Susan J. Demas: The Case for Democrats Just Saying ‘No’

  Susan J. Demas

Susan J. Demas

I’ve always been partial to Socrates’ maxim that “the unexamined life is not worth living.” (Just ask my husband how crazy this drives him).

As a political analyst, it’s my job to scrutinize every data point, especially after our odds-defying presidential election that was essentially decided by just 80,000 voters in three states. Most days, I feel like I’ve just scratched the surface on this, especially since exit polls are notoriously flawed and we won’t have voter file data until next year.

In the past, I’ve argued that losing political parties should undergo some serious soul-searching. Everyone waited with baited breath for Republicans to do so after 2008, when Barack Obama won the presidency and Democrats padded their majorities in Congress, even achieving, however briefly, a filibuster-proof advantage in the Senate.

That’s on the Democrats this year, even though things aren’t quite so dire. Hillary Clinton did score a 2.8-million popular vote win and Dems picked up seats in the House and Senate.

But Republicans are in a powerful position to enact their agenda at the national level  –– providing, of course, that President-Elect Donald Trump and congressional leaders can agree on one –– as they’ll soon hold the presidency, Congress and a majority on the Supreme Court.

Here at home in Michigan, Democrats remain on suicide watch, as they failed to capture any state House seats this election. Now we’re about to enter year seven of complete GOP control of state government. It would be hard to argue that the Democratic strategy is working.

So naturally, there’s been no shortage of hand-wringing and finger-pointing on the D side, both in Michigan and nationally. Much of this is refighting the last war. Diehard Bernie Sanders supporters insist he could have won on Nov. 8 and his politics are the future of the party. The Clinton-Obama wing warns about veering too far left, especially as Trump has cornered the market on populism, for now, with his dark brand of it.

Just take a look at how the Democratic National Committee chair skirmish is playing out, with Sanderistas lining up behind U.S. Rep. Keith Ellison (D-Minn.) and Labor Secretary Tom Perez emerging as the more mainstream choice. This will probably get ugly before too long. Maybe the Russophiles at Wikileaks can lend a helpful hand, just as they did with the DNC hack this summer.

A seemingly more productive strategy would be for Democrats to evaluate where they went wrong and retool their message and agenda. Those fights are taking place in congressional caucuses, state and local parties, the pages of various publications, and, most significantly, on Facebook walls (eyeroll).

But maybe it’s all a waste of time. After all, Republicans didn’t do a wholesale makeover after their ‘08 shellacking, despite an onslaught of calls to moderate (including from me).

The strategy hatched by now-Senate Majority Leader (how ‘bout that?) Mitchell McConnell (R-Ky.) and the more reluctant now-former Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) was simple: Just say no. They opposed everything Obama did, especially big endeavors that would have benefited from bipartisan collaboration, like the stimulus and health care reform. They didn’t hesitate to engage in “hostage-taking” (McConnell’s words) over raising the debt ceiling, something that used to be a routine function of governance.

Republicans paid zero political price — actually, quite the opposite. In 2010, they flipped the House. In 2014, they took the Senate. And in 2016, they won the White House. And their victories at the state level are even more impressive. Michigan is Exhibit A.

Democrats could certainly give obstructionism a shot. After all, their strategy for the last six years has ended in one abysmal failure after another (at least when Obama wasn’t on the ballot). It’s true that Democrats tend to be more enamored with the idea of compromise than Republicans. But with only 29 percent of Americans in a new Washington Post poll saying Trump has a mandate, now might be the perfect time for Dems to press their luck.

You can argue the politics of ‘No’ is shortsighted and distasteful. But there’s ample evidence that it’s an effective tactic.

And Democrats could always hedge their bets by honing a better economic message. That will certainly be critical for whoever is the party’s nominee for the open Michigan governor’s race in 2018. And examining and correcting failures of candidate recruitment, data and GOTV, both at the federal and state level, would seem critical.

It wouldn’t be surprising if the next election was a referendum on the new president, just as 2010 was. That would render much of the partisan infighting and endless tactical debates moot.

But warring factionalism is the lifeblood of the Democratic Party, just like it is at any good dysfunctional family holiday. Maybe the Dems should come armed to these squabbles with eggnog.

Susan J. Demas is Publisher and Editor of Inside Michigan Politics, a nationally acclaimed, biweekly political newsletter. Her political columns can be found at SusanJDemas.com. Follow her on Twitter here.