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Election 2016 Wed Nov 18 2015

Republicans in Disarray, but Democrats in Despair

GOP dissarayNate Silver is one of America's sharpest political analysts, so when he writes a piece like "Maybe Republicans Really Are In Disarray", it should raise some eyebrows. Silver doesn't come to a definite conclusion, but he does lay out a logical explanation of why "disarray" might be the right term to describe the current standing of the Republicans nationally. I would add that it could easily be extended to the situation in Illinois, where Governor Bruce Rauner seems to be alienating his own party, and where at a glance it would seem increasingly likely that Senator Mark Kirk will lose next November.

Silver, though, also argues against the disarray argument, by making a fairly simple point: excluding the presidency, Republicans are winning a lot more than they're losing. Even here in Illinois, with Democratic supermajorities in both houses of the General Assembly, the reality is that the Republicans hold the governorship, one U.S. Senate seat, and eight of 18 U.S. House seats. The voting profile of the state would suggest that the Republicans should be doing far worse here.

So are the Republicans in disarray? I think the answer has to be yes. But does it matter very much? Maybe not. As bad as things may seem for the Republicans, they're nevertheless the majority party in the country, based on control of both houses of Congress, a large majority of governorships, and most state legislatures.

The party with the worst problems right now is the Democratic Party, and we can even see this playing out in Illinois.

Much of what I considered writing here, it turned out, had already been written about a month ago by Vox's Matthew Yglesias. In his piece "Democrats are in denial. Their party is actually in real trouble." Yglesias hits on several points, including recent Republican electoral domination -- especially at state levels -- a point that Michael Barone at National Review hammered home after an awful result this month for the Democrats.

Yglesias's point which deserves emphasis is this one: recent Republican success is largely predicated on "a reasonable degree of ideological flexibility." Aside from the editorial board of the Tribune, it's been very difficult lately to find anyone with anything nice to say about Bruce Rauner. But Rauner is a fine example of Yglesias's point: No matter what angry words we might use to describe Rauner today -- CTU President Karen Lewis used the word "sociopath" -- the reality is that Rauner didn't run as a Tea Party type of candidate. He ran as a "reformer" and as a self-styled common-sense businessman. Rank and file Republicans embraced Rauner not because he was a staunch social conservative, but because he was striking the right chords with them about fixing government -- and, most importantly, they thought he could win. Ultimately, the voters went along for the ride, though less because they were especially interested in Rauner's agenda and more because they saw Pat Quinn as incompetent and generally deplored state government. And on those two points, at least, who could really disagree?

There is a problem with the ideological flexibility argument, though. Consider a nominally moderate Republican like Mark Kirk. Then consider very right-wing Republicans like the "Freedom Caucus" in Congress. Plot them both on a functional spectrum -- where "functional" is sort of halfway between what they believe and what they actually do. The line on the spectrum between the "centrist" or "moderate" Republicans and the "extreme" Republicans is simply shorter than the comparable line for the Democrats.

Excluding President Obama, the most prominent Democrat from the middle of the country is Rahm Emanuel. Take the functional positions of Obama and Emanuel on numerous issues, from war to charter schools. Now contrast those against some of the local elected Democrats, like members of the Chicago City Council's Progressive Caucus. Mark Kirk is closer to Ted Cruz than Rahm Emanuel is to, say, Carlos Ramirez-Rosa.

As the Republican Party's center has moved further to the right, they've compressed their base ideologically. There might well be a lot of ideological flexibility, but it's flexibility across an increasingly narrow part of the spectrum. It's also flexibility defined more in terms of ideology than in terms of voting records, because at most levels, Republicans are engaging in more and more bloc voting. Someone might go off and rant about Mexicans, someone else might go off and claim to want to shut down the IRS, but both will reliably show up and vote as climate change deniers.

Meanwhile, as the Republicans move even further to the right, they find themselves reliant on their most extreme elements for success. Not only is the base being energized more by what's happening on the far right, but a lot of the money is coming out of that end as well.

For the Democrats, moving further to the right has had a different internal effect. On social issues, energy can be found across a broad swath of the spectrum. On a growing number of issues, though, Democratic energy comes strictly from its left, and that left has been consistently marginalized by party leaders. The Republicans might be in a state of disarray, but the Democrats have stretched themselves so thin on the functional spectrum that they are not set up for success, unless that success is very narrowly defined.

The Democrats hold all but one aldermanic seat in Chicago, and every state legislator serving the city is also a Democrat. But the city is in disarray financially, and the Democratic powers that be are the ones blocking things like the elected school board. Even though the Democrats have a veto-proof majority in both houses of the General Assembly, they somehow can't get anything done.

Mark Kirk should not be in good shape going into his reelection bid. He's made a couple of public blunders. He's voted as much more of a right-winger than he ran as. His health issues are considered a liability. And Illinois is, on paper, a staunchly Democratic state.

