What Trump Can Teach Us About Political Cycles of Boom and Bust

Some Democrats blame Obama for letting his party wither. It's not that simple.

President Trump celebrated the result of Ohio’s special election Tuesday night after Republican Troy Balderson squeaked out a win* against Democrat Danny O’Connor.

But given the 12th congressional district comprises rural and suburban communities around Columbus, and given the president won it by double digits in 2016, the result of last night’s contest might be less important than what it portends.

To be sure, a win is a win. Something similar might happen in November. Despite evidence suggesting Democratic victories, Republicans could still win by a nose. But Tuesday was one of many elections since 2016. Over that time, we have seen the landscape shift in favor of the Democrats. We shouldn’t get over our skis, of course. Nothing is certain. But as Bloomberg’s Jonathan Bernstein noted this morning:

"What has to keep Democrats excited and Republican operatives and politicians worried is that all the indicators—election results, approval ratings, generic ballot polling, fundraising, resources—are pointing in the same direction.”

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The takeaway is that a blue wave is probable. But election outcomes do something more. They complicate an ongoing argument among liberal Democrats, a debate that has preoccupied partisans and colored their understanding of Hillary Clinton’s defeat. That debate goes something like this: Barack Obama allowed the Democratic Party—its “organizing and infrastructure, motivation and passion”—to wither.

That quote comes from the superlative Jill Lawrence, the commentary editor at USA Today. She restated the argument Sunday in a column called “What Donald Trump can teach Democrats and Barack Obama about politics.” She makes persuasive points about Obama’s ambivalence toward the Democratic National Committee, especially his appointment of Tim Kaine and Debbie Wasserman Schultz to lead it. But I want to focus on what I think is a most significant aspect of this argument.

During Obama’s tenure, the Democrats not only lost the House, in 2010, and the Senate, in 2014, they “went from controlling 59 percent of state legislatures to 31 percent; and from having 29 governors to 16,” Lawrence wrote. “The state-level wipeout in 2010 ensured that new House districts based on the 2010 Census would be drawn and approved largely by Republican legislatures and governors.”

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I can see why Lawrence looks on this as evidence of Obama’s institutional dithering. I can see why leftists look at the same point as reason to abandon the party. But I’ve always thought this was unfair to Obama. I tend to agree with the late Lars-Erik Nelson, who once covered Washington for the New York Daily News, when he said Democrats habitually fall victim to “the illusion of presidential omnipotence.”

In 2000, he wrote that Bill Clinton is bad, according to progressives, “not because he is a knave or a fool, but, just as bad, because he is a centrist who shunned the radical changes and bold solutions that a more energetic and partisan leader could have achieved.” The details differ, but the broad outlines are the same. Obama should have done more, could have done more, and failed to do more. I don’t think it’s that simple.

Aside from the fact that hatred of the country’s first black president fueled the Republican takeover of state legislators, the Democrats probably lost so much ground for a simple reason: They were in power. Being in power was itself a culmination of events. Before 2004, the GOP looked like it would be in control for decades. That year then-senator Obama was one of a handful of Democrats to win. Two years later, his party took the Congress. Two more years later, Obama won the presidency.

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In other words, the electorate reacted to George W. Bush’s presidency by putting more Democrats in office just as it reacted to Obama’s presidency by putting more Republicans in office. I don’t mean to suggest parity in terms of total numbers (I don’t know what they are), but I do mean to suggest the parties experienced in recent years clear cycles of boom and bust. I also suggest those cycles may have had little to do with each president’s management skills and were mostly to do with the president.

We are returning to a moment in which the electorate is reacting to a GOP president, but this one is really different. This one is more unpopular than any president from either party despite the fact that the US is not enmeshed in foreign wars and the US economy is improving for most. Since 2016, incumbent Republicans have retired en masse. The Democrats, meanwhile, have flipped 43 seats in state legislatures.

And we haven’t gotten to the midterms yet.


  • *Consider that Balderson planned to run on the Republican Party’s tax overhaul, but abandoned the strategy once he figured out it wasn’t gaining traction. Consider, too, that he ran television spots falsely and preposterously claiming that his opponent, in cahoots with the Dread Nancy Pelosi, planned to cut Medicare funding. Lastly, and most importantly, only about 30 percent of registered Democrats voted in this wealthy conservative district. The rest, of course, were Republicans, many of whom supported O’Connor.


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