Democrats, surprisingly, still in the driver’s seat

obamainoval_375A few weeks ago, it seemed like a surging Republican Party had effectively gutted the last vestiges of momentum that Barack Obama carried into the White House way back in 2009.

The GOP now holds commanding majorities in Congress and in a majority of state capitals across the US.  But as we pivot into 2015 and the looming presidential race, it’s Democrats who are still driving the national conversation.  Here’s why.

Big states, big governors

First, Democratic governors still hold executive power in a lot of key places.  Big-state leaders like Jerry Brown in California and Andrew Cuomo in New York can shape the agenda in powerful ways, boosting issues like gun control and climate reform that the GOP would like to sideline permanently.

The truth is that blue states — California, Massachusetts, New York — still serve as harbingers for national policy in ways that big red states like Texas can’t match.

Gov. Andrew Cuomo delivers the 2013-14 Budget Address in January, 2013. Photo: Gov. Andrew Cuomo's office, via Flickr

Gov. Andrew Cuomo delivers the 2013-14 Budget Address in January, 2013. Photo: Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s office, via Flickr

Cuomo, now entering his second term, has already permanently shifted New York’s political culture, locking in same-sex marriage, enacting one of the toughest gun control measures in the country, and now effectively banning fracking for natural gas.

Then there’s the guy in the Oval Office

If governors matter, the Presidency matters even more.

Since the election, Barack Obama has reminded Washington DC that when push comes to shove the White House wields extraordinary power.  Republicans have worked tirelessly to marginalize Obama, portraying him as weak, feckless and muddled.

But initiatives like the immigration policy unveiled after the election, the push for more strenuous EPA action on carbon pollution, and now the normalization of relations with Cuba have kept the GOP on the defensive — reacting rather than leading.

Obama has also reshaped the nation for years, maybe decades to come, by successfully appointing a huge number of judges — nearly 300 so far, roughly a third of the entire Federal judiciary — and by naming two members of the US Supreme Court.

The Fox News mantra that Obama is a bantam weight who got in way over his head begins to look silly, especially as policies like the White House’s sanctions on Russia gain credibility.

To reshape the dialogue, you need something to say

Which brings me to my next reason that the GOP is still in the back-seat, even as they usher in massive majorities:   They lack a coherent, popular national agenda.

Yes, Republicans have been phenomenally successful at mobilizing anger against Obama and his policies — particularly the Affordable Care Act and immigration.  But their leaders have failed to come up with a clear set of ideas or plans to replace the Democratic road-map.

Contrast the current situation with Newt Gingrich’s Republican insurgency in the 1990s.  The “Contract With America” gave all sides a clear understanding of what they hoped to accomplish with their majority.  But the current slate of conservative leaders are unified by only a single idea:  opposition to the Democratic president.

It will be difficult for the GOP to shift out of their “we all hate Obama and that’s good enough for us” crouch.  Why?  Because many Republicans actually disagree starkly with one-another about what the country should do next.

A lot of Republicans have effectively signed on to “Obamacare,” and now support amending the flawed policy rather than trying to repeal it wholesale.  Many party leaders are convinced that immigration reform is needed — including pathways to citizenship for undocumented workers — an idea that rank-and-file conservatives and AM talk radio hosts loathe.

To seize the agenda, Republicans need to seize the White House

Which bring me to my final and biggest reason that Democrats are — if not in a rosy place — at least still in a strong position to control events over the next two years.  Here it is:  They have a very strong shot at holding the White House for another 8 years.

The reasons for this advantage are largely strategic.  Democrats begin the next presidential race with a very strong lock on states that hold between 242 and 248 electoral college votes.  That’s just shy of the 270 needed to win the White House.

Republicans, meanwhile, begin with a lock on only about 177 electoral college votes.  What that means is that the GOP candidate, whoever that turns out to be, has to be darned near perfect to win.

And if Democrats can flip one more big state, like Florida, into their column, it’s game over.

