Starting with Barack Obama’s election in 2008 — through as recently as last month — pundits and experts have penned dozens of obituaries and eulogies for the Republican Party.
In 2008, many thought Obama’s rise signaled an end to Reagan conservatism. In that moment, the country was moving away from the Reagan philosophy of economics and the Cold War mentality of peace through strength to something more resembling a Western European socialist democracy.
In 2012, the argument was that former Michigan Gov. Mitt Romney’s loss to Obama in the presidential election was due to shifting demographics. No longer would the country be majority white. If the GOP were to ever be a national party again, it would have to embrace things like immigration reform in order to lure Hispanics. Otherwise, a path to a win in a national election would not exist.
Throughout this last election cycle, the Republican Party’s nomination of Donald Trump was certainly viewed as a death knell. Not only was it thought that Trump would face a wipeout of McGovern and Goldwater proportions, but he would take down Republicans further down the ballot in congressional contests as well.
As it turned out, that didn’t happen.
Somehow, despite all the conventional wisdom stating what Republicans had to do to win nationally, they pulled off what even they would have to admit was an unlikely feat of taking the White House and maintaining control of both chambers of Congress.
It is apparent in the early going before he even takes office that Trump’s critics are doing all they can to raise doubts about his presidency. The purpose of this full court press isn’t entirely clear, as most Americans are tuning out of politics for the holidays.
But let’s assume they really are seeking to get a head start for the 2018 midterms and then the 2020 presidential election.
If those vocal opponents really want to see Trump ousted or have his ability to alter the shape of the country limited by taking control of a portion of Congress, the opposition Democratic Party has a lot of rebuilding to do.
Since Obama took office in 2009, Democrats have lost 900-plus state legislature seats, 12 governorships, 69 U.S. House seats and 13 U.S. Senate seats. It’s not entirely clear if there is any kind of plan to retake some of the ground lost.
Critics of the way the party is currently constituted, including Rep. Tim Ryan, D-Ohio, who is challenging current Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, D-CA, for her leadership post, say the party is neglecting voters in Middle America.
“We’re not even the national party,” Ryan said in an interview with NBC on Sunday. “We’re a coastal party. And we’ve got to move forward. If we’re not going to get voters in Ohio, Wisconsin, Michigan, Minnesota, go back down South — when I first came to Congress we had members from Tennessee. We have to go back there and campaign and get those folks in the fold.”
That’s similar to the argument about the GOP post-2008 and 2012 elections, that it had become a party of the South and was going to be able to expand the map with its current positions on issues.
Prior to 1994, Democrats controlled the House of Representatives for 40 years, and had the Senate as well for 34 of those 40 years. Democrats did so by creating a coalition of Southern Democrats, who dominated in the South down-ballot all those years going all the way back to post-Civil War Reconstruction, and those that represent the current mindset of the Democratic Party represented by those who support traditional liberal policies.
After the 1994 midterm elections, that coalition fell apart. Of the Southern Democrats who didn’t lose in that election, many wound up swapping parties, including Alabama’s Sen. Richard Shelby.
Democrats managed to hold onto some power statewide for the next 16 years. Prior to 2010, Democrats had controlled the Alabama Legislature for 136 years. Six years later, the Democratic Party in Alabama is practically nonexistent. Democrats have one congressional seat and a handful of elected offices in the urban areas of the state.
Even with all the scandalous antics of Republican control of Montgomery, it’s difficult to see how the Democratic Party can mount any sort of threat to Republican control.
There is a battle within the Democratic Party about what the proper course of action looks like after this presidential election defeat. There’s not much of a bench, so the hope of relying on charismatic figures like Obama doesn’t appear to be an option.
The two strongest bets seem to be waiting out the GOP and allowing the demographic changes in the country to make it impossible for Republicans. For many, that means doubling down on the liberal policies and following the direction of failed presidential candidate Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vermont. If there are more social welfare programs on the line, then ultimately you’ll not only get out the base but also the new wave of voters.
The other is by moderating the party, which seems to be what Tim Ryan is proposing. Instead of focusing on a breadbasket of disaffected constituencies, pushing for liberal social policies that have little impact on most Americans, put the focus on winning over the Midwestern voters. Give more attention to the country’s manufacturing economy and less to transsexual bathrooms in elementary schools.
If the Democratic Party is to make a comeback in Alabama, Democrats had better hope for the Ryan strategy to prevail.
Republicans can’t be overconfident from the outcome of this election as many Democrats were after the past two presidential elections. Many left-leaning national columnists on the day after Election Day in 2008 and 2012 were speculating about the idea of permanent Democratic control of the White House.
How did that work out?
The GOP still has a lot of work to do, particularly given the unknowns of what lies ahead with Trump as commander-in-chief.
How the Democratic Party chooses to rebuild will have a lot to do with what approach Republicans should take.
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