9 things Democrats still have to be thankful for
(CNN) — It’s been a bad couple of weeks for Democrats.
And if President-elect Donald Trump’s early staffing choices are any indication, the next few years could be considerably worse. Come January, the Democrats will be entirely out of power in Washington for the first time in a decade.
But while the immediate future seems full of inner conflict and rearguard actions to preserve political and social norms (to say nothing of President Barack Obama’s legacy), there are still at least a handful of reasons for Democrats to feel grateful this holiday season.
So put on those rose-colored glasses, lefties, and put down the wine — for now — and consider these few reasons to smile.
1. There is very little — almost nothing — left to lose!
Here is how Bernie Sanders assessed the Democrats’ predicament during a post-election rally on Capitol Hill:
“When you lose the White House to the least popular candidate in the history of America, when you lose the Senate, when you lose the House, and when two-thirds of governors in this country are Republicans, it is time for a new direction.”
Whether or not the party shares his view on the latter point, the picture he paints of the current state of affairs is gloomy. According to the National Conference of State Legislatures, Republicans enjoy majorities in 66 of 98 chambers and run well more than half of country’s gubernatorial seats.
Could it get worse in 2018? Sure. A unfavorable map, with Democratic incumbents on the back foot in conservative states, could deliver the GOP a 60-vote, filibuster-proof Senate majority.
But there isn’t, at this point, that much else in terms of elective office for the party to lose.
What began as a matter of simple math turned into an article of faith over the past couple years — an assumption that might have hastened Hillary Clinton’s Election Day fall.
Still, Democrats do have a considerable advantage among women and minority voters, which, though obviously overlapping, are growing portions of the electorate. Trump’s victory didn’t change the numbers, it simply showed that the demographic surges Democrats counted on in 2016 — perhaps to a fault — are still a little ways away.
In the meantime, and certainly as the 2018 midterms creep up, the party is pretty well-positioned to reassert itself. It’s an opportunity, though, not a promise. If Democrats can iron out their leadership questions, starting with the Democratic National Committee chair, reason for optimism could grow.
New Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer’s early decision to back Rep. Keith Ellison, a Minnesota congressman and ally of Sanders, suggest that the establishment (that’s Schumer) believes that a real alliance — or at least a negotiated peace — with the “Berniecrat” left could yield major electoral gains in the near future.
But even looking optimistically to the next election is problematic for Democrats; they’ll be defending 23 Senate seats in 2018. Republicans will only be defending eight.
3. Traditionally liberal policies are popular
Forget Trump. For a little. If you can.
Put aside all the headline-grabbing national races for a moment, too. Yes, the Democrats failed to win back the Senate and underperformed in House races. Despite the myriad failures, there was a silver lining on the ballot initiative front.
Fights over gun control, expanded access to legal marijuana and the movement to raise the minimum wage all scored victories on Election Day. And not only in liberal strongholds.
Voters in Arizona, Colorado, Maine and Washington state backed initiatives that will increase the minimum wage over the coming years. In South Dakota, where Trump won more than 60% of the vote, a campaign finance reform and anti-corruption act was approved with 52% in favor.
Gun safety measures in Maine and Nevada failed, but only by a combined 3 percentage points. Meanwhile, initiatives in California, which approved a large-capacity ammunition ban, and Washington state, where judges will now have greater leeway in keeping guns away from alleged domestic abusers, scored comfortable wins.
Marijuana, though a more politically complex question, got a resounding green light. Arkansas, North Dakota and Florida — all Trump states — broadened access, as Maine, Nevada and Massachusetts voted to legalize weed for recreational use.
Democratic-leaning groups have done well on the ballot front recently and younger activists, many of them Sanders supporters in the primary, drifted toward issue-oriented campaigns in the fall. How this translates up-ballot remains to be seen, but for desperate Democrats, that light at the end of the tunnel might not be a freight train after all.
4. Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren
The populist left has asserted itself more boldly than their moderate counterparts in the aftermath of Trump’s earth-shaking win. Whether Democratic voters agree with their pronounced willingness to work with the new administration on economic issues, Sanders and Warren emerged from 2016 as the party’s two most dependable attractions. (Sanders, of course, is an independent who caucuses with Democrats in the Senate.)
The next Democratic presidential nominee will, like it or not, put a greater emphasis on winning over the Rust Belt working class, and Sanders, who defeated Clinton in Michigan during the primary, will likely play a major role in determining the person who gets opportunity.
