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THE MUSINGS OF A TRADITIONAL SOUTHERN DEMOCRAT

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Sid in his law office where he sits when meeting with clients. Observant eyes will notice the statuette of one of Sid's favorite Democrats.

Tuesday, January 20, 2015

How Obama Might Address the State of His Party - Democrats’ Disadvantage in Congress, and in the States, Pose Challenges

Gerald Seib writes in The Wall Street Journal:

President Barack Obama will go before Congress Tuesday night to address the state of the union. He won’t be addressing the state of his Democratic Party directly, though it is interesting to think of what he might say were he to do so.

The thought arises because it will be the first time Mr. Obama addresses a Congress under full control of the opposition Republican Party. That makes the tone of his remarks exceptionally important: Does he stress the (relatively few) areas where there is the potential for agreement, or lay down political markers by focusing on the areas where the two sides have little realistic chance of agreement?

Either way, one wonders what the president might say if he were speaking directly to Democrats about their new and uncomfortable predicament. Maybe this:

My fellow Democrats, we have much to be proud of and thankful for. We have won convincing victories in back-to-back presidential elections, and identified a potentially powerful presidential-election coalition that is relatively young and, if we play it right, can serve us well for years to come. The nation’s demographic trends seem to be moving in our direction.

We have enacted a health-care overhaul that has brought coverage to millions and will be difficult or impossible for its opponents to uproot. We have used the power we enjoyed through having control of the White House and the Senate to confirm 303 district- and circuit-court judges in my first six years. And the economy finally may be engaged in a lasting rebound from the dark days of the financial crisis.

At the same time, though, we should be worried. Worried because, while holding the White House is nice, there are real problems developing at the foundation of the party. Here in Congress, our power has slid steadily since I came into office. We started my administration with 57 Democrats and two independents who were on our side in the Senate. We’re now down to 44 Democrats and two friendly independents.

If anything, our slide in the House has been more alarming. We began my administration with 257 House Democrats; we’re now down to 188. That’s the smallest contingent in the House since 1949.

In large swaths of the center of the country, we are nearly shut out of the House. In 11 states, we have no House members at all. In politically key swing states, our House representation should be particularly worrisome. In Michigan, Republicans hold nine House seats while we have just five. In crucial Ohio, it is 12 Republicans and four Democrats.

Some will argue that this is partly the result of Republicans’ control of state governments, which has allowed them to draw House districts to their favor. And that’s true. But you know what? Unless we start doing better out in the states, the source of our future national leaders, that isn’t going to change.

We now hold just 18 of the nation’s 50 governorships. Across the land, Republicans control 68 state legislative chambers, and we have just 30. In lower houses of state legislatures, Republicans hold 3,039 seats; we have 2,342.

I worry that the glitter and glory of holding the White House is masking these problems at our foundation, and allowing us to pay too little attention to them and what they mean for us. As any baseball team knows, winning a World Series this year doesn’t guarantee any future success if the minor-league system has fallen on hard times.

And on the subject of the White House: Should it concern us that we have basically one major contender for the presidential nomination in 2016, while the Republicans have, depending on how you count them, perhaps a dozen?

Our strength among Hispanics, African-Americans, Asian-Americans and young voters favors us in presidential-election years. But unless we again pair that with a viable coalition in congressional elections, we won’t be able to produce results—and the power of our presidential coalition could suffer in the long run as a result.

So how do we make up lost ground? We remember this: We can’t give up on the broad middle of the country—geographically, economically or culturally. The Republicans’ great mistake has been their failure to figure out how to speak to Hispanics and young voters. We shouldn’t replicate the mistake when it comes to working-class middle America.

The next cycle in politics belongs to the party that can devise, articulate and implement a solution to today’s fundamental economic mystery, which is why the economy is growing but leaving wages stagnant, the middle class stuck and inequality on the rise. If we’re thinking either about the state of the union, or the state of the party, that’s the burning question.

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