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The Democratic Strategist

Political Strategy for a Permanent Democratic Majority

When the GOP Gerrymanders, Should Dems Do the Same?

In is article, “Should Democrats be as ruthless as Republicans when they have the chance?” at The Washington Post’s Plum Line, Paul Waldman reports that New Jersey Democrats are engaged in “attempt to push through a nakedly partisan gerrymandering plan for state legislative seats…The question is, should Democrats be as ruthless as Republicans when they have the chance, and do the same thing they’ve decried so often? It turns out to be a complicated question.”

Waldman notes that “Right now we have a situation where Republicans have been far more aggressive in using partisan gerrymandering in drawing both congressional and state legislative districts where they’re in control than Democrats have.” It’s the reality in New Jersey, but also in many other states.

Yes, Democrats have engaged in gerrymandering over the years. But in recent years they have been badly beaten at the game, owing in large part to the GOP’s REDMAP strategy, described at by David Daley, author of “Ratf**ked: Why Your Vote Doesn’t Count,” a senior fellow at FairVote:

The visionaries at the Republican State Leadership Committee, who designed the aptly-named strategy dubbed REDMAP, short for Redistricting Majority Project, managed to look far beyond the short-term horizon. They designed an audacious and revolutionary plan to wield the gerrymander as a tool to lock in conservative governance of state legislatures and Congress. It proved more effective than any Republican dared dream. Republicans held the U.S. House in 2012, despite earning 1.4 million fewer votes than Democratic congressional candidates, and won large GOP majorities in the Ohio, Wisconsin, Michigan and North Carolina state legislatures even when more voters backed Democrats.

REDMAP and other Republican gerrymandering and disenfranchisement projects lavishly funded by the Koch Brothers and various GOP sugar-daddies have been extraordinarily effective. And no, it wouldn’t be all that much of a stretch to cite Democratic leaders and strategists for political negligence while REDMAP was going on, although it would have been hard for Dems to match the GOP’s financial investment in gerrymandering during the last decade.

Charles Pierce put it this way at Esquire:

The Democratic Party, at both the state and national levels, was completely wrong-footed on all of this. I’m telling you, people will be studying how the Republicans did this in political science classes for the next 100 years. It’s like the Republicans were the only ones that remembered everything they’d learned in civics class.

Waldman makes the case that Democrats have to respond in kind, because, “if Republicans aren’t going to fight fair, Democrats shouldn’t either.” Further,

Look at what just happened in Wisconsin: Republicans pushed through a series of measures limiting the power of the incoming Democratic governor, Democrats raised a big stink, and today outgoing Gov. Scott Walker signed the bills. Democrats retained the moral high ground, and what do they have to show for it? Pretty much nothing.” Also,

There’s another somewhat more sophisticated argument in favor of the New Jersey legislators, one suggested by Kevin Drum: “This is the only thing that will ever get the Supreme Court off its butt to do something about gerrymandering.” In other words, it’s a bit of strategic envelope-pushing that could produce a fairer system in the end. The court has never struck down a partisan gerrymander, though it recently heard a case involving the question and put off making a decision. As long as the five conservative justices see partisan gerrymandering as something that helps Republicans almost exclusively, they’ll never strike it down.

Waldman also acknowledges that “Being principled is important even if you don’t get a lot of political gain from everyone knowing you’re the principled ones.” But he notes that “Republicans have no principles at all when it comes to representation and democracy, and they’ve paid precisely zero price because of it.” However,

But that doesn’t mean Democrats’ principles will inevitably cause their defeat. Just this year they used voter initiatives to strike down felon disenfranchisement in Florida, create independent redistricting commissions in Colorado, Michigan and Utah, and pass automatic voter registration in Maryland, Michigan and Nevada. They’re making progress, even if it isn’t easy to do so while holding on to your belief in democracy.

Thus the “When they go low, we go high” principle has real-world limitations when it comes to hand-to-hand combat for control of state legislatures. For Democrats, gerrymandering is sometimes necessary for survival and to counter-balance the GOP’s current edge in the strategy.

Yet Democrats should support establishing independent redistricting commissions, especially when the cost of doing so is fairly-shared by both parties. It will be a great day when all states have independent redistricting, and Democrats should lead the way to it.

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