Monday, October 19, 2015

Yglesias Gets it Wrong About Which Party is in Trouble

Matt Yglesias has written a column that is sure to ignite a discussion (Ed Kilgore and djw at Lawyers, Guns and Money have already weighed in). His title tells you a lot about where he's going: Democrats are in denial. Their party is actually in deep trouble. Here's the gist of the point he's trying to make.
Yes, Barack Obama is taking a victory lap in his seventh year in office. Yes, Republicans can't find a credible candidate to so much as run for speaker of the House. Yes, the GOP presidential field is led by a megalomaniacal reality TV star. All this is true — but rather than lay the foundation for enduring Democratic success, all it's done is breed a wrongheaded atmosphere of complacence.

The presidency is extremely important, of course. But there are also thousands of critically important offices all the way down the ballot. And the vast majority — 70 percent of state legislatures, more than 60 percent of governors, 55 percent of attorneys general and secretaries of state — are in Republicans hands. And, of course, Republicans control both chambers of Congress.
Yglesias is right to highlight this problem. But in doing so, he hypes it so out of proportion that it becomes hard to take him seriously. For example, to draw the contrast between "complacent" Democrats and the success of Republicans, he actually writes this sentence.
Not only have Republicans won most elections, but they have a perfectly reasonable plan for trying to recapture the White House.
Given that he just mentioned the fact that the GOP's leading candidate to accomplish that task right now is a "megalomaniacal reality TV star," and that none of their establishment candidates seem capable of holding their own against him, it's hard to take that sentence seriously. But later on in the article, Yglesias get's more specific about that "perfectly reasonable plan."
The GOP, by contrast, has basically two perfectly plausible plans for moving its agenda forward. One is to basically change nothing and just hope for slightly better luck from the economic fundamentals or in terms of Democratic Party scandals. The other is to shift left on immigration and gain some Latino votes while retaining the core of the party's commitments. Neither of these plans is exactly brilliant, innovative, or foolproof. But neither one is crazy.
I don't know that it's crazy for a political party to count on an economic downturn or the possibility of finding and hyping a Democratic scandal as their plan for winning the White House. But it's a pretty good indication that their agenda is weak and inept if that's all they've got. And please...wake me up when Republicans decide to shift left on immigration. The entire Trump-mania phenomenon has been based of shifting right on that issue (look no further than Marco Rubio's flip-flop on that one).

While everyone else is noticing that the Republican Party is in chaos right now, Yglesias actually thinks they're doing just great.
Much of the current Republican infighting — embarrassing and counterproductive though it may be at times — reflects the healthy impulse to recognize that the party lacks the full measure of power that it desires, and needs to argue about optimal strategies for obtaining it.
I fail to see how the efforts of the Ted Cruz and Freedom Caucus wing of the Republican Party to stall any attempt to actually implement an agenda since 2014 are a "healthy impulse."  At the beginning of this legislative session Majority Leader McConnell hoped to pass legislation that would force vetos from President Obama and make him look like the obstructionist. The chaos sparked by the Republican insurgents kept that from happening.

Yglesias is right to point out that Democrats have a problem with losing control of Congress as well as too many state legislatures and governor's races. But his analysis of why that has happened and what to do about it is deeply flawed.

First of all, he suggests that they haven't even admitted the problem and are instead focused on the competition in the presidential race between Clinton and Sanders about how far left to go. My response to that is that we are in the midst of a primary and that's what happens during this phase of an election. But here's how Yglesias sees things:
Consequently, the party is marching steadily to the left on its issue positions — embracing same-sex marriage, rediscovering enthusiasm for gun control, rejecting the January 2013 income tax rate settlement as inadequate, raising its minimum wage aspirations to the $12-to-$15 range, abandoning the quest for a grand bargain on balancing the budget while proposing new entitlements for child care and parental leave...
Yes, the Democrats are embracing a platform that has broad-based appeal among voters while the Republicans continue to paint themselves into a more extremist corner. You are going to have to convince me how that is a problem.

While it's true that Democrats have done poorly in the 2010 and 2014 midterms (and there has been no shortage of handwringing in the Party about that), Yglesias does a good job of summarizing why that happened.
1. The natural distribution of population in the United States tends to lead the average House district to be more GOP-friendly than the overall population.

2. GOP control of most state legislatures lets Republicans draw boundaries in a way that is even more GOP-friendly than the natural population distribution would suggest.

3. Incumbents have large advantages in House elections, and most incumbents are Republicans.

4. So-called "wave" elections in which tons of incumbents lose are typically driven by a backlash against the incumbent president. Since the incumbent president is a Democrat, Democrats have no way to set up a wave.
Too few of the people analyzing this issue have acknowledged #4. Our memories sometimes don't take us back far enough to remember that the 2006 midterms during the Bush/Cheney presidency were a bit of a wave in the other direction.

