The big story of 2015 may be the emergence of Gov. Jerry Brown as the new national leader of the Democratic Party. That’s not due to anything Brown has done, but rather the thrashing the Democrats suffered in 2014 that has left them a leaderless party with both a weakened President and an uncertain President-in-Waiting.
After November, California is practically the only bright spot left of the Democrats. Go beyond this state’s borders and the Democratic wreckage is nothing short of astounding. Just look at Nevada, a state carried twice by President Obama. This year Republicans swept every statewide office, ousted one of the state’s two Democratic congressmen, and won overwhelming majorities in both houses of the Nevada legislature.
Republicans now control 69 of the 99 state legislatures; Democratic legislative control is at its lowest point since the end of Reconstruction – and that was 1876. Republicans now have more members of Congress than at any time since Herbert Hoover was President.
And it gets worse. From the outer suburbs of Washington D.C. to Texas west of the Pecos, the Democratic Party has been obliterated; there are no white Democratic congressmen left in the Old South, Republicans control every legislature in the South and most Border States; the Deep South no longer has a single Democratic senator. For the Democrats, the South and Border States look like Carthage when the Romans got through with it. “Carthago delenda est,” as Cato the Elder put it, pretty much sums up the state of the Democratic Party in what was for decades its heartland.
That does not really matter, say some Democrats. “Forget about the whole fetid place. Write it off. Let the GOP have it and run it and turn it into Free-Market Jesus Paradise. The Democrats don’t need it anyway,” writes liberal columnist Michael Tomasky. The problem is that the fetid conditions are spreading. The Democrats were also trashed in the Middle West in reliable Obama states. They lost the governorship of Illinois; GOP governors were re-elected in Iowa, Wisconsin, Michigan and Ohio – all twice Obama states.
Wisconsin is a good example of what is occurring; Republicans have not carried Wisconsin for president in 30 years, but in 2014 controversial Gov. Scott Walker was re-elected, and the GOP carried every statewide office but one. They also won their largest majority in the Wisconsin Assembly since 1956. What’s happening, private sector union members found themselves in agreement with Walker’s assault on the public sector unions; down ticket Republicans won parts of Wisconsin they have not carried in decades.
How does this affect Jerry Brown; the Democratic wreckage has left the party leaderless in congress and statehouses, and with no stars in their party save perhaps Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass), darling of the anti-Wall Street populist progressives. None of their 18 surviving governors except Brown are national figures. There is a huge power vacuum within what’s left of the Democratic Party.
That vacuum is made worse by the precarious political position of both the current President and the President-in-Waiting. Mr. Obama’s presidency is functionally over. When the Republicans take control of the Senate in January he will no longer be able to confirm judges or appointees of his choice. The U.S. Senate is the great investigatory body in our system, and you can count on two years of investigations of Obama Administration alleged misdeeds. Whatever he tries to do, he’ll do through executive actions, unless restrained by the courts.
So what about the President-in-Waiting, Hillary Clinton? Unfortunately for her, our system does not treat Presidents-in-Waiting very well; ask President Ed Muskie (1972), or President Rudy Giuliani (2008), or President Thomas E. Dewey (1948). Mr. Obama just suffered a horrible nationwide repudiation; under a parliamentary system he would be out and his party would replace him with Mrs. Clinton. But that doesn’t work with our fixed term presidency. She must just wait and wait; it is not helping her.
Mrs. Clinton is trapped by her inability to freely attack the Obama record from the left (as Sen. Warren is increasingly doing), or from the right for that matter. She was, after all, part of his Administration. As Dana Milbank of the Washington Post put it, “The bad news (for Clinton) is she’s now tied to Obama’s foreign policy at a time when the world seems to be falling apart.”
Mr. Obama himself put her dilemma quite well when he recently said, “I think the American people, you know, they’re going to want that new car smell. They want to drive something off the lot that doesn’t have as much mileage as me,” he noted on ABC’s This Week.
Slowly but perceptively Mrs. Clinton is beginning what could be a long decline. The November Quinnipiac Poll showed her lead against Gov. Christie declining from nine percent in July to just one percent now. She seems stuck at 46 percent against the various GOP contenders, and all the serious ones are now polling above 40 percent against her. With her 100 percent name ID, there is not much room for growth in the Clinton numbers.
So how does Gov. Brown emerge as the Democratic Party leader? First he is not part of Washington, and not part of the Obama Administration. Sen. Warren may be the sole emerging star in the Democratic firmament, but Massachusetts is not a great presidential launching pad (see Presidents Dukakis and Kerry). As with Republicans in recent years, a party unhappy with its federal leaders will begin looking toward the states.
Gov. Brown’s embrace of climate change and all things green plays very well with wealthy liberal white Democrats; he has special appeal to Latinos that turned out to be a less than solid Democratic constituency in 2014. And he has California. With 4,388,368 votes, 60 percent of the total, Gov. Brown in 2014 received by far more votes than any other Democrat in the United States; his closest successful Democratic governors were Gov. Andrew Cuomo, New York, with 1,706,438 votes, and Gov-elect Tom Wolf, Pennsylvania, with 1,920,355 votes.
As to the age factor, well, Gov Brown is the same age as Winston Churchill was when he returned as Prime Minister in 1951, and Sen. Strom Thurmond (R- S.C.) had two more full Senate terms to serve when he was Brown’s age.
Nothing is assured in American politics, but the reality is that the 2014 wreckage leaves the Democratic Party pining for leadership from somewhere, and that may no longer be possible from Washington with the weakened incumbent President, or even from his successor-in-waiting. Politics does not like a power vacuum, and someone is going to fill it.