When Democratic soul-searching turns into unproductive navel-gazing

AP

It happens every four years: The party that wins the White House boasts about everything they did right, while the losing party devolves into a mess of finger-pointing and blame.

In 2016, the circular firing squad is taking place on the Democratic side of the aisle, after President-elect Donald Trump's shocking come-from-behind win over Hillary Clinton whipped the party into a frenzied debate of what went wrong and who's to blame.

But it would behoove those Democratic bedwetters to take a deep breath and step back for a second before completely changing strategy and message based on the outcome of one election — especially one as unusual as 2016's. 

"Trump had a razor-thin win in strange circumstances with two unpopular candidates," Stu Rothenberg, a nonpartisan political handicapper, said in an interview. "There's a tendency to jump to conclusions and assume that the circumstances this year will be the same as the ones for 2020, which is ridiculous." 

Still, Democrats and pontificating pundits have spent the past week since the election unable to see the forest for the trees.

Some, including Sen. Bernie Sanders and the far left wing of the party, are yelling from the rooftops about how Democrats could lose elections for a lifetime if they keep accepting campaign contributions from wealthy donors and don't adopt some of Trump's populist message.

This discounts the fact that candidates matter, and that every election takes place amid different circumstances and a different mood among the electorate. In four years, a down economy or different national security climate could cause the electorate to react in a completely different way from 2016. Others are making the mistake of assuming the Trump coalition of winning working-class white voters in rural areas by large margins will hold for future elections. 

It's as if they learned nothing from assuming that the same coalition that President Barack Obama cobbled together in 2008 and 2012 would turn out for Clinton in 2016.

But to understand how shortsighted that assumption is, one simply needs to look at how slim of a victory Trump held in a number of key states he won: In Michigan, for example, Trump won by .3%, with just under 12,000 votes separating him and Clinton, according to results reported by the New York Times. In Wisconsin, Trump won by a little more than 27,000 votes — or 1%. In Pennsylvania, Trump won by just under 70,000 votes.

And given that Trump won votes from voters who not only viewed him unfavorably, but thought he was merely the lesser of two evils from an unpopular slate of candidates, that in no way guarantees that these same voters would stick by him — or the GOP — in 2020.

"Trump was reliant among the support of some people who had an unfavorable view of him, which means that if he doesn't perform, those people hypothetically should be fairly easy to turn against him," Kyle Kondik, the managing editor of Larry Sabato's Crystal Ball at the University of Virginia's Center for Politics, said in an interview.  

Kondik added that two years of unified Republican government — with the GOP holding the White House and both chambers of Congress — gives Democrats a target to run against and contrast themselves with in 2018 and 2020.

"It's easier to be in the minority in some ways, because you don't have to propose anything. We saw that with Republicans who just criticized the administration," Kondik said, referring to the past eight years with Obama in the White House. "And I think Democrats will probably have a fair amount of ammo to use from Trump or Republicans in Congress."

Of course, a party's soul-searching after an election loss could be a good thing— but Democrats should be wary of taking things too far. 

"It's absolutely fair game after an election to pause and self-reflect and look at the exit polls and look to see who voted and who didn't and why and try to learn something," Rothenberg said. "But I think a matter of days after the election, people are jumping to conclusions and over-reading the results."