1. The Parties and the Pendulum
For the Democrats, the news is bad—and it’s about to get worse. Why? Because the ideological pendulum is swinging the Democrats to a far-left place, and a political party doesn’t win from the wings.
To be sure, no ideological swing is permanent, but for the next four years, it seems likely that the Democrats will push themselves leftward, to un-electability at the presidential level.
I’ll get to this pendulum-swinging in a moment, but first, let’s establish the current partisan baseline: In addition to Donald Trump winning the White House, the House Republicans will have 238 seats in the next Congress, and Senate Republicans will have 51. Meanwhile, out in the states, the GOP will control 33 governorships and 67 legislative chambers.
To further illustrate the hole that the Democrats find themselves in, here’s a chart from The Washington Post, which shows that in the last eight years, Democrats have lost 10.2 percent of their Senate seats, 19.3 percent of their House seats, 20.3 percent of their legislatures, and 35.7 percent of their governorships. We can add: These are the lowest Democratic numbers since 1928.
In the caustic words of Post reporter Philip Bump, “That whistling sound you hear is the party Thelma-and-Louise-ing.” Movie fans will recognize that as a reference to the ending scene in the 1991 movie Thelma and Louise, in which the title characters drive off a cliff, plunging to their death.
So what happened? It seemed like only yesterday that the MSM, and the chattering classes overall, were certain that Hillary Clinton was destined for a decisive victory, possibly even a landslide. Yet now, not so much.
So today, the Democrats have something they didn’t particularly wish for: the opportunity for an “agonizing reassessment.” The problem is that such reassessments don’t always end up improving the situation—sometimes they make things worse.
As former CNN pundit Bill Schneider liked to say, an election defeat gives the losing party a chance to “fix” whatever went wrong. The big question, of course, is, “What needs fixing?” And now the post-mortem “autopsy” reports as to the needed fix are coming, one might say, fast and furious.
To be sure, a few Hillary loyalists declare that their woman lost because of “sexism,” or some other retrograde “-ism.” Many more Clintonites blame FBI Director James Comey; shadowy Clinton operative Sidney Blumenthal has gone so far as to claim that the election was a “coup d’etat” staged by “a cabal of right-wing agents of the FBI in the New York office attached to Rudy Giuliani.” Okay, so that’s the thinking of a few Clintonite dead-enders.
Meanwhile, most Democrats, and their barely-undercover allies in the MSM, are coming around to the view that Hillary was a deeply flawed candidate. Here, for example, is the analysis of Politico’s Glenn Thrush, writing that the failure of Clinton’s campaign was:
…proof that a conventional candidate can do practically everything by the numbers (win debates, raise the most cash, assemble the greatest data and voter outreach effort in history) and still fall to a movement impelled by raw emotion, not calculation.
We might pause to say that other observers would dispute Thrush’s assertion that Clinton won all the presidential debates; it surely seemed that Trump punched through, for example, with, “You’d be in jail,” thereby highlighting Clinton’s home-brew e-mail scandal.
Yet we could also add that a significant advantage that Clinton had going for her was the active collusion of the MSM, including, yes, the very same Glenn Thrush.
So now, with the benefit of hindsight, all the defects of Clinton, and the Democrats, and associated “experts,” have been made manifest. Writing the day after the election, Politico’s Michael Grunwald observed:
The experts, it turned out, had no idea what they were talking about. And that, it seems, was what last night’s Trumpquake was about, a revolt against the experts, against the elites, against the out-of-touch inside-the-Beltway insiders.
Again, it’s funny how, after the fact, everyone can see the handwriting on the wall.
Meanwhile, across the country, Democratic activists, who lean well to the left, are conducting their own “reassessment,” and that’s sure to affect inside-the-beltway thinking, as well as future party personnel.
A post-election poll, for example, commissioned by a supporter of Sen. Bernie Sanders, concluded that the Vermont socialist would have defeated Trump by an “historic margin.” Others might question the plausibility of the poll—after all, it’s the ultimate instance of an unprovable hypothetical—and yet at the same time, it’s obvious that Democratic activists are eager to believe it. Even today, just days after Clinton’s defeat, the Sanders people are already gearing up to take control of the state parties.
Also in the wake of the election, a tide of street protest is roiling the country, and that anger is contagious, at least to the left. Here’re the words of one young protestor in San Francisco:
As a white, queer person, we need unity with people of color, we need to stand up. I’m fighting for my rights as an LGBTQ person. I’m fighting for the rights of brown people, black people, Muslim people.
