Could Democrats be on a Collision Course in the Future?

April 3, 2015 Updated: April 23, 2016

 It always seems to be election season in Washington.  No sooner is one election over than the next one begins.  In the hours after President Obama won reelection, pundits were already discussing who from his party could win in 2016.  Shortly following the mid-term elections in November 2014, commentators began gearing up for the next cycle.  A pattern has emerged throughout the last few elections: Democrats seem to be stronger during presidential election years and Republicans are stronger during mid-terms, but Democrats lost a lot of traction in 2014 and 2016 might not be much better.

The infighting within the Republican Party between mainstream-establishment types and those drifting farther to the right (the Tea Party) has been a bit of a boon for Democrats, who were able to formulate a united front behind their president.  However, with no more elections left for Barack Obama to run, the Democrats could face some harsh realities and suffer from criticism of their own doing.

The Democrats have done well to jump on the rhetoric that the Republican Party is made up of “stuffy, old white men” who lack diversifying polices, resist change, and cannot connect with emerging and shifting trends of the newer generation.  However, when glancing at the prospective 2016 presidential field, Democrats could have a real problem living up to their own rhetoric.

Their presumptive front-runner, Hillary Clinton, is 67 years old.  Other presumptive candidates include Vice President Joe Biden, 72, former senator Jim Webb (VA), 69, and former Maryland governor Martin O’Malley, 52.  Also, it is worth pointing out that Independent Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders, 73, who caucuses with the Democrats, is thinking about running.  There is some debate as to whether or not he would have to register as a Democrat in order to be included in debates, which allows for a great deal of exposure to voters.

Compare the Democratic presumptives to those in the Republican Party: Texas Senator Ted Cruz (who already declared), 44, former Florida governor Jeb Bush, 62, Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker, 47, New Jersey Governor Chris Christie, 52, Senator Marco Rubio (FL), 43, and Senator Rand Paul (KY), 52.

While some deem this argument a form of ageism, public opinion in politics matters.  Americans are not going to vote for someone they do not think can represent their values or relate to them.  Republicans can use this to their advantage on the campaign trail highlighting Democrat rhetoric from the past few years calling the Republican Party the party of old stuffy white men (this tactic would bode even better for Republicans if former Hewlett-Packard CEO Carly Fiorina enters the race as to balance the gender equation between the two parties).

Democrats are also wrestling with the prospect of whom to present as candidates as well.  Hillary Clinton has been touted as the party’s lock since President Obama won re-election.  For the past two years, her poll numbers have been stellar, though, current scandals have caused her numbers to dip raising concerns regarding her previously perceived imperviousness and supremacy.  For a while, many in the party stated that they thought Clinton was the right choice and any talk otherwise was considered headline-grabbing and insinuated mutiny.

Now, more and more Democrats are pushing Senator Elizabeth Warren from Massachusetts, 65, to run.  Warren has represented the “Progressive” wing of the party – a far left faction that is tough on Wall Street and champions consumer protection.  Warren had her Ted Cruz moment in December when she called on colleagues to reject a funding measure because it eased regulations on Wall Street.  Rejection of the measure, of course, would have led to a government shutdown, but for Warren, and many in her camp, easing on Wall Street was just as dangerous.  Ted Cruz was the recipient of rampant criticism for the government shutdown he orchestrated in 2013 over repealing Obamacare. 

December’s political theater signified that the Democratic Party might also be undergoing a shift vis-à-vis the Republicans and the Tea Party.  Tea Partiers, generally, want limited government interference and restored power to the states.  Progressives want greater income equality and more regulation.  Clinton has been viewed to cozy-up to Wall Street, which has upset many in her party.  She has also been described as more hawkish than some Democrats, President Obama included.  While Warren has insisted she is not interested in residing at 1600 Penn. Ave., the widespread popularity of her movement could pit Democrats between centrists and those creeping farther to the left.

The Democratic Party has also faced recent infighting regarding the leadership in the Senate.  Minority Leader Harry Reid (NV) announced he will not be seeking reelection in 2016 opening the door for a new party leader.  While Dick Durbin (IL) was next in line in terms of leadership position, Reid endorsed New York Senator Chuck Schumer (who also has a cozy Wall Street reputation and has said that passing the Affordable Care Act in Obama’s first term was a mistake) saying that he believes Schumer will gain the most votes with the party.  While Durbin has not put up a stink over the endorsement, a feud has developed between Durbin and Schumer.  Durbin believes that he will remain whip under a Schumer leadership and pointed to an agreement between the two senators as proof.  However, Schumer’s office is disputing that the agreement ever existed stating that Schumer did not guarantee Durbin would remain as whip.  Schumer has indicated that he might be interested in Patty Murray (WA) as whip.

As President Obama and Harry Reid are set to leave office in 2016, the fate of the party remains up in the air.  If Democrats lose the White House, there could be even more conflict as the party got shellacked in the latest mid-term election, which gave Republicans their largest majority in Congress in years along with unprecedented control of statehouses across the country.  The next few years could be a transition period for the Democratic Party that struggles to find effective messaging. 

Given the gridlock in Congress over the past few years, several regulatory initiatives were passed by Executive Order.  A Republican president could undo several of these that have been lauded as items of a Democratic agenda, virtually rendering the last eight years under President Obama a failure for Democratic politics.  A rough upcoming presidential primary season could bruise up the party pretty bad.  Democrats might need to take a step back and reevaluate.