Here is the tragedy of the Democratic party in 2019: its partisans are left to hope that personal hatred of Donald Trump will do for them in 2020 what the Iraq War and the Great Recession did in 2006 and 2008. The first time Nancy Pelosi became speaker of House of Representatives, her party was the party of second thoughts about Iraq. The fact that Democrats won control of the Senate with the 2006 election was even more clearly tied to that misbegotten war: the victory of James Webb over George Allen gave Democrats their 51st seat. Webb was a former Republican – a Reagan cabinet official – who switched parties and challenged Allen out of disgust with the George W. Bush administration’s foreign policy.
By the final year of Bush’s presidency the country was in the midst of its worst economic crisis since the Great Depression. Barack Obama symbolized a break from the immediate past – a new foreign policy and new stewardship of the economy. He ran not as a socialist but as an alternative to the party that held the White House when the financial system cracked. John McCain was imply Bush with a more valorous Vietnam record. Not only did Obama rout McCain, the Republicans bled more seats in the House and Senate that November.
That was a long time ago. The Democratic party of a decade after Barack Obama’s inauguration is not running against Republican wars or mishandling of the economy. President Trump has not started any wars and continues to make noises – quickly shushed by his own Bush-type advisers – about getting out of Afghanistan and ending intervention in Syria. America has lately been enjoying record-low unemployment and wages are rising.
This deprives Democrats of their winning issues of the first decade of the 21st century. President Trump – who ran in large part on those very issues himself in 2016, beating Republicans and Hillary Clinton alike on the other side – has stolen the turf on which their party won in 2006 and 2008. That leaves the post-Obama Democrats having to run not against a bad economy, but for a different kind of economy: democratic socialism in place of the improving economic conditions we have under Trump.
Democrats are also left to make an incoherent case in foreign policy, claiming both that Trump is too much of a non-interventionist and that they don’t really want more interventionism themselves. They attack Trump for taking nasty world leaders seriously, but what, exactly, do they propose to do differently about Kim Jong-un or Vladimir Putin? No more talk? Bombs away?
The difficulty the Democrats face is not in the details, but the big picture: voters want to know whether a party means war or peace, not what little mind games its leaders think they can play with foreign powers. Democrats have a hell of a problem answering this big-picture question: just look at the vote on Congress’s recent resolution to affirm keeping troops in Syria and Afghanistan. Most Democrats voted in favor of the resolution; most of the party’s prospective presidential nominees, however, opposed it. The strongest position a Democrat can run on in 2020 would be one that says Trump is right but he has not gone far enough – that America needs Trump’s policies without the Trump’s administration’s neocon personnel. The only Democrat from whom you might hear anything so bold, however, is Tulsi Gabbard, the Hawaiian congresswoman much demonized by otherwise Democratic-friendly media for her irenic foreign-policy views. Even she probably dare not go that far.
Democrats in the 21st century have won when a great theme has given them an opening. They are hoping that next year that theme of Donald Trump himself will be enough to elect whatever confused or leftist politician they wind up nominating. A Trump backlash served them well in last year’s midterms, after all. But midterm defeats have a way of not guaranteeing the opposition party’s victory in the following presidential election: Bill Clinton’s congressional rout in 1994 was a prelude to a re-election victory in 1996. Barack Obama lost even bigger – than Clinton or Trump – in 2010, yet still won in 2012. The Obama of that year was still coasting on the themes that had brought him victory over McCain four years earlier, and Mitt Romney had nothing to run on but dividing America into ‘job-creators’ versus the ‘47 percent’ and talk about Russia as our greatest ‘geopolitical foe.’ Romney’s losing message of 2012 won’t sound any better coming from a Democrat in 2020.
Part of the Democrats’ predicament is Obama’s fault: he failed to resolve the great economic and strategic issues that brought him to office, and that kept him in office so long as the only alternative was the Massachusetts (and now Utah) Bush-substitute. Obama was and is a lot like Romney, just without the baggage of Romney’s party affiliation. Obama had a chance to exorcise the spirit of Clinton from his party: the spirit, that is, of terrible trade agreements and an interventionist foreign policy, including Hillary Clinton’s vote for the Iraq War. Instead he made Mrs. Clinton his secretary of state and brought regime change to Libya. Along with regime change, as usual, came Islamism and a refugee crisis, as well as a return to Libya of slavery. Economically, Obama’s biggest domestic initiative was a national version of Romney’s Massachusetts health-insurance scheme, while he pressed ahead with CAFTA, TPP, and T-TIP, free-trade deals with Central America, the Pacific, and Europe. Obama ran as the anti-Bush and non-Clinton, but in the practice he was more of the same.
There’s a warning here for President Trump and his party: the GOP will reap the whirlwind if Trump does not succeed in living up to voters’ expectations for change better than Obama did. Obama still won re-election in 2012, but his party suffered steep decline: losing first the House (2010), then the Senate (2014), then the White House (2016). Trump’s party will follow this same pattern, and faster, if the agenda that elected Trump gets dropped.
But if Trump doesn’t forget why he was elected, and if Republicans in Congress start behaving like the party of Trump’s agenda, and not just a party Trump happens to lead, Democrats will have nothing to run on but personality and hard-left politics. They should take up the Trump mantle if Republicans won’t. They should – but I wager they won’t – become the party of the nation, the party of jobs, rising wages (and not just mandated minimum wages), and peace. That’s what Americans were looking for when they elected Democrats in 2006 and 2008, but it’s not what the Democratic party offered with Hillary Clinton in 2016.