Steve Israel: Republicans should remember 2009 as they celebrate control of Congress and the White House
Undivided power quickly slipped out of the Democrats' hands after the heady days eight years ago
Editor’s Note: Former Rep. Steve Israel, a Democrat from New York, is chairman of the Long Island University Global Institute and a CNN contributor. The opinions expressed in this commentary are his.
The party is in rapture. It’s on the verge of controlling the White House, the House and the Senate. After eight years of misery, it will inaugurate a new president who has realigned the electorate. Dominance seems assured. Despite the chilly January temperatures, there’s not a cloud in the political skies on that brisk Inauguration Day.
The Republicans in 2017?
No, Democrats in 2009.
Eight years ago, Barack Obama was being inaugurated after eight prior and seemingly never-ending years of a Republican administration. Democrats fortified their majority in the House to 257 seats and controlled the Senate. Twenty-nine governors were Democrats, and the Democrats controlled 27 state legislatures. It was a cold Inauguration Day, but there was an air of invincibility.
Within two years, we lost nearly 700 state legislative seats, 63 seats in the House, and six seats in the Senate. It’s no wonder President Obama used the word “shellacking” to describe those results.
My advice to congressional Republicans: Brace yourselves. If you misread an Electoral College margin as a huge popular mandate, your 2017 will be the Democrats’$2 2009.
Here’s what happened, and what’s likely to happen again.
First, midterm elections are almost always brutal for the President’s party, especially when that party controls everything. Since 1842, the President’s party has lost seats in all but three midterm elections. The lower the President’s approval ratings, the greater those losses.
Shortly after Inauguration Day in 2009, with President Obama’s favorability at 69%, I remember his new chief of staff, Rahm Emanuel, addressing an already jittery House Democratic Caucus about the 2010 midterm elections. His assessment was that, if we played it right, we could buck the tide of history. In fact, the tide became a tsunami.
Second, the base turns blasé. In 2010, Democrats found it impossible to replicate the voter turnout of 2008. A significant swath of our base had turned dispirited, arguing that the President and congressional Democrats didn’t go far enough. When Republicans find that they can’t easily repeal and replace Obamacare, when the glow of “Make America Great Again” fades to the grit and gravity of global forces, the Trump base will feel the same fatigue and disappointment.
Third, most Democrats, including President Obama, now acknowledge the policy crises that consumed us in 2008 — the financial meltdown, an auto industry hurtling towards bankruptcy, high unemployment — catastrophically distracted us from what was happening in governors’ races and state legislatures across America.
Republican operatives shrugged their shoulders at losing the White House and Congress and muscled their way to local victories in 2010. By defeating six Democratic governors and turning 11 state legislatures, they took control of congressional redistricting and built what they thought was a firewall to protect Republican House seats for a decade.
But that wall is weaker now than it was, even two years ago. Democrats need only 25 seats to take back the majority in the House. There are 21 districts represented by Republicans that Trump lost. Republican overreach will put those districts in jeopardy and expand the playing field for Democrats in the House this cycle.
Third, Republicans craftily built a narrative that a Democratic majority without checks and balances was just going too far, too fast. They branded Obamacare and executive orders as an abuse of power (this, despite the fact that Ronald Reagan issued 381 to Obama’s 266 as of the end of December). That same narrative will be told and retold when Washington Republicans double down on their desire to deny expanded overtime pay to workers, privatize Medicare, and be forced to take away some of the popular consumer benefits of Obamacare.
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So, be cautious, my Republican friends. On Inauguration Day, you’ll celebrate the dearth of Democrats in Washington. But they’re around. Schooled by their own fate, they’re organizing and mobilizing outside of the Beltway. The Democratic Governors Association is embarking on a state-of-the-art, in-depth research and mobilization effort to win back middle-class voters (full disclosure, I’m an adviser to that effort). Former Attorney General Eric Holder is heading up the National Democratic Redistricting Committee to win state and local campaigns in overlapping competitive House, Senate and governors’ races and regain control of the 2022 redistricting cycle.
As Republicans pop champagne bottles this Inauguration Day, they should think back only 10 years and understand: The bubbles fall flat, and fast.