsin, California and New Jersey, “from general election battlegrounds into Democratic strongholds. He also helped Democrats find ways to carry Ohio in four of the past six presidential elections.”
President Obama inherited a much more difficult set of economic challenges, explains Greenbers, including widening economic inequality, as well as the Bush meltdown. “His economic project was the recovery,” Greenberg said of Obama. “But that only takes you back to where we were. What I argue is that there are big structural economic and social problems, and the reason why this new majority is disengaged is because Democratic leaders have not addressed these problems.”
“The huge losses suffered by Democrats in the 2010 and 2014 midterm elections,” explains Balz, “have put Republicans in control of the House and the Senate and expanded their hold on a majority of the governorships…” However, says Balz, “Greenberg still sees a much brighter future for the Democrats than for the Republicans. But he acknowledged that he turned out to have been overly bullish about his party’s prospects in 2014. “We made assumptions that 2010 was atypical,” he said. “I didn’t think ’14 would be as bad as ’10. I didn’t think this new majority would be as disengaged as it was in ’14.”
Balls call it “a lesson worth remembering for Democrats as they watch the Republicans struggle among themselves. But the stakes couldn’t be higher for Democrats, and for the nation, as Balz explains:
If Republicans win the presidency in 2016, they would then control nearly everything — the White House, the House, probably the Senate and certainly a majority of governorships. If Democrats hold the White House, they might win the Senate but probably would not have the House and would be in a distinct minority in the states. If they lose the White House, they would be virtually wiped out of power.
For Democrats, that means a victory in the general election still would represent only a down payment on the future and a continuing struggle to implement the kind of progressive economic agenda that Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders have begun to talk about in their campaigns.
The challenge for Democrats is clear, says Balz: “…Even if Democrats win the White House next year, they must still build down from there, and from their urban base build outward. Unless they do that, neither Democrats nor Republicans will be able to claim the kind of majority support that they desire — and the country will remain divided, at odds, and not easily governed.”
Also in the Washington Post, E. J. Dionne, Jr. observes in his latest column,
One of the tasks of political analysis is to make sense of conflicting information, and a new book by Stanley Greenberg, who was a political scientist before he became a Democratic pollster, does not shy away from the messiness of our social and electoral landscape. My Dickensian “best of times, worst of times” analysis is drawn partly from Greenberg’s new book, “America Ascendant.” In it Greenberg sees Republicans in a long-term demographic “death spiral.” But the book is also unsparing in acknowledging that Democratic weaknesses among older white and rural voters leave the GOP “almost unopposed in nearly half of the states.”
Dionne applauds Greenberg’s “resistance to gloom about America’s future,” and continues, “only the dysfunction of our politics will keep our country from having another good century. Yes, we face real threats, including terrorism. But we are not paying enough attention to our strengths, including the advantages of a social diversity that is causing such unease among many of our fellow citizens.” Further, says Dionne,
The power of Greenberg’s analysis is that he doesn’t dismiss the anger of these Americans, so many of whom are rallying to Donald Trump. Written before Trump’s rise, the book doesn’t mention him, but Greenberg treats what has become the Trump constituency with a heartfelt empathy.
The sorts of voters who rally to Trump have reason to be upset, he says, because the very economic and social changes that contribute to growth also create “stark problems for people and the country that leave the public seething, frustrated, and pessimistic about the future . . . .” There are no wage gains for most, “working-class men have been left marginalized,” and the proportion of children being born to single parents has soared.
Greenberg is open to changes in our mores and insists that progressive policies on family leave, pay, taxes and prekindergarten programs are more plausible responses to these problems than sermonizing. But if his book provides Democrats with good news about their national political advantages, it pointedly challenges them to address rather than ignore or dismiss the reasons for the thunder on the right.
Dionne concludes on a note of optimism and challenge: “‘The citizenry is ready for a cleansing era of reform that allows America to realize its promise,'” Greenberg writes. It would be helpful if the campaign gave us more reason to think he’s right.” A worthy challenge, and one which cries out for bold Democratic leadership.