Leading Democrats on Capitol Hill don’t think their party is in a state of crisis. In an interview with Politico published Thursday, outgoing Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid brushed off questions about whether the Republican Party had reduced the Democratic Party to a smoking pile of rubble in the 2016 elections.
“They have Trump, I understand that. But I don’t think the Democratic Party is in that big of trouble,” Reid said. “I mean, if (FBI Director James) Comey kept his mouth shut, we would have picked up a couple more Senate seats and we probably would have elected Hillary.”
Reid’s comments mirror those of some other powerful Democrats. Earlier this month, House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi also downplayed the extent to which Democrats would have to change in an interview with NBC’s Chuck Todd.
“I don’t think people want a new direction,” Pelosi said of her party. Asked after the election why Democrats hadn’t retaken the House, Pelosi also pointed to Comey’s letter and said, "He became the leading Republican political operative in the country -- wittingly or unwittingly.”
Now, not every Democrat is buying this post-mortem. The progressive wing, led by Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren, has been vocal in saying Democrats first and foremost needed a better and more populist economic message. And on the other side of the coalition, Blue Dog Democrats have denounced party leadership for failing to craft a message for Rust Belt voters.
But between those factions, some key Democratic lawmakers — not to mention veterans of Hillary Clinton’s campaign — have been more likely to finger the FBI, Russian meddling, and the injustice of the Electoral College, rather than anything intrinsic to the Democratic Party, for what is now complete GOP control of the federal government.
Is the Democratic Party in a state of crisis?
Reid and Pelosi have a point about Comey’s letter as a one-off intervention that may have tipped the balance in Trump’s direction. Given how negative coverage of Clinton spiked at the end of the campaign, it’s hard to argue that the FBI’s controversial decisions didn’t matter at the end of the day. There’s good reason to believe Russian intervention and WikiLeaks hurt her campaign. And Hillary Clinton really did win the popular vote — by close to 3 million votes, according to the latest tallies.
But the implication of Reid and Pelosi’s remarks — that the Democratic Party’s core strategy is basically fine — implies that it’s an essentially popular political party that would be fine without this year’s freak occurrences.
And that’s a much more debatable premise. Even if you ignored 2016 in its entirety, the party had been shut out from the levers of power throughout much of the country. The GOP has controlled the House of Representatives since 2010 and the Senate since 2014. Things were even worse for Democrats at the state level: As Vox’s Matt Yglesias wrote last year, 70 percent of state legislatures are controlled by Republicans and more than 60 percent of governors and 55 percent of attorneys general and secretaries of state are Republicans as well. (It is also worth pointing out that the Democratic Party has continued to do well in Reid’s home state of Nevada, winning a rare swing Senate election this year.)
Then there were even more setbacks for Democrats this year. House Democrats dramatically underperformed expectations in November, only picking up a handful of seats and failing to put much of a dent in House Republicans’ strong majority. The Senate is more balanced, but still firmly in Republican hands. From 2008 to 2016, Obama oversaw his party lose more state legislative seats (949) and more House seats (63) than any other president since before Franklin Delano Roosevelt, according to the University of Virginia’s Center for Politics.
The Atlantic’s Alex Wagner wrote after the election about how the Democratic Legislative Campaign Committee’s plans were left in tatters:
One week ago, the DLCC’s target list included flipping seats in critical states: the Michigan House, the North Carolina House, the Pennsylvania House, the Florida Senate, both the Senate and House assemblies of Ohio, as well as Wisconsin’s State Assembly and Senate.
But on November 8, all of these states—Michigan, North Carolina, Pennsylvania, Florida, Ohio, Wisconsin—ended up being the ones that ultimately destroyed Clinton’s chances of winning the presidency. The DLCC’s attempts to make Democratic inroads met with a similar end.
Of the 32 seats the organization had targeted in those states, Democrats won only eight. Ohio’s targeted seats remained solidly red, as did those in Wisconsin. In Michigan—once a reliably blue state—just one seat was turned. In Pennsylvania and Florida, both states that Clinton had been projected to win, two out of the four targeted senate district seats turned blue.
This is not a purely academic question. The extent to which top Democrats feel the need to revisit their message and platform follows directly from whether they think their message and platform is responsible for their losses in 2016.
Of course, none of this gets at how Democrats should or should not change. But for now, key voices within the party don’t see the need for a major overhaul in either direction.