Published 7:24 p.m. UTC Aug 5, 2018
Better late than never, was my first thought when I saw former President Barack Obama kicking off his midterms activism with 81 endorsements, half of them in state legislative races. But my second thought was wow, he is very late to this party. His own.
No one appreciated Obama’s presidency more than I did. At the same time, no one could have been more puzzled as to how and why he let the Democratic Party fade in state capitals and congressional districts across the country — to the verge of extinction in some.
Obama is, after all, a former community organizer whose career started in a neighborhood battered by steel mill closings and peaked with a grassroots presidential campaign that became a juggernaut. He is also a former state senator who spent eight years in a legislature before moving up to the U.S. Senate. He of all people should have understood the critical importance of enduring infrastructure that’s built from the ground up.
The inspirational qualities that presidential candidate Obama demonstrated in 2008 did not translate into strong candidates or even average Democratic turnout in 2009 and 2010. Democrats had a 257-178 House majority when Obama took office in 2009 and were down to a 188-member minority by his last two years. They hovered close to a 60-vote Senate majority in 2009; Republicans controlled the chamber 54-44 by the end.
Nobody was minding the state capitals
In addition, over Obama’s two terms, Democrats went from controlling 59 percent of state legislatures to 31 percent; and from having 29 governors to 16. The state-level wipeout in 2010 ensured that new House districts based on the 2010 Census would be drawn and approved largely by Republican legislatures and governors. Years of decline culminated with the disastrous 2016 presidential campaign and a Supreme Court that could tilt conservative for decades.
It wasn’t as if no one noticed what was going on. “Is Obama falling short as party chief?” CBS News asked in January 2010. Nearly seven years later, in October 2016, Politico reported, “Obama endorses all the way down the ballot. After watching the GOP make large gains in statehouses during his presidency, Obama is making a last-gasp attempt to build his party from the bottom up.”
There was much chatter after Obama won about his vaunted campaign organization transforming from Obama for America to Organizing for America. About how all the action would be there and not at the Democratic National Committee. As it turned out, the action apparently was nowhere. Nobody was minding the store, or in this case the legislatures, governor’s mansions or Congress.
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Obama could not, of course, have staved off all of these losses. But the history of the Obama-era DNC is dispiriting, to say the least. First, Obama essentially fired former Vermont Gov. Howard Dean, who had a “50-state strategy” aimed at cultivating Democrats all over, and named his friend Tim Kaine as DNC chairman. The senator, at that time Virginia’s governor, had won his statewide race with cross-party appeals much like what Obama had in mind for his presidency. Kaine reinforced the message by wearing a blue-and-red-striped tie when Obama announced his appointment.
But the point of a party leader isn’t outreach; it’s winning. Kaine, clearly a misguided choice, stepped down after two years. His successor, Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz, another misfire, remained in place for more than five years even as the party lost ground in one election after another.
The great mystery throughout her tenure was why Obama didn’t replace her. Maybe he didn’t want to seem sexist. If so, why not find another woman to lead the party — or just suck it up? Right before the 2016 Democratic National Convention, Wasserman Schultz was forced out amid Russian hacking, WikiLeaks dumps and charges that the DNC favored Hillary Clinton over Bernie Sanders.
As conscientious as Obama was on policy decisions and as much progress as he made on issues important to Democrats, his passivity regarding the DNC and politics in general was a huge dereliction of duty. It was epitomized by his refusal to go big on the Russia intervention before the 2016 election because Senate Republican leader Mitch McConnell wouldn’t participate in a bipartisan repudiation. No doubt that is among Obama’s many regrets as he watches President Donald Trump’s daily attempts to dismantle his achievements and the legacies of Republican and Democratic presidents going back to Harry Truman.
What Donald Trump can teach Democrats
This will sound like sacrilege, but these political rallies Trump insists on doing — pugnacious performance art that bears no relation to reality, dignity or truth — are teachable moments for Democrats. Trump revels in revving his base. He never gives the passion time to die down. He stokes grievances where he knows he can find them, in the Rust Belt and Sun Belt and a rural America besieged by opioids. He is blatantly, offensively political and, since this is politics, it’s working.
His approval rating among Republicans is close to 90 percent. His endorsement is often (though not always) a potent booster for primary candidates. Almost without exception, Republicans running for re-election this year toe the Trump line. This is a president in full command of his party.
That is inarguable, but so is the fact that the GOP is shrinking. Slightly more than a quarter of the electorate now identifies as Republican. The opportunity is there for Democrats, if they will take it.
It is encouraging that Obama plans to campaign for candidates up and down the ballot, less so that he plans to avoid taking on Trump. One hopes that he and other Democrats will summon fire and fury this year, maybe not against Trump but certainly on behalf of America. And that party leaders of the future will remember what happened when organizing and infrastructure, motivation and passion were allowed to wither on the vine.
Jill Lawrence is the commentary editor of USA TODAY and author of “The Art of the Political Deal: How Congress Beat the Odds and Broke Through Gridlock.” Follow her on Twitter: @JillDLawrence