Hillary Clinton won the popular vote in November – by 2.5 Million and counting – but Donald Trump won the presidency, besting her in the Electoral College. Constitutionally built into our system is localism, if not always its supremacy then certainly its critical importance. The Electoral College – always loved by winners and questioned by losers – should serve as a reminder that what happens at the state level impacts the national direction. House Speaker Tip O’Neil famously contended “all politics is local”. On a profound, and perhaps more important expansive, level he was right. O’Neil was a hero of the party, but Democrats who so admired him seemingly were not paying attention. In contrast, Republicans were and they are winning.
The big shift began in 1994 (Clinton’s second year) when Republicans took over the Senate and House after decades of largely Democratic domination. Perhaps more important, they won 10 gubernatorial contests and some state legislatures. The turnaround – some called a bloodbath – came as a shock to Bill Clinton who, despite ups and downs, would end his presidency six years later with better approval ratings than Ronald Reagan. To digress a moment, the visceral hatred that Republicans had for the Clintons explains a lot about the deep-seated (strategically magnified) “trust problem” that plagued Hillary up to and through the 2016 election. It is also a hatred that, to some considerable degree, gave birth to our current poisonous political environment.
Returning to politics is local, when I moved to North Carolina in 2006, Democrats controlled the governor’s mansion and both houses of the legislature. In 2010 (Obama’s second year) Republicans took what would become veto-proof control of that legislature followed two years later with the governor’s mansion. In one of the few bright spots of 2016, he is likely to be replaced by Democrat Roy Cooper. What’s happened to Democrats in North Carolina only reflects what has been repeated across the land in the post-Clinton era. That’s no accident but the result of a focused Republican effort and, an often hapless Democratic response.
As of January 2017, Republicans will control both the governor's mansion and legislature in 26 states, they hold 31 governor’s seats and many state senates or houses across the country. Dominating state legislatures translates into controlling redistricting. That has resulted in both fewer competitive districts, an almost iron clad Republican controlled House and an overall GOP tilt at all levels of government, local and national. In 2016, some large Republican donors withheld financial support from Trump, while redoubling their efforts at the local state level. They have been “investing”, playing a long term game. Democrats, on the other hand, seem to have no such systematic effort. Beyond the control and influence matter, the GOP’s local focus has resulted in providing them with a deep bench of future leaders. One can question the quality of those who contended for their presidential nomination, but for the most part all were credible contenders and there were 17 of them. In contrast only three (really two) vied for the Democratic nomination. Perhaps that was because Clinton started as the presumed winner, but to buy into that explanation would be to close our eyes to a really serious problem. Democrats have a small and aging bench. Hillary is 69; Bernie 75.
Ohio Tim Ryan’s challenge to Nancy Pelosi for House Minority Leader points directly to the age problem. He is 43, she is 76. More to the point, the other two members of Democratic leadership team are also in the later 70s. Much as I respect Pelosi and company, it’s a shame he lost. Republican Speaker Paul Ryan is 46, his team in their early 50s. The Speaker didn’t serve locally but he is a product of a system that actively recruits young officeholders, in his case for the House. Add this to a local-focused approach and you have a party that may not (yet) be the numerical (popular vote) majority but has clearly become the ruling majority. Democrats won’t reverse the trend, and equally important their age problem, until they return to the basics – politics is local. Real and sustained power, we should have learned by now, comes not from just electing a president every odd eight years, but by winning state and local legislatures, mayoralty and gubernatorial races. These are the keys to the House, Senate and beyond. They are a resource for tomorrow’s leaders. If Democrats take control at the local level, the chances of them taking and keeping control on the Capital Hill will only improve. The next Democratic president might actually be able to turn more of her promises into reality.
But winning elections, bringing up younger officeholders and shoring up the bench are only part of the reason for a local focus. Statistics can make for strong slogans and looking at them today verses eight years ago, Barack Obama has had an impressive economic record. GDP, job growth, unemployment, house prices, and the stock market all look good. But in the final analysis, individuals – as with everything in their lives – look not at statistics but what’s happening to them, or in all honesty, what’s in it for them. A serious focus on the local level would tell leaders how their policies are impacting on individual lives, especially on what wasn’t working or what frustrations and disappointments prevail. That prosperity had not reached a large part of the population, or that so many people were locked into low paying often subsistence jobs, didn’t come as a surprise to mayors, state legislators and governors. It isn’t merely that all politics is local. All life is local. And it isn’t only winning elections that are at stake; it’s knowing the people and being responsive to their needs. I may and do disagree profoundly with their ideology and solutions, but my guess is that Republicans may currently have a better sense of real people. Sure misinformation, Hillary’s trust problem and sexism were at play, but Donald Trump would not have won in November were that not the case.
Looking at what Republicans have accomplished, it is truly mystifying that Democrats have been so asleep at the switch. How long will it take and how many defeats for the Democratic National Committee to refocus their efforts? One thing is sure, they had better do so and now not later. And by the way, I think they need a full time chair who can focus entirely on building the party. Democrats will have to have to change their approach, keep Tip O’Neil’s dictum in mind – not only in election season but constantly. I don’t think liberalism is dead or that conservatism is the solution to the problems faced at the local or national level. But unless attention is paid and a real effort is made, Democrats might be out of power for years to come. What’s sobering is that, in having such a talented and charismatic president in the White House, we lived under the illusion of power held when in fact it was slipping ever further from our hands. As the late Robin Williams once shouted into a cinematic microphone, Good Morning! Are, we awake, are we listening? Hello, all politics is local.