n 1723, Christopher Wren was buried in St. Paul’s, the magnificent cathedral he had rebuilt following a devastating fire in London. His epitaph concludes with the Latin phrase Si monumentum requiris, circumspice—“If his monument you seek, look around.” In 2017, Barack Obama will leave the White House after eight years during which he presided over the Democratic Party.
If you wish to see his monument, look around.
Look to your right and you will see that his designated successor lost her bid for the presidency to a man Obama himself had not only campaigned against ferociously but declared unfit to hold the nuclear codes. Look to your left and you will see the news stories detailing the possible strategies for the repeal and the replacement of the president’s signature piece of legislation, Obamacare. Then look up and down at the partisan cathedral he helped to rebuild. Its benches are, as Shakespeare said of tree branches in winter, “bare, ruined choirs, where late the sweet birds sang.” While he was the one with the nuclear codes, the Democratic Party has been hit with a neutron bomb. And on the bomb’s nose, written like the “Dear John” message on the nuke in Dr. Strangelove, were the words: “Barack Obama was here.”
The Democratic Party cathedral stands, to be sure, as structures will after a neutron-bomb attack. But it has been denuded of its priestly caste—the elected officials who were teeming within it when Barack Obama was first elected in 2008 and had every reason to believe they would move inexorably from the back rows of American politics to the front. There are some 8,000 elected officials in the United States at the state and federal levels. Between 2009, when Barack Obama took office, and today, as he prepares to retire from it, more than 1,100 Democratic elected officials lost their jobs to Republicans. That number is unprecedented.
Barack Obama entered the White House with his party in control of 62 of the nation’s 99 legislative chambers. By January 2015, Republicans were in control of 68. He then made it a personal mission to help reverse the damage that had caused the ejection of nearly a thousand Democratic state legislators from their seats by voters. He made 150 down-ballot endorsements in 2016 and even hit the trail for a few of them at a time when his personal approval rating was above 50 percent.
The result of the president’s direct intercession? The Democrats did worse. On Election Night in 2016, Republicans took full control of the legislatures in Minnesota and Iowa. The Democratic Party’s sole remaining legislative majority in the South, in Kentucky, fell to the GOP for the first time in nearly 100 years. In North Carolina, the GOP held onto veto-proof majorities in state legislatures despite the statewide loss of an unpopular Republican governor. The GOP prevented Democrats from retaking the state Senate in New York. There were some gains in Nevada and New Mexico…and that was it.
The massacre of Democratic officials goes far beyond state legislatures. Democrats held 31 governorships in 2009. Now they hold 17, having been kicked out of the mansions in Missouri, Vermont, and New Hampshire. Following this year’s election, Republicans have control of all levers of government in 25 states.
In Washington, after months of speculation that Democrats might eat away at the Republican majority in the House of Representatives or topple it, the GOP lost only nine seats and retained a 40-member advantage. And though the general expectation was that the Democrats were likely to take back control of the U.S. Senate, Republicans ended up losing only two incumbents and retained their majority at 52. Even more worrisome for Democrats, they head into the 2018 election with aging senators having to defend their seats in 10 states Donald Trump won.
The collapse of the Democratic Party under Barack Obama occurred in three stages, each corresponding to a national response to Obama’s policy and political overreach.
In Stage One, the Democrats were decimated in the House of Representatives (and the carnage at the state level began). From Inauguration Day in 2009 until July 2010, the Obama White House oversaw the passage of 1) the stimulus package, the most expensive piece of legislation in American history; 2) the second half of the TARP-TALF financial-bailout bill; 3) the Dodd-Frank financial regulatory reforms; and 4) the Affordable Care Act, otherwise known as Obamacare. Not since 1933 had there been a more aggressive legislative and regulatory agenda, and Obama’s determined march not only featured $2.7 trillion in new spending but the wholesale revision of the nation’s health-care system.
