Since the Presidential election there has been a lot of loose talk about “change.” In this series of posts we’ll try to tighten up that conversation by identifying some specific changes Americans have on their minds. Specifically, I’ll touch on some of the more controversial changes the new Administration will be evaluating.
Before we get to that, though, I want to make a couple of preliminary points. The first is to emphasize how overwhelming the desire for “change” is across the land, however loosely or tightly change might be defined, and whatever we might think of the incoming Administration.
We can safely assume, for example, that the roughly 63 million people who voted for Trump want change. We can also safely assume that millions of other people who were too disgusted to vote at all want change. Finally, we know that millions of people who voted for Clinton, but who much preferred Sanders, also want change.
But these people—call it roughly 90 million Americans, or three-fourths of all voters—hardly want the same changes. Indeed, despite the overwhelming mandate for change, there is probably no single act, policy, practice or custom that a majority of people could agree to change in the same way.
Different answers or not, Americans want change and the Democrats are, unfortunately, the party standing in the way of it. By passing over Bernie Sanders for Hillary Clinton, the Democrats announced that they were the party of business-as-usual. I rarely agree with the Democratic political leadership in this country, but then I rarely agree with the Republican political leadership, either. Most Americans feel the same and they believe that we need both points of view if we’re going to govern a vast and extraordinarily diverse society.
Yet, so far, all we hear from the Democrats is how Trump must be resisted at all points and at all times. The idea that Americans actually want change—indeed, that Americans are overwhelmingly demanding change, doesn’t seem to have penetrated the Party’s mindset. If this attitude persists it would be a significant loss for the country. Whether the Dems like it or not, virtually everything that has happened over the past eight years is going to be reexamined. Indeed, much of what has happened over the past sixteen years is also going to be reexamined. We need a thoughtful and responsible Democratic opposition speaking up constructively on these issues, or God knows where we’ll end up.
My second point is how profound the consequences have been for politicians who resisted the desire for change. Only eight years ago the Democrats controlled the Presidency and both houses of Congress. Not only that, but the Democratic President was extremely popular and has remained so up to the present day.
Yet, on the morning of November 9, 2016, the Democrats woke up to find that the Republicans controlled Washington, D.C. And it was worse than that—the Republicans also set a record by gaining control of 69 of the 99 legislative houses in the states and they now control both the governorship and both houses in 25 states. The Democrats control the governorships and both houses in exactly four states. Since Barack Obama—a popular President, let’s remember—was elected eight years ago, the Democrats have lost 800 seats in state legislatures.
The Democratic Party today has retreated in disarray to a few isolated redoubts: the eastern edge of Massachusetts, the southern tip of New York, the northern third of Illinois, and, of course, California. It is entirely possible that, viewed nationwide (not just in Washington, D.C.) the Democrats have just suffered the worst defeat of any political party in American history.
It wasn’t that the Democrats weren’t warned. The high-handed tactics of the Democrats between 2008 and 2010—especially the passage of the Affordable Care Act without a single Republican vote—soured American voters and in 2010 they handed the House of Representatives back to the Republicans. Back in 1994, when mid-term elections cost Democrats eight Senate seats and 54 House seats—handing control of the House to Republicans for the first time since 1952—Bill Clinton (another popular Democratic President) didn’t continue with business-as-usual. Instead, he moved toward the center.
But President Obama, Harry Reid and Nancy Pelosi didn’t get the message, instead continuing to press for policies that delighted the left wing of the Party but that left most Americans cold. A second message was sent to the Democrats in 2014, when they lost control of the Senate, but this message was also DOA. Finally, in 2016, the Dems were routed all across the country. For two years Washington had operated as though the Republicans didn’t exist, and then for six years Washington operated as though the President didn’t exist.
Ironically, one reason the Democrats didn’t get the messages America was sending them is that their President remained quite popular. Indeed, only Bill Clinton rivals Obama’s overall approval ratings among postwar Presidents. But as Clinton found out in 1994, the fact that Americans like their President doesn’t mean they like his policies.
Barack Obama has received high approval ratings in spite of a lack of enthusiasm for his politics because Americans view him as a thoughtful and decent man, a good father and a man of faith, a man who has behaved with great dignity and grace in office, often under considerable provocation. Finally, and maybe most important of all, Americans are proud of the fact that they, alone among the great powers of the world, proved they could elect a black man as their leader, not once but twice. Angry Democrats can complain about bigoted support for Trump, but Obama, in 2008, received more votes from white males than any Democrat since 1980.
It’s possible that once the Trump Administration takes office and the process of legislative and policy reevaluation begins, Democrats will have a change of heart. In particular it’s possible that the moderate Democrats who are up for reelection in two years will decide to play a positive role in shaping that legislation and those policy reviews, especially if they hail from districts that went for Trump. If so, the future could look a lot brighter for the Democrats in a few years.
Next week we’ll begin our survey of some of the changes Americans want, however loosely defined.
Next up: Loose Change, Part II