So there it is in a nutshell.  In American politics, executive power matters.  Executive actions, the bully pulpit and the veto pen are forces to be reckoned with.  So long as Democrats hold many of the highest seats in the land, and so long as Republicans aren’t offering a clear and forceful alternative to their ideas, the party of Obama and Cuomo will wield powerful sway.


29 Comments on “Democrats, surprisingly, still in the driver’s seat”

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  1. knuckleheadedliberal says:

    Per usual it is the tangent that interests me most. I think Conservatives/Republicans get very little credit for the important work they do with language. For instance the word: feckless. Only a few short years ago feckless was doomed to the obscurity of the Scottish Highlands from whence it sprang, roaming those cold windswept and barren hills with the ghosts of all those words in Robert Burns poems that leave me puzzled. Perhaps it was the work of John McCain – is he Scottish? Whatever. I want to express my appreciation to whoever it was who made my Conservative friends learn a new word of lang syne.

  2. “To reshape the dialogue, you need something to say” – This has plagued the Democratic Party for over 20 years and is why I quit the party. I think it’s also why they dominated Congress for pretty much all of the Cold War but as soon as they capitulated on economic issues, they’ve struggled. Nowadays, elections are about whether we are going to elect corporate sellouts who are nice to gays and women or corporate sellouts who bash them. And we wonder why disillusionment is so high and voter turnout so low. There’s a lot of open ground waiting to be captured, as Matt Funiciello proved with his lightly funded, little advertised campaign that still managed 11%.

  3. Knuck: You’re right that modern conservatives are masters at (ab)using language. But it helps a lot when the other side isn’t offering anything substantive to counter it. Modern liberalism can pretty much be summed up as, “(Insert Palin, Limbaugh, Koch Brothers or whomever is their boogeyman of the week) is evil. Vote Democrat.” The natural response of the non-academic crowd is, “Maybe so but what does that do for me?” Conservatives win, despite their regressive economic agenda, by default because they’re the only ones fighting. Democrats surrendered that terrain long ago when the Clintons and their ilk sold out to corporate interests.

  4. Mr. Kent says:

    I think you are being overly simplistic in your comparison between the two major political parties. They all have the same goals, but the process they favor to reach that end are radically different. The similarity you point to is but one of many to choose from.
    As far as Funiciello receiving 11% of the voters that turned out? True, but what does it really mean? Ross Perot received 8% of the vote in a Presidential election. What did that change? I am convinced that you could run Mickey Mouse as a third party candidate and receive 10% of any vote for any office.

  5. Brian Mann says:

    I think assertions made here that the Democrats don’t have an agenda are flatly, factually wrong. There is clearly broad and significant concern about the environment, for example. In the last week we’ve seen Bristol Bay protected in Alaska, the Keystone XL pipeline blocked by Democrats in the US Senate and now Cuomo’s decision on fracking.

    It’s fine to assert that Democrats don’t go far enough or aren’t effective enough or aren’t saying the things that you want them to say. But Democrats have also in recent years:

    Fostered a massive expansion of the social safety net through the Affordable Care Act (particularly expansion of Medicaid, but also other mechanisms), invested heavily in renewable energy, pushed hard for legalization of the status of millions of undocumented workers, spent significant political capital trying to win equal pay for women, and helped to expand same-sex marriage rights to gay and lesbian families.

    Republicans, it should be noted (and as I suggest in my article above) have worked aggressively to block almost all of these things. (Their policy agenda tends to be negative, oppositional, rather than broadly pro-active.)

    So here’s a theory. I think people who tend to argue that the agendas of these two parties are “identical” or “indistinguishable” are most often privileged observers (white, middle class, generally male) who actually don’t have an immediate stake in the issues being debated.

    The two parties seem really identical unless you’re Hispanic or black or a woman or gay or poor. Then…their very different ideas and policy proposals begin to look significantly different and the outcome of these debates will have an immediate impact on your life.

