We’ve all heard that Democrats are in for a very difficult two years. The new GOP majority in the House of Representatives will wage a campaign to disable health reform, financial regulation, and the EPA; stonewall executive and judicial appointments; slash nondefense discretionary spending (thus undermining the economic recovery); gut Social Security and Medicare; and launch investigations into every possible White House indiscretion—potentially leading to a vote for impeachment. Democrats’ only recourse will be to practice what Howard Dean famously derided as “damage control”—to abandon hope for big progressive accomplishments and hunker down until 2012, like the Clinton administration did after the Gingrich Revolution, defending government from the worst excesses of those who would like to eliminate it altogether.
There’s only one problem with this scenario: the time-frame. Politicos and pundits are used to thinking in two-year cycles, and it’s easy to convince oneself that, in 2012, Obama will be able to capitalize on an improved economy, favorable voter-turnout patterns, and a weak GOP presidential field in order to sweep into office with a renewed mandate. But that misses a big part of the picture. Even if Obama wins reelection by a comfortable margin, it’s most likely that the House will remain in Republican hands and Democrats will lose seats in, and perhaps control of, the Senate—and beyond that, Republicans will probably do fairly well in 2014. In other words, we could be looking not at two years of damage control, but six.
Consider the Democrats’ congressional prospects in 2012. Republican successes at the state level during the past two years have given the GOP an extraordinary advantage in the decennial redistricting process. They control the governorship and both houses of the state legislature—known casually as holding the “trifecta”—in 20 states, compared to ten for Democrats. They’ve achieved this trifecta in six of the eight states that will gain representation in the 2012 round of redistricting. (As well as in three of the ten states that will lose seats, compared to two for Democrats.) While Republican gerrymandering will be restrained by rules mandating a “nonpartisan” redistricting process in some states, such as Arizona and Florida, as well as provisions in the Voting Rights Act, this will still provide them with a far-reaching advantage. Control over so many state houses and legislatures puts them in a strong position to shore up the marginal seats they just won in states like Texas, Ohio, Pennsylvania, Michigan, Alabama, Georgia, Tennessee, and South Carolina—as well as to destabilize Democratic incumbents who succeeded by narrow margins in places like Georgia and North Carolina.
We can’t be precise about how all of this will shake out. But it is reasonably clear that, to take back the House in 2012, Democrats would have to approximate the feat they pulled off in the banner year of 2006 while facing a changed and more hostile political map. Redistricting aside, a number of places where veteran Blue Dog Democrats lost in 2010—including three in Tennessee, two in Mississippi, and one each in Georgia, Florida, South Carolina, and Alabama—are heavily Republican districts that are very unlikely to flip back in the foreseeable future.
The Senate picture for Democrats in 2012 is not much better, for the simple reason that 23 of the 33 seats that will be contested then are currently held by Democrats, reflecting the 2006 landslide. To put it another way, Republicans could lose Senate races by a 19-14 margin and still recapture the chamber (or by a 20-13 margin if they win the White House). Meanwhile several Republican senators, including Orrin Hatch of Utah, Dick Lugar of Indiana, Kay Bailey Hutchison of Texas, and Olympia Snowe of Maine, will go into the 2012 re-election cycle more worried about right-wing primary challenges than about general election contests.
It’s far more difficult to predict what will happen in 2014, but we do know that the Senate class up for reelection will be disproportionately Democratic, since it swept into office during the wave election of 2008. Barring any retirements or deaths Democrats will be defending 20 seats and the Republicans just 13. Moreover, in 2014, the same kind of Republican-skewed midterm electorate that appeared in 2010, dominated by older white voters, will likely reemerge, creating another wind at the Republicans’ backs.
So what’s my point, other than to pour cold water on Democratic hopes for a quick revival after a really bad midterm election? It’s that progressives need to begin adjusting their expectations. Up until now, many Democrats have judged Barack Obama according to the hopes he inspired in 2008—that he might not only undo the damage inflicted on the country by George W. Bush, but end more than three decades of conservative ascendancy and usher in a period of progressive reform. We have been judging Obama according to our wish-list: the public option, cap-and-trade, repeal of “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell.” And we have been disappointed when he fails to deliver.
That’s not the best way to look at the rest of the Obama presidency. Instead of hoping for a quick return to the box-checking of the 111th Congress, progressives will have to gird themselves for a long, hard struggle with conservatives—one in which avoiding defeat will more often than not have to stand in for victory. Today’s radicalized GOP is not focused on any positive policy agenda, and it does not share with Democrats the fundamental philosophical goals that make principled compromise a likely prospect. The Republicans who just took control of the House of Representatives are playing for keeps. The party’s goal for the next six years will be to wreck the public sector—fundamentally altering the social safety net, de-funding investments in our children and our economic future, and rendering the government’s regulatory apparatus deaf, dumb, and blind—and liberals must realize that preventing or reducing that wreckage is an essential, and even noble, task which we should learn to value if not love.
When the day does come that Democrats again enjoy big majorities in both houses of Congress, a robust economy, and a popular mandate to govern, it would be a matter of fundamental importance that the safety net, a functioning public sector, and an array of progressive commitments are still in place. In addition to what he has already achieved, that may well be Barack Obama’s legacy, and it would be a good one.
Ed Kilgore is a special correspondent for The New Republic.