October 20, 2017

The Democrats’ Rocky Road Ahead

Dr. Malcolm Cross

Last week I wrote of problems for Republicans.  This week I want to write of problems for Democrats.

The Republicans control the Presidency, both houses of the Congress and most state governorships and legislatures.   Twice this year Time has expressed pessimism for the Democrats’ future.  Earlier this year it asked, “Do the Democrats Matter?”  Its cover this week says “Shrunk:  Democrats are in the worst shape since 1929.  Can anything save them?”

For the Democrats to improve their condition, they must first overcome at least three major hurdles:  Their vulnerability in the 2018 Senate elections, Republican domination of state legislatures, and the danger of becoming perceived as the extremist party.

Of the thirty-three U. S. Senate seats to be contested in 2018, Democrats currently hold twenty-five, ten of which are in states won by President Trump in 2016, and where he remains popular.  Two of the Republican senators are seen as vulnerable, but it is currently considered likely that the Republicans can expand their Senate majority by defeating Democrats in red states. 

Since the first election of President Obama in 2008, the Democrats have lost 970 seats in the state legislatures.  Today the Republicans have absolute majorities in both legislative houses in thirty two states, while Democrats control the legislatures of only 13 states (the remaining state legislatures are either nonpartisan, or split with Democrats controlling one chamber and Republicans controlling the other).  Should Republicans be able to maintain their control through the 2018 and 2020 elections, they will be in a position to redraw election district lines for the state legislatures and U. S. House of Representatives to their advantage following the 2020 census.  No doubt they will do everything in their power to keep Republican majorities in the U. S. House and the state legislatures as well (naturally, the Democrats will do the same in states they dominate, but since they dominate fewer, their effectiveness may be less).

Whenever a political party loses a major election—presidential and/or congressional—fighting breaks out among different factions over who is to blame for the loss and what course of action must be followed in the future.  The success of Trump and the GOP in 2016 has minimized Republican infighting, but finger pointing abounds among the Democrats.  The loudest voices currently are those that say the Democrats must adopt a single-payer health insurance scheme, that abortion must be supported under all circumstances and that there’s no room in the Democratic Party for anyone who questions whether abortion rights under some circumstances should be questioned, and that a higher education should be free for all (but who would pay for it?).  It is common, in a presidential election between a candidate perceived as moderate and one perceived as extreme, for the public to overwhelmingly elect the moderate, as it chose Johnson over Goldwater, or Nixon over McGovern.  Should the public perceive the views of the Democratic Party and its next presidential nominee to be too extreme in 2020, it will overwhelmingly re-elect President Trump or otherwise select whomever the Republicans nominate in his stead.

But while current trends auger for the retention of power by the Republicans for the foreseeable future, all is not bleak for the Democrats.  The hurdles they must face, while high, are not necessarily insurmountable.  One of the most fascinating aspects of political history is how it illustrates that each party’s fortunes can change—either for better or for worse—in unexpected ways.  Party views once considered extremist may, over the years, become acceptable after all:  Republican conservatism, once considered extreme in the 1960s, became acceptable in the 1980s, as shown by the election of Ronald Reagan.  And the Republicans, so dominant today, were almost written off as obsolete following their defeats in 2008 and 2012.

Besides, it’s a matter of history that indeed, in 1929, the Republicans were America’s dominant political party.  The previous year they had won the presidential election by a landslide for the third consecutive time.  They had majorities in both houses of Congress as well as in most state legislatures, and they had a majority of the governorships.

But just one year later, as America was slipping into the Great Depression, the Democrats began a historical comeback, winning a majority in the U. S. House of Representatives—a majority they would retain for 60 out of the next 64 years.  And in 1932 they won their first of five consecutive presidential elections (four with FDR and one with Truman), as well as a majority of the Senate, which they would retain for fifty-two of the next sixty-two years. 

So Democrats should be prepared to exploit whatever advantages open up for them, while heeding the words of Fedora to Indiana Jones at the opening of Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade:  “You lost today, but you don’t have to like it.”  And Republicans, must remain vigilant as they prepare for the Democrats’ next onslaught, and remember Han Solo’s advice to Luke Skywalker:  “Don’t get cocky, kid!”


Malcolm L. Cross has lived in Stephenville and taught politics and government at Tarleton since 1987. His political and civic activities include service on the Stephenville City Council (2000-2014) and on the Erath County Republican Executive Committee (1990 to the present).  He was Mayor Pro Tem of Stephenville from 2008 to 2014.  He is a member of St. Luke’s Episcopal Church and the Stephenville Rotary Club, and does volunteer work for the Boy Scouts of America. Views expressed in this column are his and do not reflect those of The Flash as a whole.

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