Democrats Face Difficult Path Forward After Bruising 2016 Election
ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:
The Republican Party is heading into 2017 on a high that they haven't felt in a long time. For the Democrats, it's a different matter. They lost the presidency. They failed to retake the Senate and the House, and they're struggling in state houses around the country.
NPR national political correspondent Mara Liasson has been thinking about what Democrats need to do in the New Year as they start to rebuild, and she joins us now. Hi, Mara.
MARA LIASSON, BYLINE: Hi, Robert.
SIEGEL: How bad are things for Democrats as they try to put 2016 behind them?
LIASSON: Bad, bad, bad, bad for...
SIEGEL: That bad.
LIASSON: Yes, that bad. For all the success of President Obama, no president has lost more seats for his party in eight years than he has. Democrats right now have a trifecta - in other words, both state houses and the governor's mansion in only six states. Republicans have total control - a trifecta - in 26 states. So they're shut out in Washington. They are in a minority around the country, but they can still filibuster at least until Republicans change the rules completely.
However, to put this into perspective, they won the popular vote. Their strength is among the parts of the electorate that are growing. So I would say the diagnosis is the Democrats have a gaping head wound. The Republicans are suffering from a longer-term demographic illness that might be fatal but is not as urgent.
SIEGEL: So what's the first order of business for the Democrats in 2017?
LIASSON: I think the first order of business is to get an economic message that can appeal to everyone, that can appeal to the young millennial who's saddled with college debt and the laid-off union worker. Don't forget. President Obama did this. Many Trump voters were Obama voters. This is always what Democrats did in the past.
LIASSON: That's how Democrats have been successful. This is their DNA. They just have to get back to it.
SIEGEL: I mean there is a controversial critique, though, of the Democratic Party that it's been putting the kind of unifying bread-and-butter issues that you've alluded to second and identity politics first and that by doing that, it's inadvertently intensified white, working-class identity politics.
LIASSON: With a big assist from Donald Trump.
LIASSON: Don't forget. He was the master identity politician this year. And yes, there's no doubt about that. There are a lot of Democrats who think they need to develop an economic nationalism without the nativism - so less emphasis on identity politics, more emphasis on economic growth that's more broadly shared.
SIEGEL: So let's turn more tactically to the Congress right now. There are different theories about how Democrats there could oppose Donald Trump. They could try to obstruct him at all costs. They could look to be constructive in some way. Which is it?
LIASSON: I think they're going to push back against Trump when he goes against their core values. Yes, it's possible that if he presents a big infrastructure program that truly creates a lot of jobs, they might want to work with him on that. There are a bunch of senators in red states, people like Joe Manchin or Heidi Heitkamp. They might be willing to work with Donald Trump on some things.
But there are some red lines for Democrats. Medicare is one of them. And if the Republicans in the House in particular go ahead with their plans to privatize Medicare - their new buzzword is modernize Medicare - the Democrats will stop them. And also, overall, what they want to communicate to Trump voters who maybe once were Obama voters is that Trump is abandoning them. In other words, if you look at the first things on the Republican agenda, it's tax cuts mostly for the wealthy, getting rid of Obamacare and putting someone on the Supreme Court and getting rid of regulations. That doesn't sound like a real populist agenda.
The other thing is, what you're not hearing from them, which is interesting - you're not hearing from them saying, our first job is to make Trump a one-term president, which is what Mitch McConnell...
LIASSON: ...Famously said...
SIEGEL: About Barack Obama.
LIASSON: ...About Barack Obama.
SIEGEL: As you've said, Democrats were not just turned out of power in Washington, but also the Republicans have complete control of state houses in 26 states. That'll have some real political implications.
LIASSON: Real political implications because in 2020, we're going to have another census. And after every 10-year census, we redraw congressional district lines. And who draws them - governors and state legislators. And that's why in 2010 when Republicans had their big, historic surge, took over a lot of state legislatures and governor's mansions, they redrew the lines that kept their congressional majority safe for the next 10 years.
SIEGEL: In January, Barack Obama will complete his second term in the White House. Hillary Clinton - we assume her career is over at this point. Are the Democrats lacking for a leader of their party?
LIASSON: The Democrats are lacking for a leader. The Clinton era is over. But I would argue that having a leader for the Democrats is not as important right now than a message, than infrastructure, than getting down-ballot candidates, refilling their pipeline. One thing that happens when you're wiped out in midterms - your seed corn is gone.
All those people who were moving up the pipeline who will eventually become the leaders of the party - they are just wiped out. And they need to get an infrastructure that turns out their voters every two years, not every four. That has been the great failing of Democrats.
SIEGEL: They have now won the popular vote in 2000, in 2008, in 2000.
LIASSON: Six of the last 7 elections.
SIEGEL: And yet in the off-year elections, they lose everything.
LIASSON: They lose everything.
SIEGEL: Sounds like the Democrats have lots of work to do. NPR's Mara Liasson - Mara, thanks.
LIASSON: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.