The problem with midterms is that we seem to have come to a place where anger at an incumbent president is the motivating factor for the few who actually turn out to vote. That is not only what happened in terms of control of Congress in '06, '10 and '14, it also has an effect on state elections. That is a problem we should all be concerned about.

But we're not facing a midterm election in 2016. Control of the Senate is in play this time around, but Democrats probably won't win a majority in the House (even though they are likely to pick up House seats as they did in both the 2008 and 2012). Rather than complacency, the Democratic presidential front-runner is offering a platform that not only provides a vision for going forward, she is making a clear distinction between the Democratic agenda and the Republican extremist fear-mongering. The choice for voters going into 2016 cannot be more clear.

If, as so many did in 2014, Democrats shy away from that distinction going into the 2018 midterms, we can raise the specter of complacency and denial.


  1. Nah, we can raise the specter of complacency and denial right now. Debbie Wasserman-Schultz is running the Democratic Party into a ditch with her lack of leadership and strategy. Yglesias is right about how the GOP has a super majority of the state legislative bodies nationwide. They control most of the Governorships, too. They have complete control of more than half of all the States. The Democratic Party, as a brand, has to be looked at in terms that go beyond the three branches of the Federal Government. At the State and Local level, the Dems are LOSING big time. In a Big Way. We are in danger of becoming extinct as a party. The GOP has huge problems running for the White House, but they control both chambers in Congress, have a majority on Supreme Court, a super-majority in state legislative bodies, control most of the Governors and are doing very well in city councils, county government, etc. They run this country. Not the Democrats. We control the White House for the next 459 days. That's it.
    Some of us are waking up to this fact. I had no trouble what-so-ever in getting through a Resolution calling for DWS to step down in my local County Dem party. The State Resolutions committee is resistant to this, but more and more people are seeing the writing on the wall. DWS has done nothing to sell the Democratic brand to Americans. We are in deep doo doo right now.

    1. When it comes to the fact that Republicans control Congress and too many state governments - I totally acknowledged that Yglesias is right - no argument there.

      My point was that he is wrong to assume everything is so hunky-dory for Republicans these days and his prescription for what Dems need to do to fix things.

      The issue he raised is all about voter turnout in non-presidential elections. That's a BIG problem. But its not one that gets solved by his recommendations.

    2. Q. Did he mention, let alone have an answer for the voter suppression that's turnt up since President Obama won? Not just Alabama, but nationwide.

  2. "Well the problem is that Obama isn't a charismatic leader, he doesn't get people to turn out to vote. If only he were more like FDR people would go out and vote." I've heard this from far too many Lefties. Well even discounting the tacit admission there that a great many Lefties don't have any actual problem with Republicans winning, you know who else had problems with midterm turnout because he was no FDR? FDR, apparently:

    I wonder what they were saying in 1942: "Well FDR doesn't make me feel like voting, he's no Woodrow Wilson". Which raises the question of what past Democrat they were pining for during the Wilson administration, and does it go all the way back to caveman days when they were saying "ME NOT FOR PARTY OF UNK, HE NO MAKE ME WANT VOTE LIKE OOG".

    1. Side note, I have noticed that Bernie supporters have just now started to realize that their man-god won't be able to pass a progressive agenda if Congress is in the hands of Republicans, and are trying to figure ways around it. Which is why at least some of them think Bernie's "summon an angry mob" plan is a good idea and not an attack on democracy itself.

      Sorry guys, you signed off on a Republican Congress, now you're stuck with them. It's like a crapy cell phone plan where you're locked in until the contract expires, and it looks like you may not get a chance to change plans until 2022. It's a shame that it stinks, but you voluntarily signed up for this, and you have nobody to blame but yourselves.

      That said, I contend that taking back the House is possible in any given year; all it requires is the Left making a broad commitment to voting, and stunning the nation with their turnout. After all, gerrymandering is most effective when Republicans maintain a relatively small advantage in as many districts as they can, as opposed to being completely unbeatable. That said, this plan would require the Left really, really committing to voting, and I know enough not to bet on that.

    2. Any writer or pundit who uses the words "Republicans" and "sensible plan" deserves to be mocked mercilessly and ignored. That is all.

  3. What I don't understand is why Democrats are not voting in every election all the time. I am relatively new to this country (came from Canada in 1999) but I don't get it.

    1. I think a lot of the psychological problem of the Left is, they don't want to be like the Right, and as such they're reluctant to do anything that could be construed as blindly committing to a party. This would include demonstrating loyalty to a party on Election Day.