A Republican can dismiss such sentiments as just the ranting of a loony lefty. And yet a Democrat can’t, because such voices are numerous, perhaps even predominant, at the Democratic grassroots. Moreover, the institutional Democrats in D.C., frozen out of power in the capital as they are, now lack any sort of political bulwark from which to repel the activist onslaught.
Indeed, the new trend of radical thinking has already bled into D.C. We can see this from a November 10 news item in The Huffington Post: It seems that a Green activist working at the Democratic National Committee stood up in a DNC meeting and heckled Donna Brazile, the outgoing DNC chair. As the young man, identified only as “Zach,” said to Brazile, “You are part of the problem,” referring to Brazile’s early support for Clinton over Sanders. And then Zach added this nutty oratorical fusillade:
You and your friends will die of old age and I’m going to die from climate change. You and your friends let this happen, which is going to cut 40 years off my life expectancy.
Whereupon Zach stalked out of the room. Now that crazed bit of speechifying performance-art might strike most Americans as insane, but this is the mindset of Democratic activists these days: Losing has a way of running some people off the rails (assuming they were ever on them).
And so now we see the ideological predicate for that big pendulum swing looming dead-ahead in the Democrats’ future: Democratic activists, enraged by what’s happened in the last week, and blaming the establishment, are determined to “fix” the party’s problem, even if, in their shortsightedness, such “fixing” actually makes the problem worse.
Thus we come to Rep. Keith Ellison, the left-wing African-American Muslim Congressman from Minnesota. A Friday headline in Politico tells us what’s likely in Ellison’s future: “Warren: Ellison would make a ‘terrific’ DNC chair.” That would be, of course, Sen. Elizabeth Warren’s endorsing Ellison to be the next leader of the Democratic National Committee, succeeding Brazile.
Indeed, later that same day, Sen. Bernie Sanders—whom most Democratic activists see as the Great Victim of 2016, as he was so obviously robbed by the Hillary-controlled DNC—endorsed Ellison. Also endorsing was Sen. Chuck Schumer, the incoming leader of the Senate Democrats. So as we can see, looking toward the DNC election in January, Ellison has genuine momentum.
Under the headline, “Democrats Embrace Their Radicalism,” Commentary’s Noah Rothman delves into him further:
Ellison, a former disciple of Louis Farrakhan and the Nation of Islam, has compared the 9/11 attacks to the Reichstag fire, implying that its effects—the empowering of the Bush administration to prosecute the Global War on Terror—was the attack’s design.
And so the rest of us might ask: How could the Democrats want this radical man as their partisan spokesperson—especially in 2017, when so few other Democrats will have the national stage? In what electoral universe is Ellison an asset? Surely Ellison’s brand of out-there politics isn’t helpful to Democratic fortunes in the whole of Minnesota, to say nothing of the whole United States.
And yet the Democrats want him, because they’re in a radical mood.
Of course, not all Democrats are fiery radicals. And they can’t be happy about the Ellison-ization of their party. Yet at the same time, when a wave is crashing, it’s often safer meekly to seek shelter, as opposed to standing up and confronting it at high noon. So moderate Democrats are likely to remain well hidden during the DNC contest.
In addition, it must be said that relatively few Americans, now or in the future, will ever be able to name the DNC Chair. So in that sense, perhaps moderate Democrats are safe as they quietly seek re-election in 2018, even as their party’s ideological hothouse gets hotter.
2. The Presidency and the Pendulum
Yet beyond next year’s DNC race, there’s a deeper dynamic at work. That is, the choices that the Democrats make in 2017 will almost certainly be an early indicator of where they are headed in 2020.
To explore this further, we can go back to Bill Schneider’s point about a party’s “fixing” what went wrong. That is, the Democrats’ collective understanding of why they lost in ’16 will guide them as they seek to win in ’20. We can further observe: If the Democrats diagnose their problem correctly, they are perhaps more likely to win in four years. But if they don’t get it right, then they are more likely to be disappointed once again.
This is the lesson of political pendulum-swings: Parties need strong situational awareness if they are to have a chance to win, and yet in the tumult of blame-assigning and vengeance-taking, clarity of thought is oftentimes lost. This dynamic, we can further say, applies to both parties—although today, it’s the Democrats’ turn to swing.
We can offer a thesis statement about this pendulum-swing phenomenon:
After a party loses the White House, the old guard—the insider establishment—is, by definition, discredited in the eyes of party activists. After all, they lost! And at the same time, it’s hard for the activists to admit that something might be wrong with themselves and their beliefs. Instead, activists typically scapegoat the losing candidate, and the campaign team, for the defeat. And so power in the party reverts to the ideological base, as activists, having absolved themselves of any fault, proceed with full confidence that they are absolutely in the right. Thus they nominate, for the next presidential election, a candidate molded in their own image—a candidate of the base. And base candidates almost never win. In other words, there’s a reason most incumbent presidents win a second term—they draw a weak challenger.
