I want to say this perfectly clear: the only way Democrats have ever won legislative majorities is to run moderate-to-conservative candidates in red-state Senate and House elections. Notice the period at the end of that sentence? No comma, no parenthetical, no footnote, no caveat, no ifs-ands-or buts.
Hegel said we learn from history that we do not learn from history. I think the political discussion in 2017 is proving him right for the thousandth time. History provides the Democratic Party a fantastic guidebook about how to obtain legislative majorities in the Senate and House.
The party with the biggest tent wins national elections. In a Democratic Republic, coalitions must be built and sustained in order to achieve the end result of preferred legislation and foreign policy. Failure to build a diverse and far-reaching coalition that spans ideologies, issue positions, and demographics is a failure of the first order, because that’s what political parties exist to create.
Since 1981 there have only been two times where the Democratic Party had control of the Presidency, the U.S. House, and the U.S. Senate at the same time (sometimes called a trifecta, although that term is more common in reference to state legislatures) – those times were 1993-1994 and 2009-2010. Those are only four years of my entire lifetime. If the Democratic Party wishes to ever see such days again, the party must learn the lessons of those two periods in time. There may have been blips of liberalism in red states in the more distant past, such as George McGovern in South Dakota, but even that exception requires looking all the way back to 1970’s. Since then, the only Democrats who have won South Dakota are not exactly the darlings of the left: Tom Daschle, Tim Johnson. Legislative majorities are necessary for the passage of party-line legislation, and even the most modest dreams of liberals across the country are likely going to come down to party-line votes. No Republican, for example, would even vote for the ACA – a law derided by folks on the far left as a half-measure that squandered a serious opportunity for more sweeping reform. So, what does the evidence show about how the party obtained majorities in recent history?
The post-1992 political map would look confusing to anyone only familiar with the current political landscape. Bill Clinton won Georgia, Louisiana, and Arkansas while Republicans nonetheless held on to Florida. Such an outcome would seem wildly outlandish today. When Clinton swept into power, the U.S. Senate had 57 Democrats, and the U.S. House had 258 Democrats (218 were needed for a majority). It’s the composition of the Senate Democratic Caucus during these two years that is particularly instructive. Louisiana had two Democratic Senators, as did Arkansas, Alabama, Tennessee, North Dakota, and Nebraska. Today none of those states have even one Democrat in the U.S. Senate.
Take the example of Sen. Bennett Johnston from Shreveport. He was a conservative Democrat who wanted limits placed on school busing for integration and who supported Operation Desert Storm despite a majority of his caucus opposing the war. He voted against the President on several budgets, opposed abortion rights, and was a supporter of an anti-free-speech flag desecration amendment. Despite all of his heresy, the grand total of his recorded votes inconsistent with the majority of the Democratic caucus was a mere 17. He apparently never voted against his party in a situation where his vote would have changed the outcome. He aligned himself with even the most liberal of Democrats on foreign policy issues such as lifting certain travel restrictions on Cuba, funding the United Nations, providing foreign aid, and modernizing the energy sector of the economy. He was ahead of his time on recognizing the threat of climate change, and was on the forefront along with Sen. Al Gore of Tennessee of the renewable energy movement. He did not look or act much like, say, Senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan – his leftist contemporary from New York, but he was the kind of person his state could support in the Democratic Party. He was the kind of Democratic Party candidate that could run in Louisiana and not go down in a stinking bag of flames. He is the type of Senator the party relied on to sustain its majority even if he was not always their favorite caucus member. He most definitely was not an Elizabeth Warren or a Bernie Sanders.
Senator Johnston was joined in the chamber by other red state Democrats like John Breaux, a Louisianian who bucked his party by supporting a balanced budget amendment and reducing the inheritance tax. Bob Kerrey, a Nebraskan who tacked conservative but defeated an incumbent GOP governor at one point in his career. He famously voted for the repeal of Glass-Steagall. Byron Dorgan, a North Dakotan who served three terms in the senate who was a prescient skeptic of derivative trading, but pretty conservative on immigration, helping quash the proposed 2007 Immigration Reform Act. Ernest Hollings, a South Carolina Democrat and Howell Heflin, a Democrat from Alabama were the only Democrats to vote against the Family Medical Leave Act. And a spate of other conservative democrats: Harlan Matthews (TN), Jim Sasser (TN), Jim Exon (NB), Richard Bryan (NV), Max Baucus (MT), David Boren (OK), Wendell Ford (KY), Sam Nunn (GA), Dale Bumpers (AR), and David Pryor (AR). Side note: of the states listed in just that last sentence, only two currently have a Democrat in the Senate. The red states, in a time of heightened partisanship have become even more loyally red – making it even harder for Democrats to make inroads and perhaps requiring an even more moderate to conservative appeal to come from a Democratic candidate in those places in order to eke out a win.