    The folks who think the Affordable Care Act was a sell-out and a dim shadow of what single-payer might have been have a strong ideological argument. But if you’re a working poor American who now has insurance, you still “get” that there is a difference…

    –Brian, NCPR

  6. Paul says:

    “The GOP now holds commanding majorities in Congress”

    Not yet. The newly elected are not sworn in till 2015.

  7. Paul says:

    The economy and the job market are starting to heat up. This has occurred with the GOP doing everything it could to block the administration and the democratic agenda. Would we be doing better if they had blocked even more? Possibly? Would we be doing better if they had blocked less? Possibly?

  8. Peter Hahn says:

    Paul – I think most economists think we would be doing much better if the GOP hadn’t blocked so much.

  9. Peter Hahn says:

    The GOP remind me of the two-year-old granddaughter staying with us. Lots of tantrums and she gets her way some of the time but not as often as she would like.

  10. The Original Larry says:

    The Democrats are past masters of the Bread and Circuses theory of government. All the formerly undocumented foreign workers are going to love those casino jobs!

  11. Peter Hahn says:

    Most of those undocumented foreign workers already have jobs.

  12. Brian M: I was very specific in what I said. Democrats capitulated in the economic fight decades ago when they sold out to corporate cash. Yes, there’s the odd outlier like Sen. Warren, but she’s the exception that proves the rule.

    Yes, they still fight (and usually win) on social issues and periodically fight on environmental issues. But that’s not what I was referring to.

    I’ve never said the two parties were identical or indistinguishable. I’m okay with people disagreeing with my opinion, provided they disagree with what I actually said/wrote.

  13. “The Democrats are past masters of the Bread and Circuses theory of government.”

    And are opposed by the much more substantive War on Christmas brigade.

  14. I am not poor but I live pay check to pay check. If I missed one, I’d be screwed. And yes, I am a gay man. But I’m not a cartoon character. It’s part of who I am but those are not the only issues I care about. Remember: after legal equality, people like Dr. King moved on to the fight for economic justice. They realized that what good is being legally able to go to the diner for a hamburger if you can’t afford it.

    And if you’d interviewed a decent number of Matt Funiciello’s supporters, you would’ve found how shallow and simplistic your characterization is. Then again, it’s based on a false premise. The two parties are not identical. But they are far too similar for many people.

    You can pooh-pooh it all you want but this is the main reason why half the population doesn’t vote (not out of apathy or ignorance, contrary to lazy conventional wisdom, but they see it as pointless). You may not agree with their assessment but sneering at them doesn’t change their mind. Maybe try listening to them with an open mind. Or you can continuing seeing what you want to see.

  15. Finally, I suggest you listen to your own station’s coverage of Canadian politics. Like every other major western democracy besides our own, they have more than two parties represented in their national legislature: six to be exact. If two parties is deemed insufficient to represent the diversity of views in a nation of 35 million, how can you not understand the belief that two are not sufficient to represent the diversity of views in a nation nine times more populous?!

    Canadians who vote for the “other” parties don’t do so because they think the Liberals and Tories (traditional governing parties) are identical. They do so because they think those parties don’t adequately represent their views and interests and the NDP or BQ or Greens or whomever does. Why is this so incomprehensible?

    It’s little wonder Canadians have far more faith in their public institutions than Americans.

  16. I promise to stop monopolizing the thread after this. Brian: you cite the ACA as a major difference between the parties. Who created the model for the ACA? Mitt Romney. Who conceived of the model? The conservative Heritage Foundation. Have a nice day.

  17. Peter Hahn says:

    Jeez Brian (MOYFC). We don’t have a parliamentary system like those other countries. The coalitions are formed before the elections in our system, not afterwards like in Parliamentary systems. If you notice – those governments in those countries aren’t very far off center, just like in our system.

  18. Brian Mann says:

    Brian –

    You’re trying to justify the need for a third party (or multiple parties) by claiming that there is little meaningful distinction between Democrats and Republicans. I think that’s unnecessary. It’s fine to just say, Democrats aren’t my cup of tea, they’re making decisions I don’t like, I want a third party…

    But when you push it to the next level of saying, I need a third party because our two existing parties are essentially identical (even on economic policy or on their relative relationships to corporate money) it’s just factually untenable. Really. The specific actions and policies and agendas of the two parties are worlds apart.

