The nation’s eyes have fallen on the Republican Party, understandably.
Republicans will soon hold two branches of the federal government. Republicans control more than two-thirds of all partisan state legislative bodies, and a clear majority of governorships.
Today, Missouri’s governor, attorney general, secretary of state and treasurer are all Democrats. Next year, they will all be Republicans. Republicans still firmly control the Kansas Legislature, every statewide office and every congressional seat.
The Democrats’ response to this bleak picture will be interesting, and important.
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As you might expect, the initial reaction has been to look for someone or something to blame. Some are pointing at Hillary Clinton’s poor campaign decisions. Others blame quirks of election laws or depressed turnout. Still others think the party’s message, and its messengers, are too old for younger voters.
And Democrats blame the press. Why not? Everyone else does.
But excuses won’t help the Democrats find their way out of the wilderness. The strangeness of the Electoral College is duly noted, but the wipe-out on Election Day was so complete something more fundamental is at work.
And fixing it will take years. In fact, it’s possible the party’s prospects are so poor it may no longer be able to determine its own future. Instead, Democrats have to hope events can bring them back to power.
Kansas can help us understand how this works.
Six years ago conservative Republicans swept into office across Kansas. The state elected Sam Brownback as governor, easily the most conservative choice for that job in several generations.
Today, Brownback is the most unpopular governor in America, the steward of an economy still stuck in the mud. But his unpopularity isn’t the result of anything Kansas Democrats have done — the party, lacking votes and candidates, has criticized Republicans, but has otherwise watched from the sidelines as the GOP grappled with the state’s budget mess.
It’s pretty cynical, if you’re a good-government type, but it’s also turned out to be pretty smart politics.
Kansas Republicans have blamed the state’s poor economic performance on dozens of things — federal tax policy, slumping agriculture and oil, the dog who ate their homework — but they’ve never blamed Democrats. They can’t, because Republicans control the government.
The GOP now controls the federal government, too. One-party control frightens some voters, but it can be deeply clarifying: if the economy improves, if jobs go up and the deficit goes down, if foreign threats abate, Republicans will get and deserve full credit. Democrats will have played only a marginal role in that success, and their walk in the wilderness will continue.
Of course, the reverse is true: if unemployment goes up, health insurance costs explode, the Middle East collapses into further chaos or terrorists strike within the U.S., the GOP will bear the blame. They won’t have gridlock to kick around any more.
One-party control also has entertainment value. It will be fun to watch Republicans defend an increase in the debt ceiling, or $1 trillion in spending for public works projects.
Democrats might muddy this picture by actually working with Republicans and the incoming Trump administration. They’ll be tempted to do so. Democrats like government, after all.
But it’s more likely they’ll watch from the sidelines, hoping events will lead them back to victory. It’s a tough place to be.
It is, of course, where Republicans stood eight years ago.