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House Democrats won't say they think they have a shot at a majority — is that a huge mistake?

Alex Wong/Getty Images

Something weird is happening in American politics. The Republican Party seems poised to nominate Donald Trump as its presidential candidate, and he seems likely to lose in an epic landslide. That, in turn, ought to set Democrats up to win a bevy of congressional races and maybe even put the majority in the House of Representatives on the table.

But here's the funny thing: Nobody in the House Democratic Caucus will say it's going to happen. On the record, House Democrats are lowering expectations — saying they will pick up seats, but that obtaining the majority is part of a long-term, multi-cycle process that's unlikely to bear fruit until after 2020. Off the record, House Democrats say that — seriously — they will pick up seats but obtaining the majority is part of a long-term, multi-cycle process that's unlikely to bear fruit until after 2020. That's what members have told me, that's what staffers have told me, and that's what I've read of other people's reporting.

"I never said anything about a majority," one senior official charged with electing Democrats hit back at me after I suggested she might have implied the existence of some optimism on her part.

This is weird not especially because it's wrong, but because it's so likely to be self-fulfilling. For a variety of reasons, it's very hard to win the majority without first convincing people that you might win. Normally you expect the out-party to exaggerate its chances of winning (which Nancy Pelosi certainly did in the 2012 cycle), not downplay them. But Democrats have convinced themselves that the current state of gerrymandering is so bleak that demographic trends and the vagaries of future events will someday produce a political climate that is friendlier to their interests than the present-day reality of a Trump-led Republican Party.

Lowering expectations can be self-destructive

To be clear, party leaders have perfectly good reasons for lowering expectations. Congressional districts are currently drawn in a way that favors Republicans. Democrats would need to win much more than 50 percent of the vote to secure 50 percent of the seats.

The key Democratic campaign committee responsible for winning House seats has been trying to build support for a multi-year plan to grapple with this challenge. Their big push involves collaboration with organizations dedicated to electing Democratic state legislatures. The idea is to improve the party's data and infrastructure, focus on key districts where demographic change is making them more favorable, and then try to do well enough in the 2020 cycle to get some more favorable districts drawn up.

"Data shows us that Democrats are moving into Republican districts and making them more Democratic over time, as we look between now and 2020," DCCC chair Rep. Ben Ray Luján (D-NM) explained to me back in early March, citing detailed Census data on population flows. It's important, he said, to "not just keep an eye on winning seats now, but how are we building infrastructure not only to hold the seats that we win in '16 but also to put us into a better position to pick up some of these seats in '18 and then in a better position come 2020, and on and on."

It's difficult in politics to sell donors and other stakeholders on a long-term plan. That the current team has done so is genuinely impressive. And, having done it, they now don't want to pivot into a Trump-induced mania, promise a majority, fail to deliver it, and then burn all their credibility.

But expectations-lowering has its costs, too. You are more likely to win a tough race if you can recruit a great candidate, and a great candidate is more likely to want to run if she thinks she has a shot at being part of a majority caucus. You are more likely to win if your incumbents don't retire, and incumbents are less likely to retire if they think they have a shot at being part of a majority caucus. Transactional donors on K Street and elsewhere like to shade their donations in the direction of the party they think is likely to win, which helps make it a little easier to win.

Last but by no means least, volunteers and other grassroots supporters get more energized and enthusiastic about participating in a campaign to win rather than a campaign to play a role in a multi-year cycle.

Democrats don't want to think creatively about candidates

Beyond the specific practical difficulties, the reluctance to even contemplate winning a majority until after the next round of redistricting reflects a certain combination of ideological inflexibility and partisan insecurity that makes a bad look for the Democratic Party.

It's true that the way the current map is drawn favors Republicans. But it's also true that if you look at the United States Senate and see Republicans holding seats in Illinois and Pennsylvania while Democrats hold seats in North Dakota and West Virginia you'll see that maps aren't destiny. In another context, House Democrats would be the first ones to tell you that their colleagues on the other side of the aisle hold really extreme political views that are often out of step with even fairly conservative districts.

Forty-five percent of rank-and-file Republicans, for example, say the rich pay too little in taxes — a position held by zero percent of House Republicans. Increasing the minimum wage to $12.50 an hour gets the support of 75 percent of Americans in polls.

Which is just to say that there are elements of the Democratic Party's agenda that could play in all kinds of districts across the country. But the party would need to recruit and nominate candidates who run on those broadly popular ideas and who, according to the specific contours of the district, ditch one or two of the party's less-popular ones.

These candidates might be pro-life or pro-gun, in hock to the fossil fuel industry, or skeptical about transgender rights. If the district has lots of blue collar whites, they might say "illegal immigrants" instead of "undocumented," while if it's more affluent they might talk a lot about the budget deficit and roll their eyes at expanding Social Security.

Staffers for even the most progressive members of the caucus are aware, in principle, that the marginal members of a hypothetical Democratic majority would almost certainly have to be more conservative than their bosses. But there does not appear to be anyone playing the Rahm Emanuel role of enthusiastically seeking out the candidates who would fit the bill.

But while winning reach seats is difficult, it doesn't require reinventing the wheel. The large Democratic House majorities won in 2006 and 2008 — and the 60 Senate votes the party held briefly in 2009 — were won by assembling a party caucus that was much more ideologically heterodox than the shell-shocked group of survivors who remain after 2010 and 2014. And while these Democrats were more conservative than a Pelosi or an Obama (to say nothing of Elizabeth Warren and Bernie Sanders) they weren't "Conservative Democrats" out of the middle of the 1950s and 60s.

That 2009 to 2010 Democratic caucus — with its Blue Dogs and Ben Nelsons and all the rest — passed the Affordable Care Act and the Dodd-Frank bill, it raised the minimum wage, repealed Don't Ask Don't Tell, delivered hundreds of billions in stimulus, and came closer than people remember to enacting a national cap-and-trade system.

It's not fair to have to play on a field slanted by gerrymandering, but politics ain't beanbag. The problem is that as the mass public — and particularly the subset of the mass public that cares about politics — has become more polarized, this kind of ideological flexibility has become anathematized.

If not now, when?

A question Democrats may want to ask themselves is when, exactly, they are hoping for a more politically congenial environment than a presidential election year with Trump leading the opposition ticket?

One big problem for House Democrats they don't want to talk about is that it's a lot harder to make gains in Congress when your party holds the White House. Either conditions are good, which helps incumbents, or else conditions are bad, which hurts the incumbent president's party.

That means the best way for Democrats' long-term plan to work would be for Democrats to lose the White House in 2016, then have the new president become unpopular and lose in a landslide in 2020 — allowing Democrats to shape redistricting and continue to do well in 2022 and beyond.

But down-ballot Democrats are much too genuinely terrified of the consequences of losing in 2016 to even muse counterintuitively about the possible advantages of this route. The problem is that while the country's underlying demographics should be more favorable to Democrats by 2020, it's pretty unlikely that the overall national political climate will be. No party has won a forth straight presidential term since 1944, Republicans will almost certainly have a stronger nominee, and there's always the possibility of scandal or recession to throw a wrench in the works.

Of course, it's also possible that Democrats will run into unexpected good news in the future. But the reality is that they are running into unexpected good news right now and seem hesitant to tout it. Is a better opportunity really going to present itself in the future?

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