That’s a lot of Democrats. The Democratic Party of today does not look like the same party it was in 1993, nor necessarily should it – but it is instructive to note the qualities of this group of people if the party wants to learn how to once again attain electoral strength and momentum. The conservative heretics may have annoyed those to their left, but they largely carried water for the party’s ideas in territory that was not otherwise favorable to left leaning ideas, and carried the risk too. It’s nothing for a Democrat to run in Maryland. It’s bean-bag for a Democrat to run in Connecticut. But running in Alabama is different – today a Democrat in Alabama is what they call “target practice” it’s important to be reminded that as recently as the 103rd U.S. Congress, both senate seats in that Kool-AId red state were blue. Indeed, Richard Shelby was conservative enough he actually flipped sides at the end of that legislature. Howell Heflin, his Democratic seat-mate voted against his own party 45 times.
WIth all this rampant moderation and conservatism within the Democratic Party during the 1993-1994 majority, surely they couldn’t pass good legislation, right? Gosh, let’s just take a look:
- February 1993: The Family Medical Leave Act
- May 1993: The National Voter Registration Act
- November 1993: The Brady Handgun Violence Prevention Act
- November 1993: Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell
- December 1993: NAFTA
- May 1994: The Freedom of Access to Clinic Entrances Act
- September 1994: The Assault Weapons Ban
- September 1994 The Violence Against Women Act
Some well meaning leftists might critique any or all of this legislation as milquetoast half-measures. But this is what was achievable more than two decades ago. This legislation is a time capsule representing one of the two pinnacles of Democratic Party achievement in the past half-century. You can wish for the list to be longer, and you can wish for it to be more liberal, sure. But it wasn’t achieved by liberals – it was achieved by a coalition of both liberals and Democratic moderates.
Now let’s examine the other Democratic Party trifecta of 2009-2010. It’s recent enough for most of us to remember it from the news. The 111th U.S. Congress was bolstered by conservative red and purple state Senate Democrats hailing from sea to shining sea. Landrieu in Louisiana, the two Nelsons – one each from Florida and Nebraska, Baucus and Tester in Montana, Johnson in South Dakota, McCaskill in Missouri, Hagan in North Carolina, and astonishingly two Senate Democrats from the blood red state of Arkansas – Pryor and Lincoln. No red state during this trifecta period had a liberal Senate Democrat, not one. The closest you could get to a contrary answer here is Harkin in the purple state of Iowa. But the deep and broad bench of conservative Senate Democrats bolstered the majority in a manner that permitted the party to pursue good legislation where they had been stymied in the past. The party was not a perfect picture of left-liberalism, but it was a perfect picture of a big tent coalition – the only thing that ever makes any change in this country. What did they achieve?
- January 2009: The Lily Ledbetter Fair Pay Act
- February 2009: The Children’s Health Insurance Program (SCHIP)
- February 2009: American Recovery and Reinvestment Act
- March 2009: Omnibus Public Land Management Act
- March 2010: The Affordable Care Act
- July 2010: Dodd-Frank Wall Street Reform and Consumer Protection Act
- August 2010: The Fair Sentencing Act
- December 2010: Repeal of DADT
The 111st legislature came damn close to passing the DREAM act, immigration reform, and a plethora of other legislation if only they could have expanded their majority by a handful of seats. But, right on cue, the Democratic Party faced infighting from dissatisfied leftists who once again saw incremental progress as too slow, too tepid, and too moderate. The internal party backlash was severe enough that 2008 was the high water mark for Democratic Party turnout in modern times, and many of the 2008 voters stayed home in 2010, and 2012 – ending any hope of a lasting trifecta, and crushing the hopes of DREAMers and people who wanted to see the ACA expanded and improved. The GOP swept in and promptly sabotaged progress at every turn, taking the Obama Presidency and turning it into a paperweight.
But the lesson remains, if only people will look. The composition of the 103rd and 111th legislatures is instructive and history is not an anomaly. Insistence on liberalism from regions of the country already predisposed against liberalism is a pipe dream. States that regularly elect firebrand conservatives are simply not the places where liberals will win. Moderate and conservative Democrats will also find it hard to win there, especially in the current climate. But the blue dogs will always have the greater fighting chance, and always have. History has shown us this, and we ignore history at our own peril.
The backlash against Trump has created some fertile ground for Democrats of all stripes, liberal and conservative. Quist overperformed in Montana. Thompson overperformed in Kansas. Ossoff will likely overperform in Georgia – and those are all very different types of Democrats. But to keep the eye on the ball, we have to keep the following in mind: Quist and Thompson, despite overperforming, still lost. Montana has a moderate Democrat as Governor and another moderate Democrat as Senator, but the Sanders-endorsed statewide house candidates couldn’t eke out a win. Is it instructive to ask what the differences between Montana Governor Steve Bullock and Rob Quist are, and how those differences could be instructive in future attempts to win Montana? I think so. I hope others begin to think so.