Ross Douthat's fantasy world: Why this man is very confused about 2016

Times conservative columnist argues that without Hillary Clinton, the Democratic coalition is finished. Huh?

By Jim Newell
Published June 10, 2014 2:19PM (EDT)
Ross Douthat               (HBO)
Ross Douthat (HBO)

Ross Douthat's latest column in the New York Times about the post-Obama Democratic Party without Hillary Clinton running for president has started a live one, a real hot debate on the political Internet! Specifically: Is the party screwed in 2016 if Hillary Clinton doesn't run? And does that mean that the party is facing some sort of existential collapse? Are Democrats the Real Troubled Party, as opposed to the commonly held belief that Republicans are in worse shape?

As in much of his work, Douthat makes isolated strong points in support of a thesis that doesn't hold up.

For example, there is a belief among certain hubristic Democrats that they'll never have to worry about another presidential election again. "Democratic partisans assume that 2016 will inevitably be better for their party than the looming midterms," Douthat writes, "and many analysts assume that the Republican Party is a long, long way from mounting a substantive challenge to liberalism. My friends on the left have an extensive list of things that the right simply 'must' do before the G.O.P. can be relevant at the presidential level again." Douthat would do well not to dismiss as tedious liberal lecturing the serious, open-ended demographic disadvantages that the Republican Party faces in presidential elections. (They're real.)

But Douthat is still correct to note that just because the Republican Party is facing a long-term abyss and can't seem to do anything about it right now, that doesn't mean that the Democratic Party, by contrast, is popular. "Political skill builds majorities, but popular policy successes cement them," he writes, "and that is what has consistently eluded Obama." The jury is still out on, say, Obamacare, and much of Obama's legacy. But in general, he's right: The public hasn't been particularly impressed with the current Democratic presidency and his poll numbers are reflecting that. And just being better at building national coalitions than Republicans doesn't alone guarantee some kind of national, enduring approval -- or what's that awful word, "mandate"? -- for the Democratic Party.

So what's the answer for the post-Obama Democratic Party? Hillary Clinton, of course! Douthat explains why she's such a formidable presidential candidate for the party:

I really have no idea what proposals Clinton will run on, what arguments she’ll make. But as with Franz Josef, it’s not her policies that make her formidable; it’s the multitudes that “Hillary” the brand and icon now contains. Academic liberalism and waitress-mom populism and Davos/Wall Street/Bloomberg centrism. Female empowerment and stand-by-your-man martyrdom. The old Clintonian bond with minority voters and her own 2008 primary-trail identification with Scots-Irish whites. And then the great trifecta: continuity with the Obama present, a restoration of the more prosperous Clintonian past and (as the first ... female ... president) a new “yes we can” progressive future.

"But without her," Douthat concludes, "the deluge." As in, without Hillary Clinton, the Democratic Party is a nothingburger that has zilch to offer and isn't a very strong national force -- and one susceptible to break down along fault lines: "the liberal coalition’s extraordinary diversity also offers many potential lines of fracture."

This is where things fall apart. Actually, they fell apart way earlier in the piece, when Douthat introduced this thesis:

And her desire converges almost perfectly with the interests of her party, even if not every liberal quite realizes it yet. That’s because Clinton’s iconic status is, increasingly, the only clear advantage the Democratic Party has. If her position is weakened, diminished or challenged, the entire coalition risks collapse.

Hillary Clinton's status being "the only clear advantage the Democratic Party has" is a laughable statement. We again refer to those tired-but-still-true things about demographic advantages. We again refer to how, while the Democratic Party may be lacking in inspiration, the Republican Party is outright offensive to large and important segments of the United States populace. As Danny Vinik writes at TNR, in response to Douthat, "The party may have no other national candidate with presidential prospects besides Clinton, but this structural advantage is only likely to grow in the coming years." Perhaps there is only one "clear advantage the Democratic Party has," but it's not Hillary Clinton. It's that the national Republican Party is worse and can't seem to do much about that. Democrats shouldn't exactly throw themselves a parade over being the less-shitty party. But it is what it is.

Douthat also seems to overestimate the fractiousness of the Obama coalition. As Daniel Larison responds, Democratic coalitions have always been a little messy, but the party's still around, isn't it?

The Democratic Party has long been “a sprawling, ramshackle and heterogeneous arrangement,” but that hasn’t stopped it from winning the popular vote in five of the last six presidential elections. It cobbles together majorities by being “sprawling” and “heterogenous,” and doesn’t depend on a particular nominee to do this. The extremely narrow margin of Bush’s re-election in 2004 points to this. Democrats have a coalition of competing, sometimes opposing interest groups and constituencies, but then they usually don’t pretend to be anything other than that. One of the stranger conceits that many Republicans have about their party is that it is a so-called “real party”: it supposedly represents some coherent set of beliefs that makes it substantially different from being an “incoherent amalgam” of interest groups. Perhaps because Democrats don’t try to paper over the contradictions and tensions in their coalition as much, they are able to appeal to a wider variety of voters than their opponents. The Democrats might be slightly less likely to win the general election without Clinton, but all thing considered they are probably still going to have the stronger and more quickly-growing coalition no matter who their nominee happens to be. If Clinton chose not to run for some reason, that coalition wouldn’t be at any real risk of dissolution.

(We'd also add: If the Obama coalition were to break up, where would its constituent parts go? To the Republicans?)

But let's zoom out and consider what's most ludicrous with Douthat's column: The Democratic Party has won two consecutive presidential elections, has a uniquely strong candidate poised to take a third and fourth, and Douthat is warning that the Democratic coalition is on the verge of collapse!

Is he forgetting how hard it is to win presidential elections? It's really hard! Not many parties in modern times win three straight presidential elections. The Democratic Party -- as in people whose top priority is ensuring a Democrat is in the Oval Office, not each and every interest group or voter -- is rightly excited to have a candidate with such a great shot at doing so. Recent history tells us that the Democrats, having held the White House for the past eight years, should be cooked in 2016. And yet here they are with an advantage! Douthat is arguing, without that massive advantage Democrats have in the next election, the next election would be more difficult for Democrats! Well, yeah?

Jim Newell

Jim Newell covers politics and media for Salon.

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