NEW YORK — Democrats awoke Wednesday facing something they had worked hard to convince themselves was a problem exclusively of the right: a party in crisis.
Swept dramatically from power as Republicans assumed control of the White House, Senate, and House of Representatives and stood poised to make Supreme Court appointments that will dictate the direction of the Judiciary for a generation, the Democratic Party is only beginning to grapple with enormous questions – everything from who will lead to what the party will stand for.
“The party is in a period of chaos,” declared a veteran Democratic strategist who worked near the top of Bernie Sanders’ primary campaign before supporting Clinton.
“The establishment approach to do politics, whether at the Senate level or the national presidential level, came up short. We need to take a long look at how we run our races and the candidates we put forward. What else can you say about it?”
The potentially devastating uncertainties are starting to pile up, spurring big-picture panic and minutiae-laden nitpicking for a party that was convinced until the final moment that the United States would never elect Donald Trump. Indeed, they were sure for three years that Hillary Clinton’s lead would persist and Democrats would be the party credited with electing not only the first black man to the White House but the first woman. Perhaps they still will, but not yet.
“Everybody’s in shock,” said former Vermont governor and DNC chairman Howard Dean, who ran for president in 2004.
“We thought this would happen in 2018, not 2016,” added a senior Democratic aide who woke up on Wednesday unsure of his party’s shape for the first time in years, especially given the forbidding map two years down the line. “It could get worse before it gets better.”
No party leader calls have been set to map out a plan ahead, and no signal has come from the White House or from Clinton’s team about what comes next. The phone lines were silent, only slowly picking up, and escalating to a fever pitch as the defeated nominee prepared her morning speech and interim DNC chairwoman Donna Brazile sat on the silent 9:00 Acela from New York to Washington.
“I don’t know who’s in charge. Who would email me?” said one state party chairman when asked if he’d heard from other party leaders.
“As you can imagine, I’m taking the simple view that the party will re-litigate 2016, find gems in the debris, and begin a long and arduous task of rebuilding,” Brazile told POLITICO. “We are a forward-looking party.”
There are decisions to be made, and soon: on Capitol Hill, Democrats are actively wondering whether a minority leader Chuck Schumer would welcome Elizabeth Warren or Bernie Sanders to the leadership ranks.
“We don’t know what’s going to happen in House Dem leadership,” added another state party chairman. “I don’t anticipate that Nancy Pelosi would want to stay on.”
At the DNC, Brazile’s term is set to expire.
“I don’t think Donna will stay, but there will be a chairman who will be elected by the members who understands politics, from outside of Washington,” said Dean, echoing a sentiment expressed by a handful of party members who were casting about for names of potential next chairs from the ranks of operatives and elected officials on Wednesday morning.
A leadership election there will almost certainly be seen as a struggle for control of the party, and officials are already considering how to avoid a full-scale civil war like the one the political class long expected to see just blocks away at the Republican National Committee.
And in the states, the remaining Democratic elected officials, both current and former, are wondering just how the party failed to heed former President Bill Clinton’s warnings about disaffected white voters. The 2017 race for Virginia’s governorship just took on new weight.
Those questions are just the beginning. Is Obama’s coalition of millennials, minorities, and women not enough, party operatives are now asking, even if it’s enough to win a popular vote? Are working class white men out of the party’s grasp forever? Why did Clinton spend so much time in North Carolina, so little in Wisconsin?
Is it Clinton’s party? Obama’s? Warren’s?
But for now, there’s simply disbelief on the part of Clinton donors and close allies who were told all was well until the final hours, and unrestrained frustration with the party’s inability to win despite its apparent demographic advantages.
“Democrats won more votes and picked up seats in the House and Senate. And we are the only democracy in the developed world where if you win more votes you don’t control the government and the legislature,” said Simon Rosenberg, a veteran Democratic strategist and the president of the NDN think tank. “There is not a wholesale rejection of the Democratic party and the Democratic brand, that’s not what happened last night despite the fact we now have less power than we’ve had since 1928.”
“The question of why can’t we replicate this sense that the majority of the American people are with us — why we can’t translate that to power — has to be the big question,” he added. “And it will be.”
And then, inevitably, there’s the question of what happens before 2020, the party already expecting a furious fight to oust Trump, but the fury not yet overtaking the despair. No senators or governors have been laying any groundwork for a run, though Tim Kaine has an obvious step ahead. There haven’t been any trips to Iowa or New Hampshire. No recruiting of national finance teams.
“We’re going to obviously have a very spirited [presidential] primary next time, and I hope no one over 65 will be in the race,” said Dean. “The torch needs to be passed to the next generation, and it needs to stay passed.”
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