04/18/2009 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

How Democrats Might Actually Build a Permanent Majority

Roughly four years ago, the Republican Party was on top of the world. President Bush had just been re-elected. Both the House and the Senate were controlled by the GOP. The Democratic Party had a bumbling message, so nuanced that it was becoming increasingly difficult to explain. Republicans had an unmatchable political organization, and a superior style of campaigning, all while public opinion polls suggested that the nation had moved solidly center-right. Inevitably, many in the party began to talk about the possibility of generational Republican rule - a permanent majority.

Four years later, the GOP has lost 52 seats in the House, 14 in the Senate, control of both chambers, and of course, the White House. Their organizational advantage has quickly devolved into one of the most uneven matchups between two major parties in modern memory. They are out-funded, out-matched, and seemingly incapable of recovery.

Many have argued that the last four years should teach us that a party in power should never have the hubris to think a permanent majority is a possibility. Even when things are going well, the last four years should teach us that there are simply too many ways a party can stumble and fall.

But it may be different this time. It may very well be that today's Democratic party is uniquely positioned to control government for a generation, that its current advantages are far greater than anything the GOP has ever enjoyed. Perhaps this time, the Democratic Party will experience the confluence of events necessary for building a permanent majority.

For it to happen, a number of events will have to occur.

The Republican Party must continue to implode.

It is actually difficult to imagine how so many professional political operatives could be making so many strategic blunders. The Republican leadership continues to make decisions that seem to be based in complete irrationality. The theatrics that played out during the Rush Limbaugh fiasco demonstrated the height of the Republican leadership's political incompetence, a veritable user's manual for "taking the bait." And on the most serious economic crisis since the Great Depression, Republicans have adopted the philosophy of Calvin Coolidge who, before saddling Herbert Hoover with an economy on the brink of collapse, took pride in being "the least president" he could.

GOP leaders seem completely incapable of understanding that, even in a world where doing nothing to fix the economy was actually the best prescription for it, doing nothing will always be perceived as, well, not doing anything. To uniformly oppose the president and in an explicitly partisan way, and to do so without providing even a hint of a substantive alternative is a political suicide play. Even if, as Republican strategist are hoping, Obama fails to turn the economy around, Republican leaders have yet to provide anything resembling a reasonable alternative. They have done what appears to be zero soul-searching since the November election, and have seen their popularity collapse, among Democrats and Republicans alike, by reinforcing all of the qualities that cost them the election in the first place.

But recent events don't even tell the entire tale. Since 2005, the Republican leadership has been unable to developed a single political strategy that has appealed to a broader group of voters than their far right base. Their landslide losses in the 2008 Congressional elections, coming off an even more impressive 2006 landslide, were without precedent. They continue to misread every poll they are handed, defending, with honor, the likes of Rush Limbaugh and George Bush, long after the rest of the country has already passed judgment.

The Republican Party faces a crisis, the severity of which cannot be understated. But every strategy decision, by every leader of the party, has suggested that they are either in denial, or seriously delusional. The Republican leaders are sending the party directly off a cliff, and they seem to be the only ones who don't see it coming.

Democrats must hold most of their gains in the House and Senate in the 2010 midterms.

After the 2006 elections, plenty of historians were quick to remind the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee that a party rarely makes gains two cycles in a row, especially after a first victory of such magnitude. But when Republican leaders failed to reassess and readjust their post-election strategy in 2007, Democrats seized an opportunity to win even wider margins in 2008, pushing even deeper into the formerly Republican regions of the United States.

Though the midterm elections are still nearly two years away, if the Republican Party continues on its path to self-destruction, Democrats may again have a strong year in 2010. There are a number of potentially vulnerable Republicans on the Senate side. And in the House, where Democrats have proven quite successful at defending conservative districts, Congressional Republicans have already conceded that taking back the House will not be possible.

The Democrats may lose some seats, like the one currently held by freshman Tom Perriello, who would not have won by a razor thin margin in Virginia were it not for Obama's rigorous campaign there. But with an effective campaign committee that has lost only five House seats during the previous two election cycles, and with plenty of room for movement, Congressional Democrats will almost certainly maintain their majority after the midterms.
Surviving the 2010 election will help the Democratic party for a decade. After those elections House seats will be redistricted, an issue with huge political implications for a party with large majorities and an ally in the White House.


