Winter has come. The air stings your skin as you shuffle toward the National Mall. But there are scattered patches of blue in the sky, and sunlight peeking out from behind a cloud. And the crowd that now surrounds you is alive with good cheer. Your fellow Americans are high off civic pride, or their proximity to future history, or possibly marijuana (your nose is stuffy, but you think you think can smell a trace of something skunky on the wind).
He emerges from the Capitol Building. The crowd goes wild. You join their cheer, but can’t make out your own voice above the din. And now you’re not even sure what it is they’re chanting. But you know their words are not your own. You look up at the nearest television monitor and there it is — that awful, orange face.
It all comes back to you in an instant, the flashing images in your mind alternating with the crowd’s chant, like light and darkness beneath a strobe lamp: LOCK HER UP; the Upshot’s needle swinging blue to red; LOCK HER UP; those last 10,000 votes in Waukesha County; LOCK HER UP; the headlines heralding RBG’s death right before Christmas; LOCK HER UP; Supreme Court Justice Sarah Huckabee Sanders; LOCK HER UP; the bombs already falling over Tehran; LOCK HER UP; the president’s face as he signed “The Voting Wrongs Act of 2021”; LOCK HER UP; Elizabeth Warren being led to a squad car in handcuffs; LOCK HER UP; and now, as they turn toward you, their red hats glowing in the winter sun, you realize that you are her, this place is a prison — and your sentence is another four years to life.
Liberals are well-prepared for this kind of “2021 nightmare.” They’ve been fearing it since November 9, 2016. To avert such a terror, they took to the streets in historic numbers the day after Donald Trump’s inauguration, and showed up at the polls en masse last fall. And they’re right to be afraid. Each day, Trump grows a bit more lawless, and the Executive branch a bit less willing to defy him. Another four years of judicial appointments would give the conservative movement a hammerlock on the judiciary for a generation. And in that time, Trump’s judges could rubber-stamp changes to election laws that further erode what remains of popular sovereignty in this republic — and the world’s most powerful nation would stumble four years closer to climate catastrophe.
Trump’s reelection would be a nightmare. But for Democrats, defeating him and winning the presidency in 2021 could be its own kind of horror show.
A president in shackles.
If a Democrat wins the presidency next year, there’s a good chance he or she won’t be able to do much of anything without Mitch McConnell’s permission.
Right now, the odds of Team Blue winning control of the Senate next year are slim, and getting slimmer. Democrats will need a net gain of three seats next November to wrest the upper chamber from Mitch McConnell’s caucus. And while Republicans will have 22 of their incumbents on the ballot in 2020, only two of those represent states that have leaned Democratic in the past two presidential elections — Colorado and Maine. Which is less than ideal, since winning Maine will (almost certainly) require beating Susan Collins, who has held her seat for more than two decades, and remains quite popular with her constituents (including many of the state’s Democrats). Thus, there is no reason to assume Democrats will be able to win the only two blue-state seats on the board. But let’s be generous and say they do.
Unless Alabama Republicans decide to make a theocratic ephebophile their standard-bearer again (which is highly unlikely), Doug Jones will be evicted from the Senate next November. In a presidential election year and an age of straight-ticket voting, even Roy Moore would have a decent shot of beating a Democrat in the Heart of Dixie.
Even with wins in Colorado and Maine, Team Blue would have only netted one seat, which means they’d have to flip two in light-red territory. CNN’s Harry Enten explains why that’s unlikely:
Beyond [Colorado and Maine], the Democratic pickup opportunities slim dramatically. Of the other 20 Republican-held seats up for election, 16 of them are in states that were 10 points or more Republican than the nation as a whole in a weighted average of the last two presidential elections. None of these races look competitive at this time.
The other four have leaned 5 to 10 points more Republican than the nation in a weighted average of the last two presidential elections: Arizona (Martha McSally), Georgia (David Perdue), Iowa (Joni Ernst) and North Carolina (Thom Tillis).
… Elected Republican incumbents are, at this point, expected to be running for all these seats, except for Arizona. Generally, incumbents tend to do better than non-incumbents. Even if the 2018 political environment were in effect (i.e. one where they won the national House vote by high single digits), the lean of each state in the 2018 House elections suggests that only Arizona (because McSally wasn’t elected) would go to the Democrats.
In other words, even if Democrats win the national popular vote in a 2018-esque landslide, chances are they’ll come up at least one seat short. And did I mention that the party’s best prospective Senate candidates in Georgia, and the “reach” states of Texas and Montana, have all ostensibly decided to launch far-fetched presidential campaigns, instead? Or that Joe Manchin is seriously considering resigning his seat to run for governor in West Virginia, in which case, Democrats will effectively need to flip five seats after they (almost certainly) forfeit the Mountain State and Alabama?
Anything’s possible, of course. Democrats could find stellar candidates in every quasi-competitive state. Far-right weirdos could win GOP primaries in all the right places. Millennials could show up at the polls in 2020 in unprecedented force, and remake America’s electoral math in their image.
But odds are, if a Democrat moves into the Oval Office in 2021, he or she will be faced with a Republican Senate. Which means that he or she will not have the power to appoint any Supreme Court justices or, in all probability, left-leaning federal judges of any kind. And do you really think Senate Republicans are going to help President Elizabeth Warren install her preferred leaders atop the Treasury or SEC?
Imagine a Democratic president who isn’t just too weak to advance any of the ambitious legislation she promised her base, but also to rebalance the courts or effectively implement her regulatory agenda. Might this dampen Democratic voters’ enthusiasm for electoral politics when the midterms come around?
