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The Democratic Strategist

Political Strategy for a Permanent Democratic Majority

January 5: 2021: For Democrats, Echoes of 2009

When looking back over the last year, I noticed some familiar data points, and wrote about them at New York:

There was a year not very long ago when Democrats spent January not only feeling their oats but believing they had turned a corner in the direction of a sustainable and perhaps even transformative majority. But that year ended in doldrums, with the party’s situation rapidly growing worse. It was 2009, though the description certainly applies to 2021 as well. During Barack Obama’s first year in office, his party experienced a fall from grace that felt a lot like the year that just ended (minus the pandemic and the persistent presence of former president Donald Trump, of course).

What happens in the coming year will soon determine whether we’re really moving in a predictable political cycle, but for now, let’s consider some of the similarities between 2009 and 2021 and what they might portend:

The 2008 elections produced a huge Democratic win

The sense of deliverance that accompanied the 2020 election results for most Democrats was an echo of how they felt 12 years earlier. I was in Washington on Election Night and will never forget walking out of the restaurant where I had heard the Obama victory announced into what looked like a citywide street party. Part of that euphoria, of course, stemmed from the unlikely election of the first Black president. But it was a partisan Democratic event as well: 2008 produced the first governing trifecta (control of the White House and both congressional chambers) since the Republican landslide of 1994, with a particularly impressive Senate majority of 59, soon to become 60 (a supermajority that could in theory override any filibuster) when Republican Arlen Specter flipped.

The Obama-Biden win was by a comfortably large margin (of more than 7 percent in the popular vote and 192 in the electoral one) after photo finishes in 2000 and 2004. Obama, for all his later demonization by Republicans, won 20 percent of all self-identified conservatives and 60 percent of moderates. It felt, at the time, like an era of gridlock might have come to an end — not quite as dramatic as the ejection of Donald Trump from the White House in 2020 and the Democrats’ picking up two Senate seats in Georgia, but a big deal nonetheless. Or so it seemed initially.

Democrats entered 2009 with an ambitious agenda and hopes of bipartisan traction

While there was no pandemic-induced economic collapse in 2009, there was an even stronger sense of economic malaise in the wake of the financial collapse of 2008 and the intensification of what had already become known as the Great Recession (which, according to economic indicators, ended in June 2009). The new Obama administration came into office with an ambitious agenda that included both short-term economic relief and stimulus, and its much-discussed campaign platform planks including health-care reform and an attack on climate change. Obama had talked a lot about bipartisanship during his short career in the Senate and then his run for the presidency, so he made an effort to secure Republican input and buy-in for all of his legislative agenda but had very little success (thanks to a GOP strategy of total obstruction designed by Mitch McConnell, who is running the same plays today).

Like Biden’s Democrats in 2021, Obama’s in 2009 compiled a record of partial success combined with frustration and failure. A stimulus package wound up smaller and less effective than originally planned thanks to concessions needed to bring a few Republicans onboard. Senate Democratic moderates vetoed key provisions of the president’s signature health-care initiative, including a “public option” for insurance in areas when private insurance was unavailable or unaffordable and a Medicare “buy-in” program for near-seniors. The entire Affordable Care Act legislation nearly crashed and burned when Republicans won an upset special Senate election in Massachusetts at the beginning of 2010; Democrats resorted to the budget-reconciliation process to avoid a fatal filibuster. Greenhouse-gas-emissions legislation got through the House but never gained traction in the Senate.

Hostility to Obama rapidly mounted as the anti-government tea-party movement spread, launched by furious conservatives who claimed that Democrats were socialistically redistributing wealth to undeserving minorities — claims similar to the those lobbed at Biden’s Build Back Better agenda these days. There was no precise equivalent to “Let’s Go, Brandon,” in part because Obama haters saw little need for euphemism.

Democrats were facing a 2010 midterm fiasco

The first midterm elections after the Democratic triumph of 2008 were a disaster for the Donkey Party. Republicans made net gains of 63 House seats (winning control of the chamber), six Senate seats, six governorships, and 19 state legislative chambers. The enormousness of the state victories for Republicans was magnified by the timing, with decennial congressional and state legislative redistricting immediately on tap in 2011. While midterm House losses for the party controlling the White House are normal, the top-to-bottom wipeout of 2010 was not. A major factor in the results was a big drop-off in Democratic turnout, some of it probably reflecting the higher-than-normal youth-and-minority turnout when Obama was on the ballot in 2008.

Republicans are currently expected to make solid gains in 2022, including a reconquest of the House. However, the landscape is not really ripe for a 2010-style landslide. For one thing, polarization has limited wins and losses alike for both parties. For another, the disappointing 2020 performance by House Democrats has made them less exposed to losses in marginal districts. And for still another thing, the Senate landscape for Democrats in 2022 is significantly better than it was in 2010.

Big state legislative losses for Democrats in 2022 are also far less likely; their party controlled 27 state legislatures going into 2010 and shared power in eight others. Now Republicans control 30 legislatures and share power in another. Even if Democratic losses do occur, they will be less consequential, since redistricting will have been completed by the fall of 2022.

Obama’s future looked iffy (but he bounced back)

In a period when today’s partisan polarization was still under construction, Obama posted a 67 percent job approval rating (per Gallup) at the beginning of his presidency; his job approval had dropped into the 40s by the end of 2009, and remained there throughout 2010. After Democrats were trounced in the 2010 midterms, the odds of a second term for Obama looked pretty slim

But just like Bill Clinton after the previous Democratic midterm disaster of 1994, Obama executed a slow but steady comeback. His job-approval rating was even lower in 2011 than in the previous year, but it gradually rose, reaching 50 percent just before the 2012 elections. And even though Republican Mitt Romney improved on McCain’s performance, he ultimately lost the popular vote by 3.9 percent — a bit less than Donald Trump’s 4.4 percent popular-vote loss in 2020.

We are obviously a long way from the 2024 elections and have no way of knowing if Biden — whose approval rating has taken a dive — can reprise Obama’s comeback. One variable, of course, is whether Trump will again be his opponent. Only three major-party presidential losers have won their party’s nomination in the next election, and only one, Grover Cleveland, went on to retake the White House. But Cleveland’s party had won one of the biggest midterm landslides ever two years before his final presidential victory. So Republicans may have an uphill climb to recover the White House even if they do well in next year’s midterms, particularly if they insist on renominating the most divisive president ever.

 

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