Democrats

'Disarray' Is Preface to Power for Democrats

The last time the party was this divided, it took over Congress.

In 2004, a political unknown.

Photographer: Spencer Platt/Getty Images

"The Democrats are in disarray." That was the first line of a classic Hendrik Hertzberg column in March 2006 in the New Yorker. Hertzberg didn't actually believe his own sentence; he made it clear that he was just parroting what many of the in-the-know political reporters and pundits were then saying.

He went on to explain that parties out of power, as the Democrats then were, are always a bit like driftwood, bobbing on the political seas, waiting for the right storm surge to bring them to shore. 

Without either a federal power center or an imminent Presidential election — without a President, a Speaker of the House, a Senate Majority Leader, or a Presidential nominee — no institutional instrument or leader has the clout to impose a consensus. Democrats advocate a spectrum of more or less similar positions — an array, not a disarray….

About eight months after he wrote that, with Republican President George W. Bush resorting to rope-a-dope against the battery of headlines from Iraq, Democrats took control of both the House of Representatives and the Senate. Two years after that, they gained still more seats in Congress and elected their most talented and improbable candidate -- a young, cosmopolitan, mixed-race intellectual -- to the White House.

The following two years, starting in 2009, produced not an array (or disarray) of proposals, but a coordinated blitz of liberal legislation. It included the Affordable Care Act, that ginormous little engine that could and indeed still does, despite the distilled hatred of every Republican ostensibly in a position to dismantle it.

The era of hope and change is dead and gone. Democrats are once again shut out of power. And "disarray" demands an encore.

The 2016 Democratic nominee for president proved incapable of defeating a crude, media-savvy buffoon. With Donald Trump's victory in November, Democrats lost their last foothold in Washington. Republicans dominate the statehouses. Meanwhile, the New York Times reported on Friday that the Democrats are so divided that a mayoral race in Omaha, Nebraska, provides sufficient stakes for a fratricidal brawl.

From the right, Noah Rothman writes in Commentary that the Democratic "brand is in crisis," with the party so disjointed and out to lunch it faces an existential threat with a shrug. "What are Democrats rallying around beside the disagreeable personality" of Trump? Rothman asks. 

Matthew Continetti, writing in the Washington Free Beacon, likewise sees Democrats suffering "from the staleness, the remoteness of their policy message." The party is unable to shake its groggy, disgruntled base out of its Bernie Sanders stupor, Continetti said:

But the crowds are there for Bernie. They are the left-wing version of the voters who brought us Trump: anti-establishment, anti-globalization, more interested in assembly-line security than in Silicon Valley disruption.

Continetti sees the Democratic Party as the next target to fall to political rage against elites. "The GOP was turned upside down by the revolt against the professions," he wrote, "and the Democrats are next."

From the left, Matt Taibbi observes a party in ruins. Pondering "Shattered," a new book on Hillary Clinton's 2016 campaign by the knowledgeable, well-sourced reporters Jonathan Allen and Amie Parnes, Taibbi wrote:

Shattered is what happens when political parties become too disconnected from their voters. Even if you think the election was stolen, any Democrat who reads this book will come away believing he or she belongs to a party stuck in a profound identity crisis. Trump or no Trump, the Democrats need therapy -- and soon.

It sounds pretty grim. And why shouldn't it? Democrats have no remedy for the contradictions of globalization, which has enriched the party's donor base and elevated an elite strain of multiculturalism, while helping to crush the industrial unions and workers who once powered Democratic campaigns.

Democrats must sustain their unwieldy feminist, multiracial, multiclass coalition in the face of a virulent cultural backlash at home and an ugly anti-liberal trend abroad. They must somehow chart a coherent political and policy course from a position of historic political weakness. Meanwhile, their marquee politician is a septuagenarian opportunist who refuses to label himself a Democrat and uses the party more as a foil than as a foundation on which to build a viable majority. 

It's hard to look at this dead tide and conclude that the Democratic Party is ready to mount another electoral wave. Yet it very well may. As it did in 2006, the party mostly agrees on most of the big issues most of the time. Or as Democratic pollster Paul Maslin put it in an email responding to the notion of Dems in disarray: "Disarray about what?"

At present, Democrats are under no obligation to solve the world's problems, or calm the waters roiling so many democracies, including the U.S. "Trump is the story," Maslin said. "We simply have to be the strong opposition, recruit candidates, raise money and be prepared to exploit his weaknesses."

Democratic strategist Simon Rosenberg strokes a similar power chord. "Of course Democratic politics is going to be messy and fractious these next few years. That's always true for parties without the White House," he emailed. "But what is also true is that Dems have had very strong, encouraging showings in early special elections, and our base is energized and ready to fight hard these next two years."

Evidence thus far suggests that President Trump is little different from candidate Trump: an ignorant and reckless man of fractured attention and dangerously varying abilities. It's possible, of course, that the shape of Trump's emergent presidency will change. His family's grift and his own callous incompetence could easily be eclipsed by crisis, including events that benefit him politically. But given his obvious unfitness for high office, Trump will most likely continue to be a messy failure, come what may. 

These are complex and uncertain times. Democrats lack the answers to many difficult questions. They haven't identified new leaders who can articulate new policies to address new (along with stubborn old) challenges.

For now, however, Democrats don't need the answer to every question. They need only convince voters, by November 2018, that they have the answer to one question: Who can replace these flailing, Trump-soiled Republicans?

(Corrects publication where Matthew Continetti's article appears in eighth paragraph.)

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

    To contact the author of this story:
    Francis Wilkinson at fwilkinson1@bloomberg.net

    To contact the editor responsible for this story:
    Katy Roberts at kroberts29@bloomberg.net

    Before it's here, it's on the Bloomberg Terminal.
    LEARN MORE
    Comments