It was too much, too fast, too soon, and there was a national uprising against it that came to be known as the “Tea Party.” What resulted was a midterm in 2010 that cost the Democrats 63 House seats, the largest such defeat in 72 years. Democrats had built a massive majority over two successive elections in 2006 and 2008 and saw it wiped out in one go. Consider this fact: In the 2006 midterms, when an anti-GOP wave began, Democratic candidates for the House received a national total of 42.3 million votes. In the next midterm election, 2010, they received 38.9 million votes, a decline of 9 percent. In 2014, they were down to 35.6 million votes, a 10 percent decline from the 2010 midterms. In all, Democrats have gained a total of two seats back from their 2010 low. That means they have suffered a net loss of 61 Democratic elected officials from the House of Representatives in the Obama era.
Stage Two was the decimation of the Democratic Senate majority. In 2014, Democrats watched incumbent after incumbent swept away in a Republican wave eerily similar to the House wave four years earlier. In 2010, Democrats had held on to control of the Senate with candidates who received 29 million votes in aggregate even as the House was going Republican. In 2014, Democrats received 8.2 million fewer votes—a decline of 23 percent from 2010.
In all, nine Democratic senators were axed in 2014, the largest swing since the Ronald Reagan election in 1980. What had happened to cause it? A year earlier, in October 2013, Obamacare had been rolled out—and computer systems and software costing $1 billion crashed and crashed hard. ISIS flowered malignantly in Syria and Iraq and began beheading Americans. There was a border crisis as thousands of children from Mexico and Central America made their way into the United States and were put up in makeshift housing. Republicans won by nationalizing their Senate races, as Philip Rucker and Robert Costa of the Washington Post noted at the time: “Make it all about Obama, Obama, Obama. Every new White House crisis would bring a new Republican ad. And every Democratic incumbent would be attacked relentlessly for voting with the president 97 or 98 or 99 percent of the time.”
Stage Three only began on Election Night, and its contours are yet to be determined: the decimation of the Obama legacy itself.
One might say that it began, oddly enough, with Obama’s 2012 victory. He got his second term, yes, but for the first time in presidential history, received fewer votes in getting reelected than he had in his first run. 69.5 million Americans had cast a ballot for Obama in 2008, and in 2012 that number dropped to 65.8 million. Those voters didn’t go to the Republican, Mitt Romney, who gained only a million more than John McCain had in 2008. They just disappeared. And in 2016, another 3 to 4 million vanished as Hillary Clinton received somewhere between 61 and 62 million votes. So, over the course of the Obama era, as many as 8 million people stopped voting for the Democrat at the top of the ticket. That’s a drop of 11 percent. That’s a landslide number in reverse.
The story of 2016 is, in part, the missing white vote that got Donald Trump elected. Where is that white vote? A considerable part of it is in areas of the country where the Obama administration literally targeted heavy industries both venerable and brand-new—coal and fracking. Obama has spent his presidency favoring the environmentalist cause, which is popular with what the pollster Stanley Greenberg and the consultant James Carville called “the new progressive common ground,” over the continuing employment of the white working class in good-paying jobs. Obama and Clinton—who told an audience earlier this year with some pride that “we are going to put a lot of coal miners and coal companies out of business”—were choosing not to expand the Democratic electoral coalition by bringing people with different interests together but to contract it ideologically. He and Clinton could do this, they believed, because a new and massive electoral coalition was taking the place of the old—one made up, in Greenberg’s words, of “young people, Hispanics, unmarried women, and affluent suburbanites.”
This is an example of the way in which Barack Obama sought to provide the left with a sense of cultural and moral superiority. He and they were working to be saviors of the planet, just as they were working to push America forward into a new ethical framework in which traditional morality was an evil to be overcome and new modes of being were not only to be embraced but to be forced upon resistant small-town birthday-cake bakers. Those who bought into it achieved a kind of blind triumphalism. They pooh-poohed any warning signs that the transition to Obama’s brave new world was creating new social fissures. Their unending political dominance was now a matter of demographic inevitability, as celestially mechanical as the monthly lunar cycle. Nothing could shake this conviction, even as they suffered through Stage One and were rocked by Stage Two. That “progressive common ground” just wasn’t common enough, it turns out. Its numbers weren’t quite large enough yet.
