Sean Trende on the Near-Term Political Future

In the warm glow of President Obama’s Inaugural Address, which Artur Davis described as “the most fulsome presidential defense of liberalism” since 1965, left-liberals have a renewed confidence in their political prospects. Alexander Burns of Politico reports that Jeremy Bird, one of the architects of the Obama reelection campaign, is launching a new effort to turn Texas, a bulwark of the GOP coalition, into a battleground state. Republicans, meanwhile, are still licking their wounds, anxious about demographic and economic trends that seem to cut against a party built on the support of culturally conservative middle-income white voters, a group that represents a shrinking share of the electorate. To make sense of this landscape, I always turn to Sean Trende, author of The Lost Majority and senior political analyst at RealClearPolitics. Below you’ll find the transcript of a recent email conversation, in which Sean counsels that Democrats not get too cocky and that Republicans keep a cool head as the president and his allies spoil for a fight:

Republicans are in a dismal mood. If nothing else, President Obama’s Inaugural Address demonstrates that leading Democrats believe that the future belongs to political progressives, and that rather than consolidate recent policy victories, they aim to press ahead with carbon pricing, a one-size-fits-all approach to same-sex marriage, the restriction of gun rights, and much else. But in The Lost Majority, which we’ve previously discussed in this space, you argue that successful political coalitions are fragile almost by definition. Is the Obama coalition more vulnerable than it looks?

Absolutely.  A coalition of African Americans, Latinos, (some) blue collar workers, suburbanites, and upscale liberals is always going to have trouble holding together. Look what happened in 2009-10 with that coalition. Liberals were upset that we didn’t get enough deficit spending and enough government controls on health care. Suburbanites were upset about the amount of deficit spending and health care changes that we ended up with. Some Latino lawmakers were upset that he didn’t pursue immigration reform, some African American lawmakers were upset that he didn’t tend enough to their interests, and the White House didn’t because it might antagonize other parts of its coalition. The thing blew up, and Democrats lost about 30-40 more seats than the economy suggested that they should.

Not to mention that it very well might be Obama’s coalition. What happens if the next Democratic nominee can’t get African American turnout up to 13% of the electorate, and it falls to the more traditional 10%-11%? That’s a huge drop in almost exclusively Democratic votes.  Take Virginia, now considered by many to be a purple-to-blue state. That certainly seems to be fair now with Obama atop the ticket.  But in 2009 Democrats were back to 1993, with Bob McDonnell running as well in the state as George Allen had 16 years earlier.  In 2010, Republicans won 8 of 11 House seats. In 2011, Republicans picked up the Virginia state senate, gerrymandered by Democrats, and won 57% of the statewide vote for that body. That is good — though certainly not conclusive — evidence that the baseline for Democrats is nowhere near as solid as they might like to believe.

In your writing, and in particular your tweeting, you’ve offered a mordant take on congressional Republicans as the gang that can’t shoot straight. From Plan B to apocalyptic pronouncements regarding the debt limit, at least some Tea Party conservatives have seemed to invite the Obama administration and its allies to characterize them as crazily extreme. You have also suggested that some Republicans are overestimating how safe the House GOP majority is from the prospect of a midterm wave election. What is a plausible nightmare scenario for Republicans in 2014?

The absolute nightmare scenario would be that we go over one of the various “cliffs” — the debt limit would be the worst case scenario, but a shutdown over the CR would be pretty bad as well. They would almost certainly get blamed for any downturn that followed (one we will probably get at some point in the next four years regardless). The problem is that it is very, very difficult to win a showdown with the executive.  Democrats learned that with the Department of Homeland Security unionization fight in 2002, and intuited that when they avoided a fight over the Iraq surge and went ahead and funded it. The executive’s microphone is just so much bigger, and he doesn’t have to worry about a wide multiplicity of voices ruining his message. Plus, Republicans have often welcomed a message that they will stop the president as best they can, which makes it harder for them to jump back and point the finger at him.

Also, I don’t think Republicans fully understand the president’s game. It’s not so much to get this agenda passed. The hope is that by fighting for these policies, he can keep enthusiasm up among core Democratic groups and depress the GOP base. At the same time, it gives an angle for conservative Democrats to triangulate against him; Landrieu, Pryor, Baucus and Johnson fighting against and killing, say, gun control gives them some pretty good cred with red state voters. You could see this playing out in a way where Dems gain seats in 2014, or even have a perfect storm and take the House. Not likely, but possible.

Yet the new House debt limit bill seems to suggest a new direction. At least for now, the GOP caucus has united around a longer game. What can congressional Republicans do to shore up their position? Some have argued that the party needs to shift from abstract ideological battles to offering a more concrete agenda for middle-income voters, and in particular for middle-income families with children. What’s the case for and against?

I don’t really see the case against, for either party. Elections are won with the center, with voters that are fairly non-ideological. There’s at least some evidence that Romney won the ideological battle in 2012: Even in this super-Democrat demographic electorate, more voters favored him over Obama on the economy and the deficit. Obama probably won on foreign policy and what political scientists call valence issues: “Who cares about my needs” and such. The GOP doesn’t fix that deficit by pursuing an ideological agenda.

Assuming the Obama coalition isn’t permanent, can you lay out a scenario or two for how it might fragment, and how the GOP might capitalize?

What people need to understand is that the Democratic coalition is every bit as unwieldy as it was in 2009-10. Obama’s current approach is a gamble: That red state Democrats laud their incumbents for opposing his agenda, while liberals stay energized. The opposite could happen: red state Dems could get lumped in with Obama, while liberals, who are feeling their oats, blame Obama if nothing gets done.

And if Democrats did take back the House, it would be a real problem for them. It would likely only be by a few seats, which means conservative Democrats in very red districts would be the deciding vote. With complete control of the government again, Democrats would be expected to accomplish a lot, but those House members could pose some real problems.To capitalize on this, Republicans would be well served to lay low. On gun control, immigration, etc., take the posture that the Senate should go first. Let the red state Democrats take the tough votes, and assuming they can pass something, decide where they want to take the bills, if at all. It’s the opposite of Senate Democrats’ very smart strategy from 2011 — let the House go out on the limb with the Ryan Plan, then dodge any budget fights of their own.

Reihan Salam — Reihan Salam is executive editor of National Review and a National Review Institute policy fellow.

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