Democratic Party’s ‘new majority’ far from a sure thing
A bracing presidential election victory, gains in both houses of Congress and a handful of demographic and organizational realities made the argument plausible. America was becoming a “One Party Country,” a couple of political reporters argued in a well-received book.
The history/polemic of George W. Bush’s presidential triumphs and the hegemony of the Republican Party — written in 2006 by my former colleagues Tom Hamburger and Peter Wallsten — looks a bit ironic now, as a host of commentators argue the opposite. They say President Obama’s triumph signals the long-term ascendancy of Democrats, not Republicans.
The Democrats’ recent victories — including gaining seats in the House and Senate — has been declared “a new majority” by one CNN analyst and a “realignment” by the conservative columnist Ross Douthat. A prominent California Democrat told me over the weekend that the party could hold the White House for 20 years or more.
But the most perceptive of these commentators realize that the demographic changes that helped Obama to victory are not cemented in favor of any one party. An African American vote well above 90%, balloting from 70% of Latinos and a solid majority of women look rock-solid for Democrats nationally today.
Los Angeles Times political writer Paul West suggested the Obama coalition presents “the outlines of 21st century America,” but that the coalition also could fray in future elections for any number of reasons. Conservative African Americans could be peeled away by the GOP because many of them continue to oppose gay marriage. And it’s no sure bet that a future Democratic nominee will have the same hold on the electorate as Obama has had.
Alan Draper, a professor of government at St. Lawrence University, concurred: “Demography is not destiny.” Draper believes Democrats need to lock in their electoral majority by delivering on a few key promises: implementing Obamacare, thus bringing health insurance to millions and the promise of their future votes; passing immigration reform; and pressing ahead with social policies for the “more-tolerant new generation.”
But some of the Republicans’ deficits with women and minority voters aren’t as insurmountable as they might appear today.
Republicans, for starters, don’t intend in future elections to saddle themselves with knuckle-walking U.S. Senate candidates like Todd Akin and Richard Mourdock, whose retrograde views on rape helped drive women away from the GOP in droves. The damage went well beyond their states of Missouri and Indiana, respectively, and even many conservative Republicans seem to get that now.
Already, a few hard-liners on the right have signaled they would be willing to work out a compromise with Democrats to allow immigrants in the U.S. illegally to meet certain requirements to work their way to citizenship. Exit polls showed that Mitt Romney’s harsh line — saying he would force immigrants to “self deport” — turned off many Latino voters.
A candidate like Marco Rubio — the Cuban American son of immigrants who is a U.S. senator from Florida — would also go a distance toward closing the GOP’s “Latino gap.” That would be particularly true if Rubio learned to adopt the policies and language of former President George W. Bush.
One of Bush’s singular achievements, according to “One Party Country,” was making substantial inroads with African American and, especially, Latino voters in key states. By speaking more agreeably about immigrants and supporting routes to citizenship for illegal immigrants, Bush won 50% of the Latino vote in the crucial state of Florida, helping him narrowly secure the state, and the presidency, in 2000. A similar path could be open to Rubio or other potential GOP candidates in 2016.
Another lesson about not-so-permanent permanent majorities: Bush’s campaign’s featured Karl Rove’s micro-targeting and get-out-the-vote efforts that the press portrayed as virtually invincible. Republicans talked about the Rove vote apparatus like it was a miracle machine, Democrats like it was some evil subversion.
All that talk conveyed the sense that the GOP vote-expansion tools lived a life of their own — ready to be transferred to the next Republican to come down the line. But that didn’t prove to be the case for John McCain in 2008. He had, for the most part, to form his own organization and voter-expansion strategies, which didn’t work nearly so well.
The idea of Obama passing his vaunted “ground game” operation, intact, to Hillary Rodham Clinton or some other Democrat in 2016 surmises that the armies of precinct captains, phone bankers and canvassers owe their allegiance to party first.
Obama strategist David Plouffe made it clear in a conference call following last week’s victory that he had no idea how, or how much of, the Obama machine will be transferred to the next Democrat who runs for the White House.
Continuity of ideology does not assure that a party passes power from one nominee to the next. And many volunteers, who power ground operations, sign on for a particular candidate rather than a party as a whole. Plouffe noted that much of the Obama operation was driven by attachment to the onetime senator from Illinois.
With potential new malleability among once-inflexible GOP hopefuls and the ascent of new candidates for the GOP, today’s Democratic “lock” on the White House looks far more like a door jam -- an obstacle, but not an insurmountable one.
And all the talk of new coalitions and impenetrable majorities will fall by the wayside if the economy can’t mount more of a recovery in the next four years than it has in the last four.
As Adam Serwer, a reporter in Washington for Mother Jones, wrote: “Remember: The Democrats were once the party of the Deep South, and the Republicans were once the party of civil rights. In politics, no coalition is permanent.”
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