The 2016 election has settled officeholders in place for two to four years. What the election did not do, however, was to create well-organized, efficient and ready-for-the-long-term structures. This is true for both parties.
The Republicans are clearly dominant in national and state politics, holding the presidency, Congress, and at some point in 2017, the Supreme Court. The party holds 33 governorships and a large majority of state legislative chambers.
The Democrats have had their bench decimated in 2010, 2014 and 2016. Sixty House seats and twelve Senate seats have been lost along with hundreds of state legislative positions.
A straight-up head count of positions, however, only tells part of the story. The partisan divisions in the country have settled in very deeply. The election of Donald Trump, with all the divisiveness that he has engendered, leaves both parties needing to figure out what they can do with the coalitions that operated in the 2016 election.
Theoretically the Republicans should have an easier time managing things, given their overall control of the levers of government. But holding the public office is not the same as being able to make things function or to gain approval for the public policies that the party has advocated. The problem is Donald Trump, given the populist-type support that got him elected, will in many cases be running into the strong headwinds of conservative Republican members of Congress who expect him to simply act as their instrument for their long-sought plans. Trump is not a conservative.
Take, for instance, Obamacare. After sixty votes in the House repealing the law, Republicans are finally going to be in a position to get the bill passed and signed by an agreeable president. Senate 60-vote filibuster rules, however, will tie things in up in knots for a while.
The hard part comes in replacing Obamacare with something else. Trump says that he likes certain things about the law like restrictions on the use of pre-existing conditions and coverage for adult children up to the age of 26 who are eligible for medical insurance under their parents’ plans. You can’t really repeal Obamacare and maintain those types of policies.
And then there is the pesky problem of what to do about twenty million people who acquired medical coverage through the law. I haven’t read a word about what Trump or congressional representatives actually plan to do about that.
The Republican establishment elite that is led by House Speaker Paul Ryan and Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell will want to cut things like entitlements and federal education and environmental programs. Trump may have a different view of some of those things because his base doesn’t seem to be particularly anxious about cutting all government programs.
One public policy matter that seems like it might have some potential bi-partisan traction is a massive infrastructure program for roads, bridges, airports, and water and sewer systems. Trump and most Democratic and Republican officeholders would agree that there is a great need for such work. Trump talks about spending one trillion dollars on infrastructure. Conservative members in Congress shudder at such numbers. They will insist on other cuts in government to pay for the work. Trump wants to pay for at least some of the work with private sector financing tied into tax benefits for contractors. That would probably drive away Democratic support that he will need to get the infrastructure plan into law.
Trump also plans on a large military build-up, which will make defense contractors and their friends in Congress happy, but where does the money come from? These issues, plus Trump’s plans for massive tax cuts for the rich, will drive up the national debt – you know, that nasty debt that Trump complained about during the campaign.
These are the types of issues that will make life difficult for the Republican elite establishment base and the Trump populist base as they try to work together in 2017.
Could there be some major screw-ups by Trump and his administration in the next year that bog down that activity? Will it come in the form of incompetent appointees? Perhaps some budget or other financial crisis like extending the debt limit? How about some conflict of interest issues arising from the Trump children running the family business with a base of contacts and insider information available to them as they straddle the lines of ethics? Or maybe some foreign opponents will challenge a trigger-happy, twitter-obsessed unprepared president who shoots first and asks questions later. Or maybe all of these things.
Democrats have no power in Washington at the moment, and with the House gerrymandered in the Republicans’ favor and more than half of the Democratic Senate seats up in 2018, the prospects for turning that around in the near term are slim.
Aside from the lack of legislative power in Washington, Democrats also have a base problem. The coastal elite heavily populated the Hillary Clinton campaign. They did everything the way the “how-to-run-a-presidential-campaign” handbook said they should. Clinton won the popular vote by a considerable margin. But Donald Trump, who didn’t even read “presidential campaigns for dummies,” will be sworn in on January 20th.
It is obvious the Democratic elite forgot their other base, the white collar and blue collar working folks who occupy the middle part of the country. This base considered themselves ignored, and that was pretty much true.
The canaries in the coal mine should have been Clinton’s loss in the Michigan primary; her slim lead in the polls in Pennsylvania and Wisconsin; and, Trump’s fairly consistent lead in the Ohio polls. The folks running Clinton’s campaign spent too much time trying to expand the electoral map into places like Arizona and Georgia instead of paying attention to the party’s traditional heartland base.
So where do the Dems go from here?
President Obama is indicating that he wants to work on rallying the party. That’s good, but it will be difficult. He did not spend enough time trying to do that for the past eight years.
Senators Elizabeth Warren and Bernie Sanders are looking to step into the breach. That might help with the more liberal portions of the base, but catering there could just drive away some of the party’s establishment base as well as middle America. The two Democratic bases, like the two Republican bases, need to find a way to work in harmony as much as possible, because neither can survive and prosper without the help of the other.
Other Democratic politicians will undoubtedly try to step forward, but at this moment it is hard to put together even a short list of potential party leaders and presidential candidates.
There are establishment elites in both parties who have been the controlling elements in their respective parties for many years, and it is not likely that they will roll over and play dead. There are populist bases in both parties that will be trying to assert their new found notoriety and make an impact. We will soon have a president whose incendiary style may keep both bases of both parties fighting all over the place.
We are in uncharted territory. The campaign ended but the divisions and confusion probably will get worse before they get better. Take a deep breath and hang on.