More importantly, though, both Sanders and Warren have shown that, even if the bench of Democratic candidates seems shallow, the reservoir of energy on the left is deep.
For a generation of Democrats, some young and others a bit older or forgetful, the party’s current round of internecine brawling — the challenge to House Democratic leader Nancy Pelosi, the fight over DNC chair — might seem unusual. For many others, it’s simply a return to form.
Twitter and Facebook in their current forms have only known a country where Obama is president and, even as he was stymied legislatively by Republicans and renounced by some on the left over his national security policy (see: drones), the voice coming from the bully pulpit preached pluralism and progress. The Republicans have been the ones in “the wilderness,” infighting, searching for direction and seeking power.
With Clinton’s loss, we are seeing liberals in a recognizably argumentative state — but for the first time, the debate is also happening on social media. Some will say that’s a bad thing, another victory for noise over signal, but it also means that power will shift, if only just, away from the usual boardrooms and donor confabs, and toward the grassroots.
6. Hillary Clinton won the popular vote
This matters, and not because it will give pause to Republicans claiming a mandate or in some way humble the President-elect.
Clinton’s lead in the popular vote, which currently exceeds 2 million, is a simple reminder of how close she was to winning. Don’t feel better? OK. Think of it this way: In the Super Bowl, a narrow defeat is especially painful because there’s no guarantee your team will be playing in the next one. Democrats don’t have that concern. They’ll have a finalist in the game four years from now.
And they don’t have that much catching up to do.
As noted earlier, demographic advantages suggest Democrats — especially as Trump-loyal Republicans take harder lines on social and cultural issues — will continue to reinforce an already strong base of support. By simply seeking to narrow the margin in white working class enclaves, most of them in states they have won consistently for decades, the Democratic party could move into position for a quick electoral comeback.
7. Obama has sky-high approval ratings
Barring some overnight economic collapse or personal scandal, Obama will leave office next year with historically high approval ratings. While that might not have been enough to boost Clinton into his office, it bodes well for Democrats that their most popular figure is, well, popular.
Take a look back at 2012, when Obama himself was running uncomfortably close to Mitt Romney over the summer before the election. The economy was improving after the 2008 crisis, but still caught on many of the same hooks — stagnant wage growth, for one — as today.
Enter Bill Clinton. For one night, at that year’s convention in Charlotte, the former president — far removed from the partisan warfare of a campaign that didn’t involve him or any family members — grabbed hold of the race and shook out the message Obama and Democrats had been struggling to make. (Didn’t see? Watch it in full here and you’ll understand pretty quickly.)
The advantages of having a credible, unifying and intrinsically notable voice making the case for and, potentially, organizing on behalf of the party and its top candidates are real. And if history is any indication, Obama’s approval ratings are only going to improve after he leaves office.
8. And his legacy won’t be as easy to undo as some people think
About that legacy.
Republicans fought Obama at every turn, on even some of the most mundane functions of government, but again, he leaves office after eight years with his name on a significant slate of institutional achievements.
Trump and Republicans have pledged to “repeal and replace” Obamacare. The former will be considerably easier than the latter and there is, at present, no feasible plan to execute the 2-for-1 maneuver. With Trump now acknowledging the importance of some of the law’s key elements, don’t count on a swift demolition. Same for the Iran nuclear deal, a complicated international agreement that would take work and cost significant political capital to unravel.
Similar complications will pop up as the new administration takes aim at other Obama-era legacy pieces it has promised to smash. In fact, some of Trump’s more realistic policy plans — like spending on infrastructure and scrapping the Trans-Pacific Partnership — might be more popular among Democrats than Republicans.
9. Sheriff Joe is out of work
Trump’s win has set immigrant communities on edge. And understandably so. But where there is disconsolation and a brewing battle with local leaders, there is hope for Democrats coming from one of the country’s most conservative regions.
On Election Day, voters in Arizona’s Maricopa County decided that six terms for Sheriff Joe Arpaio would be enough. The illegal immigration hardliner — and champion of aggressive tactics like workplace raids — lost to Democrat Paul Penzone, a former Phoenix police officer.
“Sheriff Joe” had become a symbol, well beyond politics, of the kind of unforgiving “law and order” promised by Trump during the campaign. His defeat won’t alter the new administration’s plans, but for Democrats, it’s something to smile at — and a reminder that, in this often confounding country, nothing is ever as simple as it seems.