Democrats managed to defeat an incumbent president for the first time since 1992, becoming the first party in U.S. history to win the popular vote in seven out of eight consecutive elections. They gained at least one seat in the Senate, with a chance to win a working majority in a pair of runoffs early next year in Georgia. And, although Democrats lost seats in the House, they maintain control of the chamber.
Despite all that, Democrats are behaving as if they’ve suffered a terrible loss. It was always clear that Joe Biden would have a hard time holding together a coalition that ranges from democratic socialists to defense hawks, but his party started tearing itself apart even before news outlets declared him the winner on Nov. 7.
More moderate Democrats appear convinced that progressives cost them seats by refusing to denounce socialism or the slogan “defund the police,” while progressives argue that they represent the energy and base of the party and point out that it was mostly moderate candidates who lost.
For Democrats to choose the circular firing squad as their preferred formation is nothing new. Just before the election, Seth Masket published Learning From Loss, a book that examined the Democratic Party’s period of self-reflection and its “extensive and grueling conversation” about where it should go after losing the 2016 presidential election to Donald Trump.
In the wake of the party’s defeat of Trump and its apparent unwillingness to celebrate that fact, Governing spoke with Masket, who directs the Center on American Politics at the University of Denver. With coalitions of support shifting for both major parties, Governing will run an occasional series looking at their changing makeups. The following conversation has been lightly edited.
A lot of your book is about party officials and media outlets setting “post-election narratives” to make sense of why Hillary Clinton and the Democrats lost the 2016 election. It’s early, but what is your read on how the post-election narratives are shaping up this time around?
Masket: One of the more curious things is that Democrats are the ones who won the election, but they’re the ones having the internal argument right now about why they didn’t do better.
In some ways, it’s a very familiar argument they’re having. You see mostly more moderate white members of the party saying the problem was that people tie us to socialism and think we want to defund the police. They’re worried that they’re looking too far left and too embracing of a radical racial agenda. Then you have on the other side fairly progressive people of color saying we can win on these messages, if we’re not afraid of our own shadow all the time.
This is the same argument Democrats have been having for the last 50 to 60 years, every time they underperform in an election.
Why are Democrats treating the election as a defeat, or an occasion for soul-searching?
There’s a general sense that they underperformed. That comes from a lot of places. A lot of it was created by polling, which turned out to be inaccurate. Democrats come away with a sense that they should have done better, which in a way is not right.
How should President Trump have done in a re-election bid? The economy did the biggest rollercoaster we’ve ever seen. It utterly collapsed in the second quarter, then dramatically recovered in the third quarter. Interestingly enough, most voters said they were better off than they were four years ago, which I find remarkable, given the pandemic.
In that sense, it’s surprising the president lost re-election, and in that environment the president’s party did okay. That’s what happened -- Republicans did okay and the president underperformed. Many political observers are treating it the other way, that Biden did as expected but Democrats underperformed down the ticket. That leaves the rest of the Democrats looking for something to blame.
In your book, you write that while it doesn’t take much to convince Democrats that they’re doing things wrong, Republicans are “overall pretty confident in who they are and what they stand for.” Having said that, do you expect the GOP to engage in recriminations or rethinking, as they did after losing in 2012?
I think they’re going to have to deal with it. I don’t know what that looks like exactly. In some ways, Trump refusing to concede forestalls that debate. The only argument now within the Republican Party is should he proceed with a transition or not.
At some point, he’s no longer president. I’m assuming he transitions very quickly to being a candidate for 2024. I don’t know how long they can go without talking among themselves and saying you know what, he underperformed as a candidate.
As president, he has access to a lot of voters that they want to keep happy. Maybe he’s not quite so fearsome a character once he’s away from the White House and he’s an angry guy on Twitter. On the other hand, they continue to suck up to him, even though he’s lost an election.
Electability – beating Trump in a general election – was the dominant concern of the Democratic officials and activists you interviewed for your book. Were they right to conclude Biden had the best chance?
Given the way the election came out, it looks like they made a pretty smart call. As a lot of these Democratic activists were predicting, it was a fairly close election in the Electoral College. In a bunch of these swing states that the Democrats took back from 2016, the votes were relatively narrow, a percentage point or two.
The New York Times had a poll in November 2019, doing Trump matchups against different candidates in a bunch of swing states. Biden only had a one or two point margin in some of these states and Bernie Sanders or Elizabeth Warren were going to lose in a lot of those states. It suggests that that little margin for Biden made all the difference. Democratic concerns about running someone else or running someone slightly to the left, or anyone who raised any sort of fear among Midwestern voters might have been a risky move and might have cost them the election.
How do you see this debate between the progressive wing and more moderate officeholders playing out?
In many ways, I feel like Democrats have been on really good behavior this year, trying to play down their internal divisions until the election. Now that the election is past, there are a lot of divisions within the party about health care and a lot of critical things. Those are going to play out within the Biden administration. Over the next few years, Biden will be trying to negotiate the differences between the two sides. If Biden has an absolutely recalcitrant Republican Senate, that cuts short a lot of these arguments because there’s only so much the party can accomplish.
We’ll also see a lot of this in 2022. We’ll probably see a lot of primary challenges from more progressive members as they try to move the party to the left.
If defeating Trump was the main thing uniting Democrats, what holds the party together after he leaves office?
Not a lot. Now’s the time when they fight.
That’s not bad. This is a time for a party’s different factions to compete with each other as they struggle to put forward an agenda. In theory, every faction has a ton of power because they can deprive Biden of a majority at any time. The Democratic Party’s going to look divided for a while, until the next presidential election.