Since I have been involved in politics as a full-time job, there have been five times where I had a really bad election night, where the Republicans kicked our ass and won most of the important races: 1980, 1994, 2004, 2010, and of course this year. Every single time was awful. Every single time the country suffered a great deal as a result. But every single time, Democrats came storming back the very next election and had a great year. It’s not too surprising, really: Republicans are an arrogant bunch with really bad and unpopular policy ideas that don’t work out well when they are enacted. And of course, we know that the voting pool in a presidential year tends to look more like the actual population of the country — younger, more people of color, more unmarried voters — and that is a very good thing for Democrats. So while I take absolutely nothing for granted, and know that we will have to work our collective Democratic asses off, I go into 2016 with some confidence.
The key, though, is good strategic thinking. We can’t go into the 2016 cycle thinking that Republican arrogance and demographics alone will save us. We have to have a strategy that simultaneously fires up our base and appeals to middle- and working-class swing voters. Central to that strategy is picking the right fights to have and to drive with an extended grassroots and media campaign, and avoiding the stupid “bipartisan” deals the DC establishment tends to love, but that are harmful to poor and middle income folks. Some examples of both the good ideas and the dumb stuff below.
In 1981, Reagan had swept into power with a Republican Senate, and although the Democrats still controlled the House, there was a sizable enough Southern conservative Democratic faction in the House that Reagan was able to push through his massive supply-side tax cuts for the rich. The Democratic Speaker of the House, Tip O’Neill, knew he was going to lose on the budget battle, but he made a point of picking a big fight on it and driving a message about the Democrats standing with the working class and the Republicans standing with the wealthy. When the budget deal resulted in a recession and a massive deficit in 1982, people remembered O’Neill’s stand, and the Democrats picked up 26 House seats that year, securing his ability to control the House the rest of the Reagan years.
In 1993-94, when Democrats had control of Congress, Clinton split the Democratic base and ticked off a lot of working-class swing voters by pushing NAFTA hard. He then failed to get health care reform passed; leaving a lot of Democrats completely unenthused about turning out. But in 1995, after the slaughter of the 1994 elections, when Clinton (at the strong urging of the labor and progressive movements, and against the advice of centrist advisers like Mark Penn) picked a big fight with the Republicans in Congress on the budget over Medicare, Medicaid, Education, and the Environment, the tide turned for Clinton permanently. Clinton went into that fight behind Dole in the polls by about 10 points, and by the time it was done, he was ahead by about 10 — and he never lost that lead.
After the 2004 elections, with conservative Republicans firmly in control of every branch of government, Democrats, backed strongly by the entire progressive movement, stood their ground and picked big fights with Bush and Tom DeLay over Social Security privatization, the Iraq war, the handling of Katrina, and the fact that Republican leadership was trying to cover up a growing wave of scandal involving sleazy lobbyists like Jack Abramoff. In each of these fights, progressives put campaigns together, gave them enough resources to give them a punch, and worked closely with the Democratic leadership to hold Democrats solidly together on those issues. The result was the most sweeping Democratic midterm election victory of the modern era, a 31 House seat and six Senate seat pick-up.
After the Republican blowout of 2010, Obama’s initial reaction was to reach out to cut deals with Republicans on the budget. He agreed to a couple of deals, making massive cuts in spending with no corresponding tax increases, and proposed (but thankfully did not get) a “grand bargain” with Republicans that would have cut Social Security benefits and made other big cuts in domestic spending. The progressive community was in open rebellion, Obama looked weak and like he didn’t care about fighting for his principles, and his approval ratings hit a first term low. But he saved himself in time with a strong populist speech in the fall of 2011 in Osawatomie, Kansas, that picked fights with the Republicans on a series of economic issues, and then he put out a progressive budget package that stood in stark contrast with the Ryan budget, which progressives had been fighting an on-going campaign to bring down. And Obama’s campaign successfully painted Romney as a heartless Wall Street CEO. In the worst economy for a President to be re-elected in since 1936, the Democrats won every closely contested presidential state but one, as well as most of the close Senate races.
The lessons here are clear: pick economic fights about helping poor and middle-class people instead of the wealthy and powerful, and avoid dumb bipartisan trade or budget deals that end jobs and cut benefits for the middle class.
And guess what? Speaking of populism, in the 2014 elections, one key point that people should think about isn’t just how Democrats lost, but where we won relatively easily in races that were supposed to be competitive. In Minnesota and Oregon, Democratic Senators Franken and Merkley went into the cycle with people thinking they might be in trouble. In Michigan, the Koch brothers invested a huge amount of money in a race that was supposed to be extremely competitive when Sen. Levin retired. In all three swing states, Democrats followed the same playbook: they ran an unapologetic economically populist campaign; brought in Elizabeth Warren in early to rally the troops and get activists excited to help them; and campaigned as proud progressive Democrats. On a night when most other Democrats struggled, these three strong progressives never went on defense, never struggled, and won the day strongly. Furthermore, of the ten closest Senate races in the country that had been considered the most competitive throughout the cycle (AK, NH, AR, KY, GA, KY, CO, IA, LA, NC), we won only one, Jeanne Shaheen in NH. Shaheen used Warren’s populist playbook (and repeated visits to NH to rally the troops) to beat corporate “moderate” Scott Brown.
I will close on this extremely important note: While the path to a solid Democratic victory in 2016 is clear, we need to be working toward a Democratic wave not just a Democratic victory. With the gains the Republicans made in the House and Senate, it will take a big Democratic election to have a chance at winning back both, especially the House. And whether it is Hillary or another Democratic president, I sure as hell would want to be governing without having to deal with a Republican-controlled House.
Having been deeply involved in both the 1996 Clinton re-elect and the 2006 strategy that won back both houses of Congress, I can tell you that there was a huge difference in both strategies and outcomes in those years. While Clinton thankfully rejected Penn’s and Dick Morris’ advice in 1995 to just split the difference with Gingrich and Dole on the budget, he did take their advice in terms of overall political positioning: he “triangulated,” intentionally setting himself apart from congressional Democrats and running his campaign on a completely separate track from other Democrats in 1996. The result was that Dole, indelibly linked in the public’s mind to a very unpopular Gingrich because of the 1995 government shutdown over the budget, was easily beaten, yet we lost two Senate seats and only picked up two House seats. In spite of the decisive budget victory, in spite of Gingrich’s unpopularity, in spite of a lifeless Dole campaign, there were no Clinton coattails because of the distance he created between his campaign and other Dems. It would be the last election where a president or party nominee had so little impact on the rest of the election.
In 2006, the contrast could not have been more dramatic. While there were some differences between Democrats on message, in general the party and progressive movement worked closely together on issue fights and messaging with a goal around building a wave. Staying united and winning decisively on the Social Security fight, and creating effective messaging campaigns around Bush’s failures in Iraq and with Hurricane Katrina, as well as driving message around the widespread scandal and corruption in the House under DeLay’s leadership, built the wave to an unprecedented level of strength.
In a presidential turnout year, with Republican hubris and extremism on full display as they flex their newfound power, I have no doubt a big wave for the Democrats can be built. It will take smart strategic thinking about what big issue fights to pick and what dumb bipartisan deals to avoid; it will take a strong dose of economic populism in an economy overwhelmingly skewed to the top 1 percent; and it will take a unity of purpose instead of Democrats trying to set themselves apart from the core values of the party. But if we are smart and tough and relatively unified, 2016 will be a great election for the Democratic Party.