Much is being said and written, by pundits who fashion themselves as experts, about the electoral disaster the Republican Party is facing later this year. Many of the early prognostications point to a loss of the House of Representatives and possibly the Senate as well. The thinking is that in the first mid-term election of a new president’s term the swing is always against his party (historically true) and that with Trump’s approval ratings consistently hovering in the high 30s or, at best, low 40s, the Republican losses could be massive.
I’m far from convinced by that reasoning. Instead, I see the Republicans holding onto the House (with a narrower margin than the current 21 vote advantage) and even picking up a few seats in the Senate. My forecast is admittedly problematic (we are, after all, still over eight months from Election Day), but it is based on two decisive factors that are not likely to change.
First, the economy is continuing to improve (the recent stock market correction notwithstanding), and that improvement is finally starting to positively affect middle- and lower-income wages as unemployment is at or near functional zero. Additionally, the tax cuts passed at the end of 2017 are providing bigger pay checks for most workers, who won’t much care that the wealthy are enjoying even bigger benefits from Trump’s “tax reform.” Economic conditions are always a prime indicator in elections, and Republican candidates will claim full credit for the favorable conditions likely to exist this fall. And it will be hard for their Democratic opponents to argue otherwise, which brings me to the second factor weighing in favor of a far less disastrous mid-term election for the Republicans.
That factor, simply stated, is the schism in the Democratic Party between the old-line liberals, who seek to satisfy the needs of a variety of under-represented interest groups, and the moderates, who are also beholden to those interest groups but less willing to take a stand on their behalf. A false sense of unity is projected by calling all Democrats “progressives,” but that label doesn’t hide the real identity problem that exists in the Party.
The genesis of that problem can be traced to the years of Richard Nixon’s presidency, which marked the end of the golden era of the liberal ideology that dominated the Democratic Party. That era began with the Great Depression when Franklin D. Roosevelt ushered in the New Deal that provided a host of federal programs intended to help those whom the severe economic downturn had most adversely affected. It continued through the war years and into the post-war period that saw the election of John F. Kennedy and the landslide election of his successor, Lyndon B. Johnson.
Johnson’s administration heralded America’s Great Society. During Johnson’s tenure, Congress enacted Medicare and the Civil Rights and the Voting Rights Acts. Liberalism was at its zenith in American history, with Democrats holding complete control of both chambers of Congress with two-thirds of the seats in each body (and with a liberal-dominant Supreme Court to boot). Johnson lost his popularity (and ultimately declined to run for a second full term), not because of those domestic achievements, but because of his decisions on Vietnam, where the United States went all-in on a war to support the government of South Vietnam against the insurgency of North Vietnamese-led rebels.
But discord within the Party over Vietnam led to the election of Nixon, who took advantage of the Democrats disarray to launch his “Southern strategy,” (promulgated by his then-campaign aide Kevin Phillips, who later came to rue the course the strategy took – read his “American Theocracy”) and that strategy not only won him the presidency, but it permanently recast the political parties. It made the Republican Party the home of conservatives (with its liberal wing effectively gone within the next decade), and it made the Democrats the liberal’s home, with the anti-integration southern wing now identifying as Republican.
The Democrats gave the all-out liberal identity a try in 1972, and George McGovern (who, in addition to his opposition to the Vietnam War, also espoused a 100 percent inheritance tax along with other socialist sounding policies) suffered one of the greatest electoral defeats in presidential history. He was the last member of the liberal wing of the Party to head its presidential ticket. (Subsequent losing candidates like Walter Mondale and Michael Dukakis were painted as liberals by their Republican opponents, but their liberalism was muted, and they suffered sizeable losses anyway.)
Those Democrats who won the presidency post-Nixon have all been moderates, even though they, too, were all characterized as liberals by their opponents. Jimmy Carter was the moderate who rose out of a large field of contenders for the nomination in 1976, beating far more liberal opponents to secure the nomination. The same can be said of Bill Clinton in 1992. Barack Obama was perceived as the more liberal as against Hillary Clinton in 2008, but, in truth, they were both moderates, as Obama’s eight years in office firmly established.
Meanwhile, on the right, Ronald Reagan legitimized conservatism with his two terms as President, and George H. W. Bush moved to the right (he had been more moderate as a Senator than he was as a presidential candidate) to carry Reagan’s legacy forward. (His son did the same in barely defeating Al Gore in 2000 and then besting John Kerry in 2004.) But in the process, the political landscape in America had also shifted to the right, which is why Clinton and Obama followed Carter’s centrist ideology with essentially moderate approaches to campaigning and governing.
“The era of big government is over,” may sound like a Reagan line, but Bill Clinton delivered it (in his 1996 State of the Union address). Obama may have secured the passage of what Democrats call universal health care, but he never allowed a single-payer plan, which would have been far more socialistic (and which the liberal wing of the Party would have much more happily embraced) to be considered.
The result of the shifts of sentiment within the electorate and within the respective political parties is that Republicans are mildly divided between hard-core conservatives and traditional conservatives (both of whom favor less government and unfettered free enterprise) and Democrats are either of the Bernie Sanders/Elizabeth Warren/Nancy Pelosi stripe (promoting government assistance for the poor and support for all minority groups in the country) and the Bill Clinton “progressives” (eschewing identity politics while favoring a more involved, “pro-active” government, one that seeks to redistribute the country’s wealth toward those who have less, rather than those who have more).
Democrats are always on the side of those in need, but how to serve that constituency is where the schism exists. Those on the far left are willing to fight for unisex bathrooms, and the children of undocumented aliens, and gun control, and Black Lives Matter, at the expense of a major jobs-creation agenda. They practice identity politics. Those on the near left pay lip service to those interest groups, but they prefer a more populist message. They are scorned by the true “lefties,” even as they are seen as more electable by the rank-and-file.
It’s this schism within the Party that will allow the Republicans to maintain their majorities in Congress. With Nancy Pelosi still a readily identifiable target for scorn by every Republican congressional candidate, and with Donald Trump exciting his base with false claims of victory on every conceivable issue of concern to his constituents, Democrats will fail to deliver a clear populist message and will instead spout empty platitudes (fruitless in a thriving economic environment) and mouth thinly guised ad hominem attacks on Trump himself. They’ll gain some seats in the House from a better turnout from their base (the identity-politics base), but not enough to flip control. And in the Senate they’ll be lucky to hold what they have (as many more vulnerable incumbent Democrats are up for re-election than incumbent Republicans).
In the end, the Democrats need a standard bearer who can excite the base and cover up the schism. Bill Clinton and Barack Obama were such figures. Al Gore, John Kerry, and Hillary Clinton clearly were not. This year won’t be the year for such a leader to emerge, and the Democratic Party will remain in the minority in 2019.