The Democratic near-deadlock in the Iowa caucus was certainly a surprise — and in many ways a loss — for Hillary Clinton, who assumed a coronation once before, back in 2008. Now that she’s barely squeezed out a victory, the primaries ahead will require an extra push from her.
That extra push is likely to feature the following argument, which is especially effective on voters who are on the fence: Bernie Sanders may be progressive, bold and interesting, but Clinton’s time as secretary of state, first lady and senator, along with her sharp political instincts, ensures that she would be the best executive in a tumultuous time. Clinton has the ability to flip votes and to bring together stakeholders to reach consensus, while Sanders’s administration would have little to show for it because his quixotic idealism would lose to the competing forces of organized Republican resistance and heavy corporate lobbying.
It sounds like a good argument, but it’s deeply flawed, because it ignores a lingering problem for the party. The Democrats have expressed optimism that the party will recapture the House of Representatives. It remains to be seen how much those feelings reflect reality, but analysts know this much: If the party doesn’t succeed in taking over Congress, then extending the party’s stay in the White House means little. No Democratic president is going to have much success pushing through policy as long as Republicans have a majority, or even a sizable minority, in Congress.
President Obama’s eight years in office have been marked by resistance from congressional Republicans at every turn, even when his party had the legislature. His mildest of proposals took shoving to get through — hence his decision to use executive orders. (Although Republicans paint his actions as excessive, he’s used fewer executive orders than the GOP’s modern-day patron revolutionary, Ronald Reagan.) The Affordable Care Act, the Obama administration’s hallmark piece of legislation, has faced futile overturn votes numerous times, and two failed Supreme Court attempts to void it.
The conservative temperament is characterized by intransigence, and the party’s voting bloc is big enough for that to matter. More than that, the party knows that the liberals are outnumbered.
This is the Democrats’ existential crisis. At the presidential level, it might look like the Democrats are the more sophisticated of the two parties. The nomination process is down to two people, whereas the Republican Party is an endless parade of would-have-beens trying to gather up votes at the margins while Donald Trump and Ted Cruz send shivers through the GOP establishment. But the fact of the matter is that the Republicans have won handily over the past few election rounds at building leaders and superstar lawmakers in the states.
In the Senate, the Democrats are in the minority, and while many of them are competent lawmakers, few have the stature, charisma and fame to market themselves as future leaders of the Free World. In the House, the Republicans lead the Democrats by 58 seats. The important swing states of Florida and Ohio have proved essential for winning the Electoral College, but guess what: Both those states have Republican governors and state legislatures.
Just look at Iowa, our most recent democratic testing ground. The state has gone to the Democrat in five out of six of the last presidential contests, but it has one lone Democrat, Rep. David Loebsack, in its congressional delegation.
The Democrats have pulled off two White House wins since the Reagan revolution, in part by producing extremely charismatic candidates. Examining the list of Democratic governors today, you can find plenty of good executives who have enacted liberal policy in their states, but it’s hard to imagine Dan Malloy of Connecticut stirring up the nation’s emotions the way Bill Clinton did as a young contender in 1992.
This is the long slog that the Democrats will have to face in the years to come, no matter what happens this November. Sure, there’s a feeling that Hillary Clinton might be not only a competent manager of executive affairs, but also the best hope to save the nation from Trump or an unhinged Tea Partier like Cruz. It’s at best a short-term fix to a long-term problem.
Some see the reinvestment in urban areas as the new breeding ground for the next generation of liberalism. It’s a start, but the Democratic Party’s hardest sell has always been in so-called flyover country, the areas far flung from concentrated commerce. Winning that part of America is the most pressing thing right now. The party has hardly any long-term vision of whom it might run in the future, or of how to create the kind of Congress that would either deliver Democratic-friendly legislation or blunt an extremist Republican if one came to power.
What this boils down to is that Democratic voters shouldn’t vote for the candidate the pundit class says is most suitable. Instead, you may as well vote for the person who best represents your interests.
Ari Paul is a journalist in New York City who has covered politics for The Nation, The Guardian and many other outlets.