President-elect Joe Biden inherits a deeply divided America. But he also inherits a Democratic Party that is divided on how to tackle a wide array of issues, from immigration to health care, criminal justice to defense. Can they come together to confront a possible Republican Senate? Can they deliver on their mandate without further alienating the voters they lost? In this week s "What Comes Next," David Axelrod, former adviser to President Barack Obama, and Jess McIntosh, a Democratic strategist, tackle those questions in our discussion. But first, here s Axelrod s op-ed on what comes next for the Democratic Party. --SE Cupp
If you re a Democrat, this is a time of great relief but not necessarily much joy.
Sure, you captured the big prize, defeating a president with autocratic tendencies whose continuation in office many feared -- with good reason -- posed an existential threat to the institutions, norms and rule of law that form the foundation of our democracy.
Joe Biden won the support of more than 80 million Americans, marking the seventh time in eight elections that Democrats have claimed the national popular vote. He added five states Hillary Clinton lost in 2016, including two -- Arizona and Georgia -- where Democrats had not won at the presidential level since the 1990s.
All good news.
But beneath that glittering top line, Republicans had an unexpectedly good Election Day.
Encouraged by polling that proved too rosy, Democrats had high hopes of seizing a US Senate majority, enlarging their edge in the US House of Representatives and taking control of a half dozen or more legislatures across the country -- critical in a year when the states will be redrawing legislative and congressional maps for the next decade.
None of that happened.
While Biden won the presidency, it was Donald Trump who had the coattails.
Mired in scandal, controversy and an epic pandemic, Trump, nevertheless, won over 74 million votes -- over 10 million more votes then he received in 2016. While it wasn t enough to save the embattled president, Republicans swept along in his wake narrowed the Democratic advantage in the US House by at least 12 seats so far, captured control of two more state legislative chambers in New Hampshire and are favored to maintain the majority in the US Senate, pending two critical runoff elections in Georgia on January 5.
Unless Democrats can pull off two upsets in Georgia, many of Biden s appointments and much of his agenda will be at the mercy of Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell and the Senate Republicans, quickly testing the incoming president s oft-stated hope for a new era of bipartisan cooperation.
Trump soon will be gone, but he has turbocharged a realignment, decades in the making, that leaves us a more deeply divided country and raises challenges for both parties.
Buoyed by significant gains among suburban voters, and strong showings in cities, Biden won many of the most populous and prosperous metropolitan areas by even larger margins than Hillary Clinton. But Trump commanded more than 80% of the nation s counties, dominating rural areas and small towns across large swaths of the country.
Those divisions, and the constitutionally-mandated system by which we elect presidents and apportion senators and members of Congress, means that Democrats may have the most voters, but Republicans, by activating their base, can maintain legislative power and remain competitive in future Electoral College races for the White House.
For Democrats, the sobering reality is that, despite his seven million vote-lead nationally, Biden captured the presidency by a combined 43,692 votes across three battleground states. Without his narrow wins in Georgia, Arizona and Wisconsin, the race for electoral votes would have been tied.
And, looking back, Biden was likely the only Democrat running in 2020 who could have pulled it off.
White-haired, White and male; steeped in the working-class culture of his native Scranton, Pennsylvania; moderate in tone and politics and enormously empathetic because of his own horrific life struggles, Biden was a difficult target for the race-baiting, reactionary president.
While Trump may have wounded Democratic candidates down ballot with his caricature of the party as a hotbed of "the radical left, "socialists," and mob-coddling advocates of "defunding police," he failed to brand Biden, who exit polls say carried moderate voters by 30 points, nearly three times Clinton s margin over Trump four years ago.
That shift was reflected in the suburbs, where burgeoning turnout and shifting allegiances made the difference in the battleground states. Weary of chaos, and comfortable with Biden, White men with a college degree, who heavily favored Trump over Clinton in 2016, were nearly tied this year. White women with a college degree favored Biden by nearly double digits, according to CNN exit polls.
These gains more than offset losses among some groups on whom Democrats were counting. African-Americans still supported Biden in overwhelmingly numbers, but Trump made small but measurable gains with Black men. Moreover, Democrats, who counted Latinx voters among their base, learned that Hispanic-American communities can t be treated as a monolithic or an automatic vote. They are rich and varied in their perspectives and experiences, and bucked the Democratic Party in places like Miami-Dade County in Florida and parts of South Texas. The decline among Asian-Americans was also noticeable.
But the biggest concern Democrats should have is over the hardening of opposition in large swaths of America that may send us into perpetual gridlock.
It s too easy and self-defeating for Democrats in this big, diverse country to write off these Republican-won voters or regions, and too facile to explain their loss solely in terms of the issue of race, despite Trump s relentless and unabashed race-baiting and nativism.
Many of the small towns and rural communities between the coasts where Republicans have built their fortress have been battered and depleted by the same economic change that has benefited burgeoning metropolitan areas, where Democrats have prospered electorally.
Trump s anti-trade, anti-immigrant, anti-environmental, law-and-order jeremiads have found an audience in these communities, exploiting and inflaming a sense that Democrats are disdainful of their values and alien to their economic interests.
If Democrats are seen only as a coalition of economic and cultural elites and minorities -- with little connection to the rest of the country -- the party may still win narrow national victories, as they did in 2020, but will struggle to win and maintain governing majorities.
Democrats need an expansive, authentic economic message for these changing times that speaks to the experience of tens of millions of Americans, rural and urban, who feel that the system devised over time by experts from Wall Street to Washington DC is rigged against them. Biden s emphasis on boosting jobs and wages, reducing inequality and undergirding the middle class is a step in the right direction.
Yet in pursuing other bedrock commitments, Democrats need to pay some attention to how their words and plans are heard and how their actions are read across the whole country.
Take climate change, which is an existential crisis that demands urgent action. But if you work on an oil field, extract natural gas or coal from the ground or lay pipeline for living, the moral argument about the next generation comes hard up against anxiety about the next paycheck. In pursuing climate action, those concerns should be honored and addressed, not dismissed.
Systemic racism is a brutal reality that millions of our fellow Americans confront in different ways on a daily basis. Black Americans have faced uniquely unconscionable hardships, brutality and withering economic barriers from the beginning of the republic to this day. It is a legacy we, as a country, must confront and redress. But people in struggling rural communities and aging industrial towns who aren t subject to racial discrimination but have been caught in the switches of a changing economy need to know Democrats are fighting for them, too.
And then there is immigration, an issue Trump has relentlessly exploited to divide and inflame. This is a nation of hard-working immigrants whose arrival on our shores, generation after generation, has enriched our country. Now, as they seek to fix a broken and shamefully inhumane system, Democrats should also assure there are rules and accountability to address concerns of blue-collar workers who fear that a surge of immigrants will undercut their jobs and wages.
As Trump has proven again, presidents define their parties. For Democrats, that task now falls to Biden, who will take over amid a raging pandemic that has wreaked havoc on our economy in a country whose trust in institutions has been shaken to the core.
With divided government, Biden will have to deal not only with implacable Republicans but his own fractious coalition, mediating between a left averse to compromise, minorities demanding their rightful place at the table and suburban moderates who are an increasingly important element of the Democratic base.
Gone but not forgotten, Trump will likely launch the resistance from Day One, and will be abetted by a right-wing media ecosystem long on conspiracy theories and short on facts, stoking the red-blue divide.
Biden may have been the only Democrat in the race who could have defeated Trump in 2020. But now the oldest president in history faces a Herculean task, not only in leading the country, but growing his party for the future