Eight years ago, the economic meltdown gave Democrats control of the White House and Congress and an opportunity to govern in a more leftward direction for a brief two-year period. The resulting burst of government activism produced landmark legislation like the Affordable Care Act, the economic stimulus package and the auto industry bailout, although the imperative of addressing economic free-fall and containing two wars taxed a legislature with limited multitasking capabilities, and a Democratic Party beholden to monied interests left a maturing but still rudimentary progressive movement hoping for more change. This year Democrats are again poised to win the presidency in the wake of a meltdown, but this time the meltdown we’re witnessing is taking place in the Republican Party.
An irreconcilable split between the reactionary and conservative factions inhabiting the Republican Party has spilled into the open because of the Trump campaign. For years we have seen tensions between these groups play out in one congressional drama after another, where a small but powerful group of reactionary members withhold their support from budget proposals or raising the debt limit and force conservative congressional leaders to make deals with Democrats to avoid catastrophe. But with Trump at the helm, the conservatives have no leverage in the presidential contest, and they are powerless to prevent Trump from waging a general election campaign geared to the intensely held desires of a base that shares little with the rest of the electorate. They are reduced to stating their intention to vote for the nominee to avoid alienating his supporters while refusing to endorse him to avoid alienating everyone else, while watching their nominee feast like a parasite on the remains of the party in order to nourish his insatiable personal appetites.
The growing Republican split between reactionary and conservative elements has long appeared to be one of the drivers that will eventually reorient our politics. Like a marriage defined by irreconcilable differences, there was a limit to how long the two factions could inhabit the same party shell. It is hardly surprising that the split played out the way it did during the primaries because it was inevitable that either the conservatives or the reactionaries would get shut out. After all, there could only be one party nominee. Democrats now have an opportunity to use the divided Republican Party to their advantage, but if they want to use it to their lasting advantage they will need to do more than let Republicans self-destruct.
Democrats should ask the country to put them back in charge and they should start thinking about what they would do if the voters agree, because they will have very little time to take advantage of a governing opportunity should one emerge in November. I’ll offer two suggestions for how they might pull this off. The first suggestion is obvious and easy to implement. The second will be far more difficult—but critical to the future of the party and perhaps the country.
STEP 1: Democrats should ask voters to put the Republican Party in a time out.
After years of ideological polarization we are in the midst of an election that defies ideological distinctions. And after years of hyper-partisanship we are in the midst of an election where an unusual number of Red Team members are temporarily willing to wear a blue uniform. This election is not about Democrats versus Republicans. It is not about liberals versus conservatives. It is about normal versus abnormal. And that gives Democrats an opening.
Donald Trump is an absurd candidate. Like a mechanic who is a finalist to perform open heart surgery, he has no qualifications for the job he seeks and is in way over his head. Republicans acted out when they nominated him, and his primal scream of a campaign is defining the election. Trump’s lack of experience, volatile temperament and overt racism are disqualifying characteristics for a set of voters who in the past have supported Republicans, notably educated white voters and especially educated white women. In contrast, Hillary Clinton is a normal candidate. Voters may consider her dishonest or untrustworthy, or reject her politics, but they largely accept that she makes sense as a presidential contender. The asymmetry between the candidates on the fundamental question of fitness for service is overriding conventional political and ideological differences, relegating Clinton’s many weaknesses to second-tier status. And as Trump falters he puts his whole party at risk.
The turmoil in the Republican Party has been on display for a long time, but with notable exceptions like when Senate leaders refuse to hold hearings on a qualified Supreme Court nominee, it tends to form the background music to our politics. People know government isn’t working right and they have a dismal opinion of congress, but the blame is widespread—and with good reason. Problems internal to the Republican Party are not exclusively why so many people feel government doesn’t represent them. But they are a big part of the problem and Trump’s behavior is shining a bright light on them. While in the process of disqualifying himself with broad segments of the electorate, Trump is also merging his brand with the Republican brand to create a situation where the party is starting to appear incapable of doing simple things like communicating a comprehensible message or treating voters with respect, to say nothing of big things like running a country. Outside the reactionary base, the Republican Party, thanks to its nominee, looks angry and unhinged, like a party you cannot trust with responsibility.
This is Hillary’s opening. As the sole normal candidate for office, she can redirect the well-worn axiom that government doesn’t work into the politically advantageous argument that the Republican Party doesn’t work. She can contend that government is broken because the Republican Party is broken, and the claim will sound reasonable to a lot of voters. She can argue that like a child having a tantrum, the Republican Party needs to be put in a time out until it gets Trump out of its system. That it’s time to take away their privileges until they stop screaming. No nuclear codes for you. It’s time to give the Democratic Party a broad governing mandate.
She should ask for a Senate and House majority and explain what Democrats would deliver if entrusted with the ability to get things done. This would nationalize the election as a referendum on Trump, which—let’s face it—is what Trump is insisting it should be anyway, and allow Democrats to get out ahead of the inevitable Republican argument that voters should keep Republicans in charge of congress as a check on Hillary. At the same time, she should make it clear that she will work with any Republican willing to break with their standard bearer, dividing Trump Republicans from those who have or would like to split with him and giving the latter group a way forward after the election is over. Otherwise, she should assert that she is the only adult in the room and take the toys away from the kids until they stop acting out.
STEP 2: If you’re going to claim you can make government work, then make government work.
If Democrats are going to contend that the Republican Party has broken the government, they will have to show the public they can fix it once they are in power. The best hope for a lasting progressive realignment will be for Democrats to act on elements of the agenda they agreed to in Philadelphia, explain to the public what they’re doing, and take credit for the results. Items like a minimum wage increase and infrastructure spending would produce noticeable benefits. Just the experience of seeing government work as designed would be a big lift.
But obstacles to progressive governance will come from both sides of the aisle. Even the most optimistic scenario for Democrats does not give them anything close to a filibuster-proof Senate. Leadership would need to find enough Republicans who feel their political self-interest dictates cooperation rather than continued confrontation—a circumstance that’s impossible to imagine today but could present itself in a post-apocalypse Republican Party where there would be incentives for conservatives to distinguish themselves from the radicals. Short of this, Democrats would need to be willing to pull the filibuster entirely as part of their time out approach to Republicans, calculating that it’s worth being heavy-handed in the short run if it serves the long-term interests of their party and, in their judgment, the best interests of the country.
The greatest challenge for Democrats would be owning up to their role in perpetuating a government that works for the well-connected. This was the message that resonated through the primaries for Bernie, and his intention to pressure Clinton and congressional Democrats into implementing the party’s progressive platform would be an essential element of this effort. Campaign finance and Wall Street reform are among the most politically problematic items in the platform but taking them on would make the most difference in how Washington works and produce the most lasting political results. Progressive mobilization would be necessary to counter-pressure status quo interests and make some degree of policy change possible. It’s hard to imagine how any of this happens without it.
Needless to say, there are a lot of ways this scenario could go off track, which is why it isn’t at all clear that a Trumpocalypse would result in a permanent left turn. Should Democrats fumble their opportunity by aiming too low or failing to overcome forces of inertia, they risk exacerbating the conditions that brought us to this out-of-control election cycle, making another convulsion likely. This is the primary reason why Democrats need to get it right. Donald Trump is turning out to be a ridiculously bad demagogue. We won’t be as lucky next time.