    –Brian, NCPR

  19. Mr. Kent says:

    I think the article is an accurate assessment of DC politics. The next two years are critical for the GOP. Can they govern? Do they really want to, or just hold public offices? The Republican Party has avoided dealing with any matters for six years now. They have no platform, just an empty cupboard. Why do I say that? Because they have only thrown stones the last six years, but tried to build no walls.
    They say they want to repeal and replace ” Obamacare.” Well, they have yet to put forth a comprehensive health plan. Where is the replacement they talk about? It does not exist.
    They refuse to even bring any immigration reform bill to a the floor for a vote.
    Job creation? Have not seen anything yet from them. And NO, trickle down voodoo economics lower the corporate tax rate is not a jobs bill. It did not work in the past and there is no evidence it will in the future. GWB is all you need to know about that theory.
    If the GOP spends the next two years just playing the same obstruction game, then they do so at their own risk. Just saying NO is not a platform. That is what I see in it all. Just my opinion.

  20. Mervel says:

    I think Brian’s second point is a good one. The GOP simply does not currently have a coherent policy they can take to the people. Saying government is the problem, we need lower taxes, or we need to block what Obama has done is not a dynamic way to get people involved. Now it may exist, they just have not been messaging it well?

    I do think you will see them change within the next 8 to 10 years. Things will look differently next year, when they actually are in charge of Congress, that will be the first look. But secondly you will get a new generation of conservatives who will see things differently.

    I don’t agree about the state analysis though. The nation is shifting and has been shifting to the South and West this trend will continue, New York and California will continue to lose influence politically. Currently California has one of the highest poverty rates in the US, its not a model the rest of the US would want to follow. New York continues to lose population and ideas, its a state in decline, its not going to hold sway as it once did politically or in the bank of ideas outside of Wall Street and the City, it really is not a national model. Banning fracking is fine, but it will only make Upstate NY poorer, which I think is fine for the average New Yorker, but its not something working class people around the country are going to say gee that’s great lets be like New York, lets move to upstate New York!

    I would like to see this discussion next year when the Congress is in full swing under the Republicans. I mean Obama is leading right now almost in a brilliant way, he is controlling the agenda. But remember on this board less than a couple of years ago we were discussing the literal end of the GOP as a functioning party. Things change quickly.

  21. knuckleheadedliberal says:

    But Mervel, the GOP is nearly dead as a functioning party already. They are functioning much more like the Democrats now.

    I wouldn’t write off NYS quite yet. We are not actually losing population, we are just not growing as rapidly as many states in the south or west and the same is true for most of the industrial north and mid-west states along with California. But aside from Texas and Florida all the states that are gaining population rapidly are pretty small states and a few medium sized states. While the population of Florida is very slightly smaller than NY they have far fewer jobs/workers likely due to large numbers of retirees. That means that while we are losing people to FL the rate of productive workers, people with fresh ideas, is not as great proportionally.

    Another side of the population shift is that there is an inevitable concurrent change in culture in the communities that gain significant population. Nevada has had a huge increase in population over the last couple of decades but they are still a small state by population. The growth hasn’t been in ranch families though, it has been in urban centers of Las Vegas and Reno – lots of Californians. Across the west a couple of decades ago I remember seeing pickup truck with bumper stickers saying “Don’t Californicate Oregon (Wyoming, Monatana…). Too late! They’ve been californicated. Look at Colorado, all they do is smoke pot ski and all our young people want to move there.

    As for fracking in NY, I know a few land owners who live on the PA border near Binghamton who are breathing a sigh of relief that their pro-fracking neighbors won’t have wells on their property.

