The results of this presidential election should inspire reflection from political prognosticators everywhere. They were wrong. The conventional wisdom, the counter-conventional wisdom, all of it. The collective reassurance that, no, this couldn’t happen here was mere wishful thinking. Going forward, greater caution is warranted.
At the same time, let’s not make this something it’s not. The levers of power may be held according to the binary system of wins and losses, but the story of an election—and its portent for the future—is much fuller. Democrats gained six seats in the House and two in the Senate, after winning eight House and two Senate seats in 2012. As of this writing, Hillary Clinton is just 158,987 votes short of Barack Obama’s vote total from 2012 and won the popular vote by more than 2.84 million votes—a full 2.1%. With her lead likely to grow slightly larger over the next week, she will at worst be only 1.8% short of Barack Obama’s reelection margin of 3.9% in 2012, just a few tenths of point behind George W. Bush’s 2004 reelection margin, and with a larger margin than ten different presidents (not including Donald Trump). Spare me the self-flagellation.
We’ve covered many topics at this publication over the last year, but three stand out. First, Donald Trump’s corrosive amorality and manifest unfitness to be president. No apologies there. Second, Donald Trump’s poor presidential campaign and dim prospects for victory. Certainly, the repeated assertion that Trump was likely to lose badly was spectacularly incorrect. Yet, the general contention that Donald Trump was a weak candidate in a year that should have been very favorable to Republicans was not wrong. He did not do well. He won a paltry 46.1% of the vote and lost by a small but significant popular vote margin. If we strip away the logical but misguided liberal assumption that anyone should have wiped the floor with a demagogic monster who breathed in poison and exhaled lies, it’s hard not to see that Donald Trump was indeed a weak general election candidate just exceptionally fortunate that non-college white voters hold such disproportionate strength in the Electoral College.
But third and most prominently, this blog has argued again and again that the Republican Party’s current iteration is structurally handicapped in both competing meaningfully at the presidential level and in governing should they somehow manage to retake power. That Republicans’ short-term tactics—from all-out Obama obstructionism to placating right-wing crackpots in exchange for votes—were creating a sicker party that would eventually collapse on itself. At the risk of appearing stubbornly defensive, nothing about this election changes that view. Yes, it was too strong to conclude that “the Republican Trump strategy is a conscious admission that the party has forfeited the presidency indefinitely.” But Republican leaders did fail to insist that their nominee put forward a workable agenda that passed the laugh test, and the party neither fully supported its own nominee nor denounced the candidate that opposed most of its ideas and members. A narrow electoral college victory based on a craven campaign to paint the Democratic nominee as a greater evil does nothing to change that fact. The Republican Party has now lost six of the last seven presidential popular vote counts.
None of this is to downplay the consequences of November’s election result. The horrors of a Donald Trump presidency will be many. Increased global instability, reduced international confidence in American leadership, staggering corruption, and frightening, authoritarian proclamations in response to the inevitable national tragedy are likely to follow. Trump’s current cabinet selections make clear he intends to harness the vast powers of the administrative state for personal ends using discriminatory means. Yet, national legislative accomplishment is unlikely to be the source of ruin. Republicans hold a razor-thin margin in the Senate, and many members of the Senate GOP caucus are quite squeamish about signing on to A Better Way. Nor are they particularly eager to lurch from Paul Ryan’s dystopian vision all the way to the stylized ravings about tariffs and internment camps characteristic of Trumpism.
For all the hand-wringing and finger-pointing on the left, the fact remains that the overall structural health of the Democratic Party is sound, though not impervious to the pulls of partisanship and the American people’s strong penchant for change at least one a decade. The current narrative—as is the inclination of human nature—is overly reactive to results over process. Partisan gerrymandering continues to give Republicans an inherent advantage in the House, yet it is one vulnerable to reversal should Democrats regain statehouses in 2018. More importantly, and not to be overlooked or dismissed, Hillary Clinton largely executed a successful strategy, albeit not as overpoweringly as she billed or expected. In overlooking the downtrodden Midwestern white voter, Clinton made a minor but painfully costly misstep. But the votes of 11,000 Michiganders, 18,000 Wisconsinites, and 44,000 Pennsylvanians (not to mention 113,000 Floridians available as an attractive replacement) are not an insurmountable obstacle. If the country survives these next four years, the Democrats most certainly will, too.
For as wrong as this space was in predicting the ultimate outcome, this analysis from July holds up quite well:
Republican victory in a future presidential election is an inevitability as long as they remain one of America’s two major political parties. When they do win, their current strategy of promising the impossible has dangerous consequences for any sustained success. A future Republican president will not be able to repeal Obamacare and continue its benefits, tear up the Iran nuclear accord and prevent Iran from obtaining nuclear weapons while maintaining global sanctions, or slash taxes while reducing the deficit. For that matter, no future president can successfully build a massive wall on the southern border or renegotiate every trade deal to stop the tide of globalization. The incoming administration will have to move somewhat towards reality. What will conservative voters think then? How will partisans already feeling betrayed by a national party unable to achieve its unrealistic goals react? Winning a presidential election may actually prevent Republicans from doing so again.
Barack Obama may have been a unique political talent whose appeal Hillary Clinton could not match. But he offered a realistic agenda, delivered on much of that platform, and produced its promised results. So, when it came time for the Democrats to nominate a replacement, it was unthinkable that their new champion would run from his achievements or pay a penalty for their enactment. Unsurprisingly, the coalition that put President Obama in office largely turned out for his successor. In contrast, it took ten years for the damage George W. Bush did to his party’s credibility to partially heal, and even then, the GOP’s great conquest involved a 3 million vote deficit built on a façade of big lies and divisive rhetoric that will only harden the demographic vote shifts unfavorable to its future.
There will be no “replace” to accompany “repeal,” there will be no resurgence for coal and steel, there will be no wall. A temporary triumph does not a movement make.