One of the more esoteric, but nonetheless critical debates in Washington focuses on the national census. Every ten years the Constitution requires the federal government to count the total number of persons in the United States. In most cases, state legislatures then redraw local, state and federal districts, under the guise of more evenly apportioning representation. Of course, the power to redraw district lines, and thus decide which voters vote where, is substantial; legislatures have gained infamy by creating gerrymandered districts, ones in which helpful voters are drawn into districts, and unfriendly ones are dumped next door.

Because the outcome of the census data can translate into that much raw political power, it is not surprising that the method used to generate census data would pique the interests of lawmakers. For years, Democrats and Republicans have argued about how best to count the American people. Democrats favor taking a sampling, a concept not unlike a poll. Taken correctly, Democrats argue, a sampling will provide a much more accurate reading than a head count. Republicans disagree, arguing that a sampling is inaccurate (it isn't) and that the Constitution specifically requires people to be counted, one by one (it does, sort of). So why the argument? And why along party lines?

The most likely voters to get recorded in a sampling, but omitted in a full door-to-door survey are minorities. Read: Democrats. Lots of them. Democrats and Republicans both know this. And thus, they take sides in a bitter political battle about counting and statistics.

With Democrats in power now, will the 2010 census be conducted as a sampling? And if not, will the Obama administration push to have the methodology changed in some way to more accurately identify minorities in the count?

We have some hint of an answer, which came to light shortly before Judd Gregg withdrew his nomination as Commerce Secretary. Many on the left opposed the Gregg nomination, concerned that putting a Republican in charge of the census (which is overseen by the Commerce Department) was dangerous business. The Obama administration reassured progressives by indicating that, though it was a break from standard practice, the census would be overseen by Chief of Staff Rahm Emanuel, directly out of the West Wing. Though by no means conclusive, this at least suggests that the Obama administration intends to change the census process, with an outcome almost sure to be advantageous to Democrats.

Even without the advantage of a Democratically-controlled census taking, natural changes in the population over the past decade suggest a potential boon to Democrats. Traditional Democratic areas, especially urban populations, have increased substantially over that time period. Combine those changes with the potential for a census more representative of minorities, add to it 27 Democratically-controlled legislatures around the country, and you have a formula for making some tangible, decade long gains for the party.

Voters from safe Democratic seats will be moved into more conservative districts, making those districts more competitive. Conservative sections of Democratic seats will be removed, transferred into districts already safely Republican. Democrats in tough districts will find re-election less difficult. And Republicans in safe seats will find themselves unaccustomed to their newfound vulnerability.

Obama has to win re-election.

This seems like a fairly easy point to make. Obama has to win re-election. Democrats aren't going to build a permanent majority if they can't hold the White House for more than four years. So here's a slightly more ambitious point: Barack Obama will win re-election.

Obviously an extraordinary amount can happen - will happen - in the next four years. Predicting Obama's victory after only two months in office is treacherous ground. But Obama has a few specific advantages that may well be insurmountable. First, he has folded his unprecedented campaign operation into the White House Office of Public Liaison. As his team continues to master the differences between organizing around a campaign and organizing around legislation, Obama will be able to keep the best-oiled political operation in American history ready for action when it's time for his re-election campaign. He will be able to raise amounts of money that will dwarf even his previous records, armed this time with a full-fledged operation from the very beginning, rather than having to build one on the fly.

He will face an opponent who will have to spend hundreds of millions in an undoubtedly bitter primary fight that will test, among only a few other things, which candidate can move fastest to the right, and further from the majority view of the American people. All the while, he will have the power of the presidency, a near infinite war chest, and an already battle-tested, already well-trained community, organized and fluent in the innovations of a 21st century campaign.

To be beaten, Obama will have to be matched by an Obama-like figure from the Republican Party, someone who has the capacity to build a competitive organization. But even should such figure exist, ready to reveal himself in a well-regarded speech, yet to be given, such a singular figure would still have a great deal of trouble confronting an Obama machine with a four-year head-start.

What will it cost to build an organization capable of competing against Obama? Where else will a Republican build that kind of organizational base other than the far right of the party? Rush Limbaugh could probably build a pretty impressive conservative movement. But that kind of person, building that kind of movement, could never compete on a general election stage. Those relatively few who are capable of building an organizational movement, powered by conservatives, are, in this new era, simply unelectable.