A recession that discredits the progressive agenda before Democrats even get to enact it.
In a February survey conducted by the National Association for Business Economics, 75 percent of economists predicted the U.S. economy would slide into recession by the end of 2021, with 42 percent expecting a downturn next year, and 25 percent the following one. Since that poll was taken, the Federal Reserve backed away from rate hikes, and markets soared. And (since expansions never last forever under capitalism) the odds of the economy going south in 2021 are now higher than ever.
If the bubbles pop shortly after President Buttigieg takes the reins, it will be imperative for him to pass some kind of fiscal stimulus; with interest rates already near historic lows, the Federal Reserve’s capacity to mitigate a downturn through monetary policy will be limited.
In this scenario, do you think Mitch McConnell will put country before party and approve a bipartisan stimulus package to prevent the slump from deepening — or will he decide that deficits are bad again? History says this shouldn’t even be a question.
The Senate lost and gone forever (or at least for a decade).
So we’re looking at a historically ineffectual president who has failed to deliver on any of his or her major campaign promises, and is presiding over a needlessly severe recession.
In this scenario, how excited will the progressive base be to turn out for the Democratic Party in 2022? Once gridlock replaces Donald Trump in the headlines, is it easier to imagine liberals sustaining their current levels of civic engagement or catching up on lost brunches?
Odds are, complacency and disillusionment would depress liberal turnout, while revanchist outrage would raise conservative participation, and economic woes would turn swing voters against the party in power. Even relatively effective presidents, presiding over good economic times, tend to lose seats in midterm elections. In the scenario we’ve sketched, a red wave would likely drown the Democrats’ House majority, and allow Republicans to renew their lease on (otherwise potentially flippable) Senate seats in Florida, Pennsylvania, North Carolina, Iowa, and Ohio. And the GOP might even flip Democratic seats in New Hampshire and Nevada while they’re at it.
The 2022 Senate map is the friendliest that Democrats are likely to see until those same seats come up again in 2028. If Republicans win big in 2022, the Senate could very well be theirs until the end of the decade. Barring a revolution in the GOP’s internal politics, that would mean no major climate legislation at the federal level until it’s much too late.
Meanwhile, when 2024 rolls around, Republicans will be one branch of government shy of a trifecta, and the Democratic incumbent will have no real achievements to run on. And next time, the GOP’s proto-authoritarian standard-bearer just might know how to stay on message.
This second-worst-case scenario is far from inevitable. One could quibble with every link in its chain of logic. Donald Trump is a historically unpopular president. The turnout rate among voters under 30 was 79 percent higher last year than during the previous midterm election. There remains a decent chance that the U.S. economy will enter a recession next year. Thus, it is possible that Democrats will engineer a 2020 landslide large enough to secure them full control of Congress. And even if they don’t, Mitch McConnell could have trouble preventing two or three of his caucus’s more moderate members from cutting deals with a Democratic president. If a recession does hit in 2021, it could very well be a minor affair, in which case, the economy could be growing at a good clip when voters head to the polls in 2022.
And, of course, even the most nightmarish version of the next Democratic presidency is preferable to another four years of Donald Trump.
Nevertheless, progressives shouldn’t lose sight of the lesser nightmare. If the past three years of political history have taught us anything, it’s the virtue of planning for the worst. And envisioning how the next Democratic presidency could go horribly wrong is a prerequisite, both for preventing such an outcome, and preparing to mitigate its most dire effects. Regarding the former, Team Blue’s leadership must convey the profound stakes of next year’s Senate elections to their highly energized — but presidency-obsessed — base. The small-dollar armies that are currently powering so many dark-horse presidential bids must eventually spread the wealth down-ballot. Democratic elected officials, for their part, must recognize that their party’s agenda will have no future unless the legislative filibuster becomes history.
Big-dollar Democratic donors, meanwhile, need to devote more time and money to developing an answer to their party’s deep, structural problem in the Senate — namely, that as urban-rural polarization deepens, the upper chamber is becoming more biased toward rural voters, and the GOP is growing less willing to accept the Democratic Party’s right to govern. Part of the answer here will be to find messages, organizations, and trusted local leaders who can improve Team Blue’s performance in low-density areas. But rural regions are drifting right in democracies all across the West. It’s unlikely that the trend can be fully reversed. Thus, more audacious solutions must be entertained. The next time Democrats eke out a Senate majority, approving statehood for D.C. — and, if the people of the island want it, Puerto Rico — must be a priority. Meanwhile, America’s bleeding-heart billionaires should consider trying to replicate the right’s success in buying up TV news outlets, and peppering their regular content with propaganda. They might also mull making investments in start-up incubators, or liberal arts colleges in low-population, light-red states. Helping Missoula become the new Austin might not sound like a political project. But turning Montana blue through targeted investments would get a Democratic donor way more bang for her political buck than, say, a national television campaign in favor of impeachment.
Finally, liberal activists must prepare for the possibility that legislative progress at the federal level might not be possible for a long time. Thus, they must redouble their efforts to make state-level change, and exploit the Democrats’ control over California for all its worth; which is to say, they should continue making strict environmental and labor standards the price of admission for corporations that wish to do business in the world’s fifth-largest economy.
By the end of next year, our long national nightmare might be over. But if we aren’t careful, a new one will promptly take its place. If you want a picture of the future, imagine a Republican Senate majority stamping on a human face — forever.