Wednesday, November 21, 2018

Ten Years Later, the Democrats Are Still the Party of Obama

In the wake of a "wave" election, it's always more fashionable to emphasize change over continuity. Despite plenty of talk these days about electoral realignments, resurgent socialism, and the political coming-of-age of a potentially transformational millennial generation, however, neither of the two parties looks all that much different now than it did before November 6—even if the national balance of power between them has shifted. To the extent that the 2018 campaign brought internal change to either side, it has mainly served to reinforce the existing nature of each party—and to render the parties even more dissimilar from each other.

A few years ago, in the aftermath of Bernie Sanders's presidential candidacy, I expressed skepticism that the Sanders brand of politics represented a likely future path for the Democratic Party. While Sanders himself mounted a more successful challenge to Hillary Clinton than many analysts had initially expected, his disinclination to emphasize policy issues outside his core agenda of economic redistribution—and, relatedly, his difficulty in making greater inroads within several key party constituencies—ultimately limited his appeal. Sanders was also ill-positioned to consolidate influence within the structure of the Democratic organizational network after the 2016 nomination race in order to reorient the party toward his own priorities over the long term. Barack Obama had become the face of the Democratic Party during the preceding eight years, and I suggested that future Democrats would likely continue to follow his political approach even as Obama himself prepared to leave public office.

Now, a full decade after Obama's first election and nearly two years after his presidency ended, Obama-style politics remains alive and well. Indeed, the Democratic Party continues to be molded in Obama's image even though he no longer serves as its official leader. The candidates who led the Democratic electoral resurgence in 2018 collectively represent a new cohort of mini-Obamas, reflecting the enduring influence of his strategy and style in a number of specific respects:

1. The personification of "change." Obama's decision in late 2006 to seek the presidency after less than two years in the Senate was viewed by contemporary observers as a very bold, if not risky, move. Conventional wisdom suggested that voters might deem Obama unprepared for the job, or scoff at his lack of legislative accomplishments. Instead, Obama turned his inexperience into a political strength in his races against both Hillary Clinton (in the Democratic primaries) and John McCain (in the general election), separating himself from an unpopular class of veteran politicians while promising to offer a different, more hopeful future. His personal biography—relative youth, recent arrival on the national scene, absence from the partisan wars of the previous years—thus reinforced his central campaign message in an unusually effective manner.

Many of the successful Democratic candidates in 2018 also credibly, and potently, positioned themselves as political outsiders opposing "career politicians" or "a broken Washington." Nearly two-thirds (64 percent) of the newly-elected Democrats in the House of Representatives lack previous experience in elective office—including 80 percent of those who captured seats previously held by Republican members. Like Obama in 2008, this Democratic freshman class is also unusually young, with 14 members under the age of 40 and a median age of just 45.

2. Acting liberal, but not talking liberal. Unlike Bill Clinton, Obama did not openly distance himself from, or pick fights with, the left wing of his party, and he generally took firmly liberal positions on major policy issues. At the same time, however, he consistently declined to portray himself as guided by a comprehensive ideological value system. While Democrats in safe party seats have become more likely over the past few years to identify themselves as "liberals" or "progressives" and to push for ambitious left-wing initiatives like single-payer health insurance, Democrats in competitive races mostly followed the Obama playbook in 2018 by running on specific proposals that would represent incremental left-of-center shifts—or even by defending the policy status quo against Republican-imposed rightward changes—instead of offering a more transformational vision.

3. A party of the metropolitan North, not the rural South. Though it had been in motion for a full half-century, the pro-Republican realignment of the South further accelerated during the Obama presidency. The mobilization of anti-Obama backlash in the 2010 and 2014 midterm elections wiped out most of the remaining moderate Democratic officeholders in the South (as well as the rural Midwest and West). Despite an otherwise favorable electoral climate, Democrats mostly failed to make up this lost ground in 2018, and even suffered further defeats in the Indiana, Missouri, and North Dakota Senate races, plus two House seats in outstate Minnesota. The most promising geographic terrain for the post-Obama party to make countervailing gains is now clearly located in the suburbs of major metropolitan areas, home to many highly-educated voters who have been drifting away from the GOP since the 1990s but who are especially alienated by Trumpism.

4. Demographic diversity. It's important to remember how rare it was in the pre-Obama era for non-white politicians to be elected, or even to run competitively, in majority-white constituencies. Obama himself was only the fourth African-American since the end of Reconstruction to win a statewide election for senator or governor  when he was elected to the Senate from Illinois in 2004, and there was considerable skepticism in many corners that a minority candidate could win the presidency up until the very day of the 2008 election. But the number and geographic reach of non-white nominees has continued to rise in subsequent years, and the 2018 contests produced an abrupt spike in the number of successful minority candidates. Democrats of color newly elected to the House from majority- or plurality-white districts include Ayanna Pressley of Massachusetts, Jahana Hayes of Connecticut, Antonio Delgado of New York, Andy Kim of New Jersey, Lauren Underwood of Illinois, Ilhan Omar of Minnesota, Sharice Davids of Kansas, Lucy McBath of Georgia, Colin Allred of Texas, Xochitl Torres Small of New Mexico, and Joe Neguse of Colorado, while Andrew Gillum of Florida and Stacey Abrams of Georgia ran near-miss campaigns for governor.

It seems quite apparent that working to increase the demographic diversity of elected representatives has become a priority for many Democratic activists and voters across racial, religious, and gender lines in the post-Obama era. This year also produced a record number of female candidates for office on the Democratic side, representing a sharp popular backlash to Trump's victory over Hillary Clinton in 2016. In the next session of Congress, white men will constitute less than 40 percent of the Democratic caucus in the House for the first time in history—but will remain about 90 percent of the Republican conference.

5. Health care, health care, health care. More than eight years after it was enacted, Obama's signature legislative achievement is still a highly salient issue in American politics. But while Democrats found themselves on the political defensive over the Affordable Care Act in the years after its passage, the unpopular Republican attempts to roll back the ACA's provisions once Trump took office fundamentally reshaped the partisan dynamics. The Wesleyan Media Project found that while Republican candidates were much more likely than Democrats to mention health care in their advertising in every election between 2010 and 2016, in 2018 it was Democrats who couldn't stop talking about the issue—invoking it in more than 50 percent of all television spots. Even with Obama long departed from the White House, Obamacare remains an extremely hot electoral topic.

There are other ways in which Obama's legacy continues to shape the Democratic Party—for example, a number of newly-elected congressional Democrats are Obama administration or campaign alumni, including Kim, Underwood, Tom Malinowski of New Jersey, Haley Stevens and Elissa Slotkin of Michigan, and Deb Haaland of New Mexico. In general, the changes evident on the Democratic side in the Trump era have brought the party even more in line with the politics of its most recent president than it was when he first ascended to the White House. But as the 2020 campaign begins to stir, the durability of Obama's brand of Democratic politics will soon face yet another historical test. Will Democratic voters choose another Obama-esque figure? Or, perhaps, will they signal their support for their ex-president by nominating his own former second-in-command?