As it turned out, Barack Obama was a political genius with one unparalleled skill—getting Barack Obama elected and reelected president.
The reality of President Obama was another story. Enough of the potent Obama combination of celebrity and Rorschach test remained in 2012 to let President Obama stay president another four years. But the coalition of the ascendant had dissipated long before Hillary Clinton sought at least to approximate it. A lackluster candidate promising the status quo with ethical problems from here to Mars wasn’t going to reconstitute it.
As it dissipated, the farm system of elected officials shrank over the course of the Obama era to a single minor-league team of coastal and urban politicians. The result is a Democratic Party even more doctrinaire in its cultural, social, and political attitudes. Gone is the pro-life Democrat, the gun-rights Democrat, the Democratic hawk, the Democrat who supported the traditional definition of marriage, the Democrat concerned with religious liberty at home—and good riddance to them, in the eyes of those who remain. Joe Manchin, the very popular West Virginia Democratic governor who got himself elected to the Senate in 2010 in part due to a television commercial that showed him firing a bullet through the cap-and-trade bill, is reportedly considering a party switch before he runs again for the Senate. In 2012, the Republican got 65 percent of the vote in Manchin’s state. This year, Donald Trump won West Virginia with 69 percent. What would you do if you were Manchin?
Meanwhile, those remaining Democratic elected officials inclined toward (Bill) Clintonian compromise and triangulation—like the superdelegates who shoved Hillary Clinton down the throats of a party whose heart was with Bernie Sanders—now find themselves in danger of being completely discredited within their own party. Their representative figure is Debbie Wasserman Schultz, the Florida congresswoman and Democratic National Committee chairman who was forced from her leadership position when leaked documents proved she had been running the DNC illicitly as an arm of the Clinton campaign.
At this writing, the leading candidate to take her slot is a Minnesota congressman named Keith Ellison. Ellison once compared 9/11 to the Reichstag fire before adding, “The fact is that I’m not saying September 11 was a U.S. plan or anything like that because, you know, that’s how they put you in the nutball box.” New York’s Charles Schumer, the incoming leader of the Democratic minority in the Senate, has declared his support for Ellison’s candidacy. Schumer likes to tell Jewish audiences his name (shomer in Hebrew) means he believes his most important role is to serve as a “guardian of the gates of Jerusalem.” Ellison comes out of the Nation of Islam and is at the very least a supporter of a unilateral declaration of Palestinian statehood by the United Nations. Schumer is part of the old guard, Ellison is a tribune of the new. If there’s one thing Schumer knows, it’s which side of the slice of challah to butter, and the gates of Jerusalem can go hang.
The Obama years weren’t only a disappointment to those of us who did not drink the Kool Aid in the first place; they proved to be a disappointment to the very people Obama had celebrated by declaring that “we are the change we have been waiting for.” And they have been a calamity for Democrats everywhere but in the urban and coastal strongholds, Democrats who had thought they were going to make a career out of elected public service. It is from their ranks that their party is supposed to find its next stars, men and women would use their time in state legislatures to learn the craft of politics and the art of legislating before rising to the governor’s mansion or the House or Senate, and thence, perhaps, to national office. That is how Obama emerged in the early years of this new century.
As it turned out, Barack Obama was a political genius with one unparalleled skill—getting Barack Obama elected and reelected president. For everyone else in his party, and for his party itself, he has been an unmitigated disaster. And now, his decimation of his own electorate has helped to ensure the election of Donald Trump. Out of office in 2017, Barack Obama may have to stand by, impotent, as the legislative and policy advances that were supposed to be his enduring legacy vanish like the thousand elected politicians unfortunate enough to have been serving in office when Barack Obama came along and hollowed out the Democratic Party.
Christopher Wren has been dead nearly 300 years, but St. Paul’s Cathedral still stands. Four years after the end of the Obama presidency, there may be no monument of Barack Obama’s left standing for anyone to look at.