JEFF MORROW: With the recent high-profile retirement announcements of Senators Dodd and Dorgan, a commentators have suggested that Democrats should be engaged in painful introspection, if not panic. I’d instead like to propose Democrats take this moment to celebrate a new holiday.
First, find a candelabra with holes for 13 candles. Next, light twelve of these candles with the 13th. (Jews, this may be familiar.) Finally, exchange gifts and sing songs of the North Dakota Congressional Delegation.
Here was a state where, on paper, Democrats would have found it miraculous to maintain an all-Democratic Congressional delegation for even one Congress. But, lo, throughout the 1990s and 2000s, with Democratic legislators under constant siege, that tiny little state’s block of Democratic Congressmen (and, briefly, one woman) lasted for twelve whole Congresses!
To put this in perspective, North Dakota hasn’t voted for a Democratic presidential candidate since LBJ, and in neither election gave George W. Bush less than 60 percent of its vote. And yet from 1987 until, presumably, 2011, every single federal legislator from North Dakota will have been a Democrat (or something). If that fact doesn’t spin your dreidel, nothing will.
If Democrats lose Kennedy’s seat in Massachusetts, that will be cause for soul searching. If they lose Dorgan’s seat in North Dakota—and they will lose Dorgan’s seat—that will be a remarkable political anomaly only barely correcting itself. After all, Democrats will still have the other North Dakota Senate seat, along with the at-large House district.
Dorgan’s vote will no doubt be missed in those rare instances when every single vote in the 60-vote caucus has been absolutely necessary. His retirement comes while the memory of the party-line supermajority on health care is still fresh. Awkward as it was, it would have been impossible with a Senator John Hoeven (a fact that may help him get elected come November).
But rather than mourn future hypothetical supermajorities, Democrats should pause, fry up some latkes, and marvel at North Dakota’s role up to now.
HOWARD MEGDAL: As Jeff correctly points out, it simply wasn’t realistic to expect North Dakota to produce an all-Democratic delegation in the U.S. Senate (and the House, too!).
But as the 2010 elections draw closer, the magic of 60 has clearly worn off. Simply put, a majority that requires Ben Nelson, Mary Landrieu and Blanche Lincoln to pass legislation simply won’t be progressive in the way that Barack Obama, left to his own devices, will be progressive.
However, such a group of 60 doesn’t seem all that far off. Consider that there is already a core group in the United States Senate of progressives largely in tune with their states. From Daniel Akaka to Ron Wyden, there are Senators across the board that reflect their own state’s progressive beliefs.
Just as they have done in the New England House seats, the Democratic Party simply needs to reach 30 progressive states with two Democratic senators to beat even the filibuster-ready Republican Party on major legislation. How does it happen?
Let’s start with the 28 states that Barack Obama won. Clearly, these are states that are receptive to a progressive campaign. Barack Obama was no centrist on the campaign trail-he promised swift action on health care, the environment, a strong support of abortion rights, and many other policies that simply put, are left of center. He’s no Socialist, but a Senate made up of Obama 2008 candidates would be significantly to the left of the current group.
Of those 28 states, there aren’t 56 Obama-progressive Democratic senators. In Connecticut, you have the ridiculous Joe Lieberman, who is the antonym of a reliable vote. You have Republicans George LeMieux in Florida, Charles Grassley in Iowa, Richard Lugar in Indiana, Susan Collins AND Olympia Snowe in Maine, Judd Gregg in New Hampshire, John Ensign in Nevada and George Voinovich in Ohio. In other words, there are nine Senate seats that should rightfully belong in the Democratic column.
Now, to take a brief sidebar here: is it reasonable to use the Obama 2008 map as a baseline? After all, this happened during an election that was largely a referendum on George W. Bush, with a poor GOP candidate in John McCain and unprecedented turnout for Barack Obama.
Here’s why I think this is a more accurate representation of the future than it may otherwise seem. Every part of the electorate that is increasing is part of the coalition that elected Barack Obama.
Non-whites went for Obama by overwhelming margins; the percentage of non-whites in the country is exploding.
The race was a perfect sliding scale of age, too. Each age group from 18-24 on up went for Obama by less and less. Over 65 went for John McCain. He won the white vote, too.
But by 2012, we’ll have had four years of voters in the McCain demographic, frankly, dying off, and four years of young voters coming of age, and disproportionately likely to vote Democratic.
Look, all of this is in the fantastically visionary book The Emerging Democratic Majority. And the point isn’t that 2008 is a baseline for 2010, where turnout is likely to be depressed, giving the 65+ folks an outsized voice. The point is that 2008, for all of those demographic reasons, is a pretty good look at what the baseline is likely to be in the near future- 2016, for instance.
So let’s get back to that group for a minute. Adding those nine progressive Democratic senators would bring the Democrats to 56. And I want to assume for a minute that the Dems can’t necessarily hold onto seats in any of the 22 states they do now. Regardless of whether they do or not, these Senators, by and large, aren’t part of the new progressive super-majority we are building here. (Apologies to Jay Rockefeller, among others, but this is an academic exercise.)
So at 56, where do the Democrats get their other progressives? That’s a simple matter of population explosion cited above.
Take Arizona, for instance, a state with two Republican Senators. Arizona saw John McCain defeat Barack Obama 54-45%, despite Obama not putting anything significant in terms of resources in what was, after all, John McCain’s home state. The state has recently elected such progressives as Janet Napolitano, though her moderate outlook likely won’t cut it as the state gets less white and more liberal. From the state’s racial profile alone, it isn’t hard to imagine a pair of Democratic Senators coming from Barry Goldwater’s old stomping grounds.
The other obvious part of the 60-vote majority in the Senate is likely to come from Texas. Like Arizona, the state’s demographics are clearly getting more Hispanic. The state is also quite young: according to the 2010 Almanac of American Politics, the state is 10 percent 65-plus, and 27.7 percent under the age of 18.
While the mitigating factor of it being Bush’s home state is worth noting, the margin of victory for Republicans slipped from 61-38 in 2004 to 55-44 in 2008. John Cornyn won re-election by a similar margin.
This one looks like it will take a little longer, but the trend is clear.
Of course, Democrats don’t have to wait for the day when Texas and Arizona join the Great 28 in order to have that progressive supermajority. After all, Jay Rockefeller, Mark Begich, even Jon Tester have proven to be tremendously reliably votes for the Obama agenda. And there’s no reason to believe Democrats will be completely shut out in the remaining 20 states, especially with the demographic movements I mentioned present in those states as well. (The Almanac notes that McCain won young voters in just eight states.)
So while the Dorgan retirement, and indeed, 2010 in general, looks to be a painful year for the Democratic Party, it could well be that even the ludicrous status quo requiring 60 votes to accomplish anything in the Senate won’t be an impediment to the progressive Democratic agenda.
I have seen the future, and it includes gay marriage.