Conservative Peter Wehner argues in the New York Times that President Obama has pulled the Democratic Party too far the left, ruining the party’s electoral strength at every level except the presidency. “The Democratic Party is now a pre-Bill Clinton party” says Wehner, implying that Obama has taken the party backwards, away from the “centrist New Democrat” model.
To those who foolishly use Obama’s own electoral wins as evidence that his policies are popular, Wehner rebuts:
One can also plausibly argue that the Republican Party is the governing party in America. After two enormous losses by Democrats in the 2010 and 2014 midterm elections, Republicans control the Senate and the House of Representatives. There are currently 31 Republican governors compared with 18 for Democrats. Republicans control 68 of 98 state legislative chambers and the most state legislative seats since the 1920s. Nearly half of Americans now live in states under total Republican control. The Obama years have been politically good for Mr. Obama; they have been disastrous for his party. That is a problematic legacy for a man who envisioned himself as a Franklin Delano Roosevelt-like transformational political figure.
And if you didn’t know anything about history, his argument makes a lot of sense.
Your first clue that there’s something wrong with this argument: that transformational political figure FDR also had two horrible midterms.
The 1938 elections forged a bipartisan conservative congressional majority that thwarted additional New Deal reforms. Republicans even took the overall popular vote in the 1942 House election. Furthermore, after Roosevelt’s death, Republican seized control of both branches of Congress in the 1946 midterm.
Yet the New Deal legacy was unharmed. Periodic conservative backlashes did not mean voters wanted to erase what FDR accomplished. On the contrary, Americans still wanted to build on FDR’s foundation for several decades, even if they chose not to do it at a furious pace.
Looking at the gubernatorial tally is also deceiving, in part because most gubernatorial races occur during the midterms.
Democrats had 34 governors after the 1982 midterm elections (and picked up one more in 1983), which did nothing to stop Ronald Reagan’s 1984 landslide. The Democratic edge collapsed once President Bill Clinton faced his first midterm: A 29-20 majority turned into a 19-30 minority overnight, though Clinton was soon re-elected easily. Democrats didn’t regain it until – surprise! – the 2006 midterm that repudiated the Bush presidency.
What about the recent Republican romp in state legislatures? As this Real Clear Politics analysis explains, the Republican gains are mostly the last chapter in the post-civil rights partisan realignment of the South. Another factor is that Republicans exploited the redistricting power they gained after the 2010 midterms. Finally, Democrats had been asleep at the switch: “Since the 2004 election, the Republican State Leadership Committee has raised over $140 million … The Democratic Legislative Campaign Committee, the RSLC’s counterpart, raised less than half that amount in the same period.” (Democrats don’t plan to make that mistake again.)
None of this suggests that voters see Republicans as “the governing party in America.” Nor does the fact that the new Republican leaders of Congress have a mere 22 percent approval rating. Or that the GOP as a whole scores 29 percent. Or that Hillary Clinton begins the 2016 race with solid leads over every possible opponent.
Obviously, we can’t know the future. How policies are implemented, how the economy fares, how the world progresses will shape how the Obama presidency is viewed one year from now, five years from now, ten years from now.
But there are things we do know. As Wehner notes, President Obama governed farther to the left than President Clinton: on health care, bank regulation, climate, stimulus and welfare. In each of their elections, Obama won a larger share of the vote than Clinton. In fact, he is only the fourth president to win back-to-back popular vote majorities in the last 100 years, and the first Democrat to do so since FDR. Maybe, just maybe, he pulled his party in the right ideological direction.
The ideological pendulum swings that always occur within a multi-term presidency do not undercut that reality. And they certainly do not predict the future.