The difficulty of a Republican presidential victory in 2012 is as much the product of perception as it is reality. If somewhere, a politician did actually exist who was capable of taking on a figure like Obama, why risk it? Why not wait for an open seat four years later? Plenty of Republicans, perhaps strong candidates among them, will be advised to avoid one-on-one combat with Obama; winning the presidency is difficult enough as it is. But challenging a master politician with an unmatched organization and the power of incumbency will be perceived by many as nothing more than a bad career move. If Obama's popularity continues, and the Republican Party continues to decline, will any viable Republican even gear up for the fight? If there is someone smart enough to rival Obama, they are likely smart enough not to bother trying.

Democrats must solidify their organizational advantages.

One of the more common arguments against the notion of a permanent majority is that, as the Obama campaign proved in 2008, a massive political infrastructure can be built surprisingly quickly, and an organizational advantage can flip. After the 2004 election, Democratic strategists and even Democratic politicians went on record talking about the superior Republican organization and the impressive talents of Karl Rove. Four years later, the idea that the Republican party ever had an organizational advantage is difficult to grasp.

But this time may well be different. The impact of the internet, of the technological advantages that Democratic party operatives have mastered, is immense. Comparing Obama's campaign with McCain's was literally a comparison between a traditional campaign, the exact type run by nearly every politician for forty years, and a new campaign style, so dramatically better that, in a single election, it made the other type entirely obsolete.

The question is not whether Democrats will always maintain a technological advantage in future campaigns. It would be naïve to think that Republicans will be unable, at some point, to catch up in terms of mastering an internet-based skill set and utilizing internet tools as well as Democrats. The question is, rather, will the Republicans ever be able to make up for the organizational infrastructure, the tangible campaign apparatus that Democrats actually built in 2008, without a Republican presidential candidate to lead its creation?

As DNC Chairman, Howard Dean pushed hard for investments in party-building, but his efforts were dwarfed by the party building power of the Obama campaign. In addition to an unmatched small-donor base, massive amounts of data collected on supporters and persuadable voters, an army of well-trained volunteers, and a dramatic institutional advantage, Obama has built lasting political operations in critical battleground states nationwide. The behemoth that was built by the end of the 2008 campaign will serve as the starting point of future Democratic campaigns. Even if a Republican presidential candidate built a similar infrastructure, it would still be four years behind. Now, more perhaps than ever before, the Democrats have the ability to solidify their gains against Republicans, making their organizational advantage permanent. As we'll soon find out, it may have already happened.

Voters will need to become more liberal.

There are other factors that bode so well for progressives, and so troubling for religious conservatives, that they may corner the GOP into a permanent minority. Public opinion has shifted drastically on a number of critical social issues over a very short period of time. In a recent column, Frank Rich quotes some telling numbers:

In our own hard times, the former moral "majority" has been downsized to more of a minority than ever. Polling shows that nearly 60 percent of Americans agree with ending Bush restrictions on stem-cell research (a Washington Post/ABC News survey in January); that 55 percent endorse either gay civil unions or same-sex marriage (Newsweek, December 2008); and that 75 percent believe openly gay Americans should serve in the military (Post/ABC, July 2008).

As Rich notes, none of the controversy and commotion that surrounded Bush's decision on stem cells was revived with Obama's order reversing it. The arc of public opinion is bending right toward the heart of progressive ideology.

Republican leaders have already confronted the kind of challenges such a shift presents. The general public has a largely different view on almost every major issue facing the country than the Republican base. Republican politicians must choose either to offend a majority of Americans or infuriate their base with nearly every decision they make. This kind of cycle is poisonous to a party, and presents an unanswerable paradox: Republicans that can't depend on their base will not have the organization to win national elections. But Republicans who do depend on their base will not have a policy profile that can win national elections. John McCain learned this lesson the hard way.

The paradox is compounded by an entire generational shift. Obama won in November by six points nationally, but among voters under 45, he won by more than 15 percentage points. Even among evangelicals, one of the under-discussed stories of the campaign was the growing divergence in views between young evangelicals and their parents. The voting population is poised to become dramatically more liberal over the next twenty years as older, more conservative voters are supplanted by young progressives, thus further fueling the Democratic party's electoral success.

