2016 Is No Democratic Slam Dunk

Majorities disapprove of Obama’s immigration move and still see Democrats as being against them. And most Democrats still don’t get it.

Andrew Burton/Getty Images

The Democrats’ upstairs-downstairs coalition is fraying. Just ask Sen. Chuck Schumer; he’ll tell you. Last week, Schumer announced that the Democrats had lost touch with Middle America, and that Barack Obama’s agenda was out of sync with middle-class needs and expectations. For Schumer—the third-ranking Senate Democrat and his caucus’s chief message-crafter—to go on the record like that, things must really be bad. Apparently, 2016 is not shaping up as a Democratic slam dunk.

At the moment, the public’s discontent is palpable. The numbers show an America disdainful of the President’s signature achievements. Absolute majorities disapprove of Obama’s unilateral move on immigration, as well as the Affordable Care Act.

And Obama’s slide is having repercussions. Hillary Clinton now polls under 50 percent when pitted against all prospective Republican challengers, including firebrand Sen. Ted Cruz, and is tied in head-to-head matchups with Mitt Romney and New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie.

On one level, Schumer’s analysis was granular. He argued that Obama wrongly rammed Obamacare through Congress, despite the fact that most Americans cared more about jobs and wages than about healthcare in the midst of the Great Recession. According to Schumer, Obama and his administration had misinterpreted their 2008 electoral mandate. New York’s senior senator also pegged the ACA as the political equivalent of a fool’s errand, noting that “only a third of the uninsured are even registered to vote . . . only 5% of the electorate.”

On another level Schumer went large, and drew a critical distinction between the two parties. He owned up to the fact that the Democrats were the Government Party. Yet, this may prove to be the Democrats’ bigger problem as they attempt to get out from under November’s wreckage. For the Democrats to win as the Government Party, activist government must demonstrate that it both works and is trustworthy.

Right now, however, government is perceived as failing on both scores. The rollout of Obamacare was a disaster, and the President’s promise that if you liked your insurance you could keep it was false from the start. To top it off, it now turns out Jonathan Gruber, an Obamacare architect, was busy deriding Americans as stupid, even while pushing for cuts to healthcare for the elderly and glomming millions of dollars from government contracts.

But these days, government doesn’t just seem untrustworthy; it looks downright malevolent to many. Remember Lois Lerner? The missing and presumed destroyed Internal Revenue Service emails have finally been recovered—about 30,000 emails to be exact—no thanks to the IRS. Even worse for fans of activist government, taxpayer information may have been shared by the taxman with the White House. Not surprisingly, Schumer, who also sits on the Senate Finance Committee, which has direct jurisdiction over the IRS, has had little to say about the IRS having gone rogue, other than to have earlier goaded the IRS to go after the Tea Party.

The reality is that federal civil servants act like Democratic Party adjuncts, and so trust in government won’t come easy anytime soon. Department of Justice and IRS employees collectively donated nearly $140,000 to Obama’s presidential campaigns. On the other hand, Mitt Romney netted approximately $28,000 from both DOJ and IRS employees, and McCain cobbled together little more than a paltry $5,200. By contrast, in 2012, the military vote split down the middle between Obama and Romney, according to exit polls.

If the Democrats are to get to past the Republican takeover of the Senate, they will need to again start talking about jobs, wages, and upward mobility; get beyond the politics of grievance and identity, and reach out to middle-income voters who are not public employees. That task, however, is easier said than done, with the culture gap underlying both parties’ strategies of capturing an electoral majority.

For the Democrats, George McGovern’s Coalition of the Ascendant has supplanted FDR’s New Deal Coalition. The Democrats have gone from a party of Southern whites, urban ethnics, and minorities to a high-end-low-end amalgam of coastal and cultural elites sitting atop of a minority base, with the former providing the cash that drives campaigns and the latter bloc providing the votes. In the process, the Democrats have become more diverse, but also less tied to middle-income voters. Indeed, a majority of Democratic voters will be minority voters shortly after the next census is taken.

As the 2010 and 2014 midterms showed, the Democrats’ strategy has is limits. Young voters, single women, and minorities may be enough to get a Democrat elected and re-elected as president, but they are an insufficient by themselves to act as an effective governing bloc. The rest of America matters, particularly when the rest of America is expected to pick up the tab for the Democrats’ wish-list.

For the moment, Schumer is being treated as a truth-teller. One thing he’s not, though, is a profile in courage or another Daniel Patrick Moynihan, New York’s late senator and former chairman of the Senate Finance Committee. Back in the day, Moynihan was a candid critic of the Health Security Act or Hillarycare, the brainchild of the then-First Lady and 2016 Democratic frontrunner.

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In early 1994, Moynihan observed, “We don’t have a health care crisis in America. We have a welfare crisis.” Moynihan also noted that “anyone who thinks [the Clinton health care plan] can work in the real world as presently written isn’t living in it.” The Clintons paid little mind to Moynihan’s take on things. By the end of that year, Hillarycare was history, and the Republicans had recaptured the Congress. Schumer should have spoken up much sooner.