American political punditry is currently divided between Democrats who are bullish on their party’s future because they think they have a demographic lock on the presidency, and Republicans who are bullish on their party’s future because they think they have a geographical lock on the House of Representatives and many state legislatures. (At least one side is right.) But two recent articles, one by Sean Trende and David Byler and the other by Robert Draper, should give pause to the Democrats, because they suggest that even if Democrats are on course to continue winning the presidency, those same forces may be gutting their farm team.
Trende and Byler construct an index that uses five metrics: presidential performance, House performance, Senate performance, gubernatorial performance and state legislative performance. They conclude that the Republicans are doing better than the Democrats, and in fact, are doing better than they have at any other time in the postwar era – though still not as well as Democrats did during their long postwar ascendancy.
When people note this, they usually talk about what this means for the drawing of legislative districts (a source, though not the only one, of GOP dominance in the House of Representatives). What I haven’t seen discussed so much is what this means for the future of state and national races. Where are the Democrats going to get the folks to run for those races if they’re so weak at the district level?
As I wrote in a different context, “Careers have useful arcs; the only way to get the middle managers, or 30-something actors, that you need is to have employed them 10 years ago.” The same is true in politics. Oh, phenoms like Barack Obama occasionally race ahead of schedule, but these people emerge once in a generation. In most cases, you need candidates who are doing the day-in, day-out work of the business for quite a while before they’re ready for The Big Show.
This disadvantage is not absolute. The Republicans did manage to elect some folks while Democrats were in an even stronger position. But one of them was the Supreme Commander of the Allied Expeditionary Forces in Europe, a name-building strategy that will not be available to Democrats. Moreover, I’d argue that the lack of talent farther down the ballot did hurt them – and that the political environment makes this more important now, not less. Partisan rancor makes it harder to occupy the center, and parties are shells of their former selves. You cannot get into office by cutting deals with convention delegations. To run you need money raised from your own personal network of donors, and a name brand that can pretty much only be built while holding a high-profile office.
Draper’s article suggests that the seeming hopelessness of winning a majority in the House is costing the Democratic minority talent, because your best people don’t want to commit to a future of sitting around drafting never-never bills. The more dominant Republicans become at the district level, the more you will see this – and the harder it will become to retake the House, retake the Senate and governorships, and hold onto the presidency.
We may already see this playing out with Hillary Clinton’s nomination, with Democrats desperately ignoring the various scandals because who the heck else is there? Now, there are some obvious caveats to this: Several of their plausible gubernatorial candidates were badly hurt by botched Obamacare implementations, and Clinton is such a fundraising juggernaut that she’s made it almost impossible to mount a credible challenge. (The GOP roster has had its own deterrents: Around this time in the 2012 season, Republicans had a long list of plausible candidates who weren’t running because they didn’t want to be the heroes that battled the long shadow of George W. Bush’s mistakes.) When you try to make a list of governors and senators who might plausibly have taken the brass ring in Clinton’s absence, it’s hard to make a list that goes very far beyond “Andrew Cuomo.” It’s hard for me to even name who’s on deck for 2020, if Clinton doesn’t work out.
That’s a problem for Democrats even if Clinton does keep the presidency for them. There aren’t many ways to climb to the top of the ballot if the rungs beneath you have been knocked out.
Megan McArdle is a Bloomberg View columnist who writes on economics, business and public policy.