Every December, Chris Cillizza of the Washington Post picks the biggest political loser of the past year.
In 2013, Cillizza’s selection was Barack Obama. He cited the botched rollout of Healthcare.gov, the NSA domestic-surveillance scandal, the IRS’s targeting of tea-party groups, and the continuing questions about the administration’s actions before, during, and after the attack on Americans in Benghazi.
In 2015, Cillizza picked two co-“winners,” Jeb Bush and Hillary Clinton. The reasons were obvious. By December 2015, it was clear Bush’s odds of winning the nomination were small and shrinking quickly. Clinton, meanwhile, looked likely to emerge bloodied from the Democratic primaries after a tougher-than-expected fight with Bernie Sanders.
This year, Cillizza assessed the surprising post-election political landscape and selected “The Democrats”:
The Democrats may be effectively locked out of power in all three branches of government for years. At the state level, after last month’s elections, they’ll control only 16 governorships and 13 legislatures.
This year, punctuated by Hillary Clinton’s loss, exposed the remarkably shallow depth of the Democratic bench. The size of the Republican primary field — for which the GOP was relentlessly mocked — was also a sign of the party’s health up and down the ballot. Democrats simply didn’t have the political talent to put forward 17 candidates (or even seven). That’s partly because there’s been limited opportunity to move up in the leadership ranks. Pelosi (Calif.) and Reps. Steny H. Hoyer (Md.) and James E. Clyburn (S.C) have had a death grip on the party’s top congressional slots for a very long time. It’s also partly because the Democratic farm system is hurting.
Lined up one after another, Cillizza’s picks create a broader narrative: President Obama’s second term has been a terrible failure for the country. A nation that is pleased with the status quo — a nation that feels prosperous, safe, and confident about the future — doesn’t choose to roll the dice with Donald Trump.
Jonathan Chait’s ill-timed forthcoming book argues that “in the eyes of history, Barack Obama will be viewed as one of America’s best and most accomplished presidents.” CNN’s Fareed Zakaria recently offered a two-hour special concluding that America failed its president: “It remains unclear if the country was ready for Barack Obama’s vision.”
These are strenuous efforts to avoid the obvious: Obama’s ideas didn’t work. He failed to deliver what he promised.
If Obama’s policies had improved the economy, people would feel confident about their ability to find new and better jobs, buy houses, pay for their children’s educations, afford retirement, and live with a financial cushion. If the Affordable Care Act had lived up to its name, people would feel more reassured about their ability to get the medical help they need at a price they can afford. If Obama’s counterterrorism policies worked, Americans wouldn’t have been left shuddering at attacks in San Bernardino and Orlando and Boston and Chelsea.
With the Obama administration having already tried its ideas and generated “meh” results at best, Democrats found themselves strangely quiet about some of their traditional issues in the 2016 cycle. Hillary Clinton and her allies could run on “protecting” the Affordable Care Act, but not on overhauling it. Her main economic proposal was a minimum-wage hike. There was no allegedly outrageous war for oil to protest.By 2016, what stirred the passions of the Democrats’ most vocal activists was a grab bag of niche issues: the Black Lives Matter movement, the rights of transgender Americans, the latest microaggression or pop culture phenomenon that enraged the Social Justice Warriors.
Meanwhile, ordinary Americans dealt with real problems. Meth and opioid addiction tore through small towns like a storm. Decades of unchecked illegal immigration changed the dynamics of the workforce. Endless promises of education never came to fruition; the traditional path of life, of a steady, well-paying job, a home, marriage and children seemed like a naïve dream. Millions of Americans who had voted for Democrats in the past felt forgotten, abandoned, mocked, and sneered at.
The Democrats didn’t just have a bad year. Whether they can ever bring themselves to admit it or not, they’ve had a bad term.
— Jim Geraghty is National Review’s senior political correspondent.