The great Democratic crack-up of 2016

For all the much-discussed ailments of the Republican Party — its failure to win the popular vote in five of the last six presidential elections; the corrosive bickering between its mainstream and its Tea Party stalwarts; and the plummeting number of Americans who identify themselves as Republicans — the inescapable reality is that the Democrats have fallen into a ditch arguably as deep and dismal as the one Republicans have dug for themselves. “It isn’t that the Democratic Party is struggling,” says Jonathan Cowan, the president of the centrist policy center Third Way. “It’s that at the subpresidential level, it’s in a free fall.” The Democrats lost their majority in the Senate last November; to regain it, they will need to pick up five additional seats (or four if there’s a Democratic vice president who can cast the tiebreaking vote), and nonpartisan analysts do not rate their chances as good. The party’s situation in the House is far more dire. Only 188 of the lower chamber’s 435 seats are held by Democrats. Owing in part to the aggressiveness of Republican-controlled State Legislatures that redrew numerous congressional districts following the 2010 census, few believe that the Democratic Party is likely to retake power until after the next census in 2020, and even then, the respected political analyst Charles Cook rates the chances of the Democrats’ winning the House majority by 2022 as a long shot at best.

Things get even worse for the Democrats further down the political totem pole. Only 18 of the country’s 50 governors are Democrats. The party controls both houses in only 11 State Legislatures. Not since the Hoover Administration has the Democratic Party’s overall power been so low. A rousing victory by Hillary Rodham Clinton might boost other Democratic aspirants in 2016; then again, in 2012 Obama won 62 percent of Electoral College votes yet carried 48 percent of Congressional districts and a mere 22 percent of the nation’s 3,114 counties. Through a billion dollars of campaign wizardry, the president did not lift up but only managed to escape a party brand that has come to be viewed in much of America with abiding disfavor…

As to how Democrats should be responding to their poor showing below the executive branch, there are two competing schools of thought, each of which began to emerge in the middle of the last decade, when the Republicans controlled all branches of government and Karl Rove, the G.O.P. strategist, was crowing about a party majority that would endure for many decades to come. Moderates believe the only remedy is for Democrats to refashion themselves as pragmatists who care more about achieving results than ideological purity. When I asked Cowan about what he hoped for in a Hillary Clinton presidency, he said: “Senator Clinton has been in politics long enough to realize you’re governing in a divided country. You use the mandate you have to get stuff done.”

Progressives, on the other hand, believe that the Democrats lost their way by obsessing over what President Bill Clinton once termed “the vital center.”