Democrats are in denial. Their party is actually in deep trouble
The Democratic Party is in much greater peril than its leaders or supporters recognize, and it has no plan to save itself.
Yes, Barack Obama is taking a victory lap in his seventh year in office. Yes, Republicans can't find a credible candidate to so much as run for speaker of the House. Yes, the GOP presidential field is led by a megalomaniacal reality TV star. All this is true but rather than lay the foundation for enduring Democratic success, all it's done is breed a wrongheaded atmosphere of complacence.
The presidency is extremely important, of course. But there are also thousands of critically important offices all the way down the ballot. And the vast majority 70 percent of state legislatures, more than 60 percent of governors, 55 percent of attorneys general and secretaries of state are in Republicans hands.
And, of course, Republicans control both chambers of Congress. Indeed, even the House infighting reflects, in some ways, the health of the GOP coalition. Republicans are confident they won't lose power in the House and are hungry for a vigorous argument about how best to use the power they have.
Not only have Republicans won most elections, but they have a perfectly reasonable plan for trying to recapture the White House.
But Democrats have nothing at all in the works to redress their crippling weakness down the ballot. Democrats aren't even talking about how to improve on their weak points, because by and large they don't even admit that they exist.
Instead, the party is focused on a competition between Bernie Sanders and Hillary Clinton over whether they should go a little bit to Obama's left or a lot to his left, options that are unlikely to help Democrats down-ballot in the face of an unfriendly House map and a more conservative midterm electorate. The GOP might be in chaos, but Democrats are in a torpor.
Democrats have been obliterated at the state level
The worst part of the problem for the Democratic Party is in races that are, collectively, the most important: state government.
Elections for state legislature rarely make the national news, but they are the fundamental building blocks of American politics. Since they run the redistricting process for the US House of Representatives and for themselves, they are where the greatest level of electoral entrenchment is possible.
And in the wake of the 2014 midterms, Republicans have overwhelming dominance of America's state legislatures.
In what Democrats should take as a further bleak sign, four of the 11 states where they control both houses of the state legislature Maryland, New Jersey, Massachusetts, and Illinois have a Republican governor. This leaves just seven states under unified Democratic Party control.
Republicans have unified control of 25 states. Along with the usual set of tax cuts for high-income individuals and business-friendly regulations, the result has been:
An unprecedented wave of restrictions on abortion rights
The spread of union-hostile "right to work" laws into the Great Lakes states
New curbs on voting rights, to further tilt the electorate in a richer, whiter, older direction
Large-scale layoffs of teachers and other public sector workers who are likely to support Democrats
Admittedly, one of the Democrats' seven states is California, which contains more than 10 percent of the nation's total population. But Texas and Florida combine for more people than the Golden State, and the GOP also dominates Ohio, Georgia, and North Carolina all of which are among the 10 largest states by population. Democrats' largest non-California bastion of unified control is Oregon, home to only about one percent of the American people.*
As of 2012 or so, Democrats thought they had a solution to this. Hard-right GOP governors in places like Wisconsin and Florida had become unpopular and were clearly overreaching reading a wave driven by the poor economy in 2010 as an ideological mandate for sweeping conservative policy change. And that worked in Pennsylvania's 2014 gubernatorial election Tom Wolf rode a backlash against then-Gov. Tom Corbett's hard-right policies to victory. But Scott Walker, Rick Scott, Rick Snyder, and even Maine's Paul LePage were all reelected. And while the old plan didn't pan out, no new one has risen to take its place.
The GOP is flexible
Liberals accustomed to chuckling over the ideological rigor of the House GOP caucus won't want to hear this, but one of the foundations of the GOP's broad national success is a reasonable degree of ideological flexibility.
Essentially every state on the map contains overlapping circles of rich people who don't want to pay taxes and business owners who don't want to comply with labor, public health, and environmental regulations. In states like Texas or South Carolina, where this agenda nicely complements a robust social conservatism, the GOP offers that up and wins with it. But in a Maryland or a New Jersey, the party of business manages to throw up candidates who either lack hard-edged socially conservative views or else successfully downplay them as irrelevant in the context of blue-state governance.
Democrats, of course, are conceptually aware of the possibility of nominating unusually conservative candidates to run in unusually conservative states. But there is a fundamental mismatch. No US state is so left-wing as to have created an environment in which business interests are economically or politically irrelevant. Vermont is not North Korea, in other words.
But there are many states in which labor unions are neither large nor powerful and non-labor national progressive donor networks are inherently populated by relatively affluent people who tend to be emotionally driven by progressive commitments on social or environmental issues. This is why an impassioned defense of the legality of late-term abortions could make Wendy Davis a viral sensation, a national media star, and someone capable of activating the kind of donor and volunteer networks needed to mount a statewide campaign. Unfortunately for Democrats, however, this is precisely the wrong issue profile to try to win statewide elections in conservative states.
Republicans have a plan
Any serious article about the prospects for Democratic Party policymaking in 2017 starts with the premise that Republicans will continue to hold a majority in the US House of Representatives. This presumption is built on four premises:
The natural distribution of population in the United States tends to lead the average House district to be more GOP-friendly than the overall population.