Democrats will need to be more like Obama.

More than anything, a Democratic permanent majority hinges on the choices of the Republican Party. There are some Republicans, including Charlie Crist and Tim Pawlenty, who have bucked the party line and asserted themselves as the mature adults in a party otherwise comprised of children. If these are the kinds of politicians who emerge as its new leaders, the Republican party will likely see a resurgence, though it may take years, perhaps a decade of rebuilding to come to fruition.

But if the Republican leadership continues to reinforce the perception that the party is unwilling, perhaps incapable, of producing any measure of constructive policy, it will signal that we are, indeed, a critical step closer to a permanent Democratic majority.

Democrats will still need to produce sound policy, be perceived as working hard to fix the economy, and avoid the kind of corruption that helped dismantle the GOP. When an unanticipated crisis does emerge, Democrats have to be perceived as competent and effective. Put simply, Democrats will not win a permanent majority without deserving one.

Perhaps most importantly, should the party continue to hold its gains in the House and Senate and should Obama be re-elected in 2012, it is critical that the party find itself a worthy successor to Obama. Time and again, the Democratic party has proven inept at producing talented politicians as its presidential nominees. Most Democratic politicians who have risen to the national stage have so mastered the hollow tone of nuanced rhetoric that they have come off as aloof, unclear, and indecisive. Most spent their political careers so fearful of ambiguous Republican retribution, so worried about the next election, that they carved out for themselves a watered-down politically philosophy that barely qualified as an independent thought.

Part of Obama's difference as a candidate was that he knew how to speak differently than other Democrats. He used new arguments to reframe old policies, but rarely used nuance as a prophylactic. He was blunt, but calculated his words carefully, brutally disarming, and exceptionally effective. He was disciplined, sticking religiously to his overarching message. Perhaps most importantly, he knew exactly why he wanted to be president, and it wasn't because he had waited his turn.

This is the model of politician that the Democratic party must mass produce. It is only that kind of politician who can effectively take the mantle from Obama. Obama can lead his party to the mountain top, but term limits will require that his successor be the one to guide the party to its permanent majority. If that person cannot rise to the challenge, they still may win the White House. But if the broad institutional gains that Obama built leave office with him, if they are entirely dependent on his leadership, the Republicans will find that they can compete with the post-Obama Democratic party just fine. The party must produce candidates who can replicate Obama's political style, consultants who can reinforce that brand, and staffs that can reinforce that message.

This is, unfortunately, not always the easiest task to accomplish. During the 1990s, politicians who attempted to mimic Clintonian politics were often unsuccessful. Clinton was possibly the only politician in the world capable of succeeding with his style. So much of his political rhetoric actually gave the impression that his philosophy did not fit easily on a political spectrum. But those who tried to replicate his style usually came up short; instead of defying the political spectrum, they became defined by it, careful never to stray more than an inch or two from absolute center. Without the ability to articulate a clear message, they often floundered.

Obama's style does takes far less raw political talent to replicate than Clinton's. Politicians around the country - and the world - have already been finding success adopting it. So there is reason to be hopeful.

So will a permanent majority happen?

A lot can certainly go wrong between now and then. And a lot would be expected from a party that has often failed to meet a challenge. In 2009, it is impossible to gauge, with anything but blind speculation, what kind of force the Democratic Party will be for the upcoming generation, what kind of events will shape its actions, and what kind of people will come to lead it. With so many variables, suggesting that Democrats will achieve their permanent majority would be unwise.

But when achieving that majority requires the Republican party to implode - and it is currently imploding; when it requires support for Democratic ideas - and they are supported and growing in popularity; when it requires the re-election of Barack Obama - and he will enter that contest with the most one-sided institutional advantage in American history; when it could be helped by redistricting - and redistricting is only two years away; when it requires an organizational advantage - and Democrats have built one that, thanks to revolutionary internet innovations, may never be matched; when it requires a generational shift in what is expected from government; and one has clearly occurred; when what is required is actually occurring, then simply dismissing the possibility of permanent majority would seem awfully short-sighted.

A permanent majority will require a confluence of events, many of which will occur over a decade or more. But those critical first steps, those without which a generational majority would be truly impossible, are already happening. Some have already happened. Others appear likely to happen.

Will a Democratic permanent majority become the story of the next generation of American political history?

It could happen.