But the most likely Democratic challenger is Tammy Duckworth, a wholly owned subsidiary of the Democratic power structure. Her most viable primary opponent is Andrea Zopp, who was one of the Chicago Public Schools board members who authorized the closing of 50 schools. There is no palpable enthusiasm around either one. Duckworth should make it out of the primary, and still has the odds in her favor against Kirk, but her campaign will likely focus on only three themes: she's a woman, she's a disabled war veteran, and she's not a Republican. This isn't "disarray," but how is this any better a place for a political party to be in that wants to regain ascendancy across the country?

dem donkey

The establishment Republicans have come to regard the Tea Party and other "extreme" elements as necessary evils, mostly reliable voters who bring money and energy in. All of this leads to weird public squabbling from time to time, and may well result in some level of dissatisfaction with the eventual Republican nominee, but all of this "disarray" is simply a byproduct of what has proven to be a very successful approach of becoming the country's preeminent party while representing the true interests of only a tiny majority.

The establishment Democrats go out of their way to squash dissent most of the time. Their practice has been that they would rather have a Republican win than have too progressive a Democrat win, because the progressive is more of a viable threat to what they're doing than the Republican is. If progressives ascend within the Democratic Party, then all of the pro-Wall Street, pro-charter school, generally hawkish positions will get buried. These people would rather hold a higher percentage of control of a smaller share of the pie, because it means they personally will retain more control, which is really what they want.

The Republicans are less interested in control in and of itself. Control for them is a means to an end, whether that end be holding taxes down, or maintaining a bloated military, or whatever. For the Democrats, control is more of a pure desire in and of itself. Michael Madigan is the very best example of this today, because the man has no real ideology, and operates as strictly a political animal.

All of this has mostly worked pretty well for Madigan and Emanuel and a handful of other Democrats, because they can maintain so very much control of their immediate domains. But it destroys Democratic chances nationally, at least outside the presidential race.

Rauner, however, is straining this idea. Madigan is used to dealing with the likes of Jim Edgar or George Ryan, Republicans who were willing to play the political game according to more or less the same rules. Rauner isn't doing that. He has exposed the fallacy of Madigan "needing" a supermajority. Some people may point to Rauner's approval ratings hanging around in the 30s and say he's hurting himself. For the most part, I don't think he is. His three predecessors were Quinn, Blagojevich and Ryan. At, say, 35 percent approval, Rauner scores higher than just about any other politician in the state, doesn't he?

On top of all this comes the release of poll numbers which would seem to corroborate my argument. Natasha Korecki at Politico reports on a poll commissioned by the Illinois chapter of Americans for Prosperity which suggests that the legislature -- which really means the Democratic leadership -- is reviled more than the governor for the problem at hand. Now, Americans for Prosperity is a Koch brothers aligned entity, so any poll they commission should be taken with at least a couple of Acuras full of salt. The thing is, I think Rauner is a pragmatist as much as anything, and if his people determined he was losing the public relations battle, he'd have changed course. But it's mid-November, and there's still no budget.

Rauner, I think, has become a bellwether of sorts. The Democrats will go hard after him, but his attitude is that he doesn't care how much people might revile him, so long as the Democrats are at least as unpopular. And, it has to be admitted, this is pretty much exactly how Rod Blagojevich ran his reelection campaign in 2006. "Hey, maybe almost nobody likes me, but at least I'm not a batty old woman, right?"

Which brings us back to the presidential race. The fight for the Republican presidential nomination is legitimately fascinating, but I would put 90 percent odds that when it's done, the nominee is either Jeb Bush, Marco Rubio or John Kasich. The disarray is real, but it's just part of a crazy overall narrative.

It's the Democrats who are really in trouble. Several months ago I considered Hillary Clinton to be a strong favorite to win the presidency next November. If I were going to wager today, I'd put my money on the Republicans winning. I think their ultimate strategy looks a lot like what Rauner is pulling off right now. "We know we're not all that likable, but we don't think Hillary is likable either, so we're not even going to worry too much about being liked. We're just going to control the discourse, and the public is going to be unhappy, and that will work in our favor."

But then there is another element to it. As much as some Republicans may not like their more "conservative" elements, the reality is, the Republican establishment would be far happier to see President Ted Cruz than the Democratic establishment would be to see President Bernie Sanders. For that matter, I think even the Democratic establishment would rather see Cruz win than Sanders.

Rank and file Democrats need to wake up. Their party is less internally democratic than the Republicans are and their leaders -- people who they don't even agree with on so many issues -- are no more likable than the Republicans they think everyone should be despising. The Republicans are content to embrace disarray and enable the people they don't agree with, because they think it ultimately serves their interest anyway. But so long as Democrats keep enabling the very people who have marginalized them, the Republicans will ride that disarray straight to the White House.

 
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