  22. Mervel says:

    You are right, I am not writing off NYS, but I don’t think we are going to be leading politically given the shape and demographics of the US today. I do think you will see changes in places like Texas and Florida which will become and are becoming much more diverse in their politics, they are not there yet, but will be soon, as you point out like Colorado and North Carolina.

    Both parties have a leadership problem in my opinion. They don’t know how to handle the massive amount of voters who simply refuse to fully align with either party. Obama is setting the agenda right now though. I find his recent moves on Cuba, Immigration, and our foreign policy quite remarkable. I wish he would have done some more of that type of thing the first 4 years, but certainly the freedom of not having an election to worry about helps him now. But I really like his style right now, these are things that everyone knows needs to be done and he finally just pulled the trigger on them, sometimes presidents need to just go around things and be an executive. No reasonable person outside of a small number of old Cuban ex pats living in South Florida, could be against trading with Cuba. I mean we trade with China!

    On fracking, right as a person who has a job who would not own any land with oil on it and would not work in the oil fields or any of the numerous businesses which comes from the oil and natural gas industry, I am personally fine with not having it in NYS. But its not something you do if you really care about growing good jobs for the middle class. You at least look at it and regulate the heck out of it, but you don’t simply write it off. I think it is a little too bad as NYS could have maybe been the model in how to regulate fracking correctly.

  23. knuckleheadedliberal says:

    Hey, and what about that Pope!

  24. The Original Larry says:

    No reasonable person outside of a small number of old Cuban ex pats living in South Florida, could be against trading with Cuba.

    Correct, but Cuba has nothing to trade, unless you are interested in sugar or cigars. Trade with Cuba is a euphemism for aid to Cuba.

  25. Walker says:

    “Cuba’s natural resources include sugar, tobacco, fish, citrus fruits, and coffee.

    Cuba’s most important mineral resource is nickel, with 21% of total exports in 2011. The output of Cuba’s nickel mines that year was 71,000 tons, approaching 4% of world production. As of 2013 its reserves were estimated at 5.5 million tons, over 7% of the world total. Sherritt International of Canada operates a large nickel mining facility in Moa. Cuba is also a major producer of refined cobalt, a by-product of nickel mining operations.

    Oil exploration in 2005 by the US Geological Survey revealed that the North Cuba Basin could produce approximately 4.6 billion barrels (730,000,000 m3) to 9.3 billion barrels (1.48×109 m3) of oil. In 2006, Cuba started to test-drill these locations for possible exploitation.” Wikipedia

    And then there’s tourism.

  26. The Original Larry says:

    The US is, by far, the world’s largest individual economy. Cuba ranks somewhere in the mid to lower 60s. Wow, what a partnership!

  27. knuckleheadedliberal says:

    So we don’t want to trade with countries with smaller economies than ours? Strange form of capitalism.
    And speaking of strange capitalism: the sugar trade.

    We are angry at Fidel for nationalizing his sugar business (along with most of the rest of the economy) but we have long standing protectionist policies that prop up our small number of sugar farmers. We end up paying higher prices for sugar and small Caribbean nations that used to rely on sugar exports to the US for income have had their economies devastated. Then we send aid money because they are poor. To be fair to our policy, we also used sugar policy to punish political policies we disagreed with.

    Remember back when almost all soda/pop used cane sugar as it’s main ingredient? Then they switched to corn syrup. That was because our farm policy kept us from buying cheap sugar on the world market and corn syrup was an economical alternative – but only because the soda companies didn’t need to account for the cost of devastated economies, or US farm subsidies.

    Giva a man a fish and he’ll eat today. Teach a man to fish and when he gets good at it and sells fish cheaper than your fishermen lock him out of the market and start giving him fish again.

  28. knuckleheadedliberal says:

    Not to change the subject, but how ’bout that game Obama and Putin were playing. You know, Obama was playing checkers and Putin was playing chess. Turns out that checkers kicks chess’s butt.

    Why did it seem like the Republicans were rooting for Putin?

  29. Walker says:

    Yes, and now they’re remarkably quiet about Putin and Russia!

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