Now, to be more party-specific, we can say that for Democrats, this revert-to-the-base phenomenon entails nominating a true-believing liberal—or, as left-wing Democrats prefer to call themselves these days, a “progressive.” And by the same token, for the Republicans, base-reversion means nominating a true-believing conservative. And yet true believers on either side of the aisle, God bless ‘em, usually have a hard time getting to 51 percent.
We can recall how this pendulum-swing plays out in political history. In 1960, for instance, Richard Nixon, the incumbent vice president, was defeated by John F. Kennedy. Nixon’s defeat—even in a close election that might, in fact, have been stolen—was a discrediting not only of Nixon, but also of the entire Eisenhower-era Republican establishment. And so party activists, instinctively and ideologically anti-establishment, gathered around the iconic Sen. Barry Goldwater as they looked ahead to the next election in 1964.
The problem for Republicans, of course, was that Goldwater, ideologically “pure” as he might have been, was seen as too extreme by the country as a whole. And so whereas Nixon the establishmentarian lost narrowly in ’60, Goldwater the anti-establishmentarian lost in a landslide in ’64.
We can quickly observe: In this election year, the country was looking for an outsider, and yet sometimes, as in ’64, the country is looking for an insider. The challenge for any candidate is to read correctly the Zeitgeist, the spirit of the age. This year, as we know, Trump read it right, and half-a-century ago, Goldwater read it wrong.
Interestingly, after Goldwater’s defeat, it was the conservative activists’ turn to be discredited, allowing the GOP establishment to make a comeback in the following four years. Indeed, in 1968 the Republicans nominated… Richard Nixon. Yes, Nixon, a pillar of the GOP, was the party’s choice a second time around. And, in fact, Nixon won the November election. Thus we can see the pendulum had swung again, this time in the opposite direction, back to the establishment.
Yet of course, our purpose here is not to dope out a possible scenario for the next eight years, but rather, only for the next four years—in particular, what will the Democrats be up to between now and 2020? And what sort of figure will they choose as their standard-bearer? And so to further illustrate the pendulum-swing phenomenon and where it leads, we can look back to history yet again, this time to the Democrats.
The losing Democrat in 1968, Hubert Humphrey, had, like Nixon in 1960, been the incumbent vice president. In other words, Humphrey was in the bosom of the establishment—at least he was, until he lost.
And in fact, Humphrey was interested in running again in 1972. And yet the Democratic activists—having pushed the establishment aside in an operation mirroring the rise of Republican activists after 1960—weren’t interested in Humphrey. Not in the least.
Instead, Dem activists had their hearts set on Sen. George McGovern, who was a bit of a Democratic Barry Goldwater. That is, McGovern sang sweet music to the party base in the primaries, and so he won the ’72 nomination, and yet he was far too ideologically extreme to win the general election.
We can observe that this pattern is consistent across the decades, in both parties. Again: After the “in” party loses, the ideological activists take over and nominate one of their own—and that ideological candidate loses even bigger than had the establishment candidate.
Thus we can see why so many presidents—most recently, Bill Clinton, George W. Bush, and Barack Obama—have been two-termers. That is, in his re-election campaign, the incumbent president is challenged by a base candidate who is simply too extreme to win.
Here at this point some might object that the GOP candidate in 2012, Mitt Romney, was no conservative. And that’s true—but he pretended to be one. That is, Romney attempted to embrace, as he said so awkwardly, “severely conservative” positions that a) were not popular with middle-of-the road voters, and b) everyone knew he didn’t really mean, anyway. So no wonder Romney lost badly, and has not been missed since.
By contrast, in 2016, while Trump was no establishmentarian, he also didn’t pretend to be an orthodox conservative. Instead, having rejected libertarian Republican dogma on such key issues as immigration and trade, he came across as pragmatic and centrist, even as he retained his populist edge. And that’s why he carried states that hadn’t voted Republican since the 1980s.
So now we can look ahead, with more clarity, at 2020. As we have seen, the Democrats are moving left, and they’re likely to take their next presidential nominee along with them. Indeed, all the guiding stars in their firmament—the PC protestors, some of them violent, the growing energy around lefty champions such as Sanders and Warren, the likely election of Keith Ellison to the DNC—are aligning to produce a far left-wing Democratic nominee in four years.
And that, of course, is great news for President Trump if he seeks re-election.