Many of us have been disappointed by President Obama’s latest negotiating position on the fiscal cliff. We thought the $250,000 cutoff for extending the Bush-era tax cuts was set in stone. We thought Social Security was off the table. We were wrong and can only hope that Speaker Boehner’s insulting “Plan B” puts some steel back in the President’s backbone. In addition, we can be grateful that so far, at least, the President is hanging tough on his proposed stimulus package, extending Emergency Unemployment Compensation, and maintaining the current age of eligibility for Medicare. He is also insisting that Congress take a destructive debate on extending the national debt ceiling off the agenda for 2012 and perhaps beyond.
Despite our disappointment, we have to acknowledge that President Obama is in a difficult position. The failure of the Democratic Party to re-capture control of the House of Representatives is hindering him at every turn. The President has a responsibility for keeping the economy on an even keel and for helping it to grow. He has to assure that international creditors retain full faith and credit in the American dollar. These imperatives compel him to try to reach an agreement with Boehner.
Democrats have to ask themselves if they could have done more to win the House in the November election. If they had been a little smarter, worked a little harder, or spent more money, perhaps they could have elected Nate Shinagawa and enough other Democrats to take over the House in 2013. If that had happened, we would be in an entirely different world today.
At the same time, Democrats are victims of the unfair and undemocratic system of congressional districting that prevails in our country. Nationwide, Democratic candidates won 1.1 million more votes for the House in November than Republican candidates. Voters wanted a Democratic House of Representatives, but they got a Republican one. The sheer gall of House Republicans in defying the President in the face of this reality is astounding.
One problem, of course, is gerrymandering. For example, the citizens of our neighboring state, Pennsylvania, voted to re-elect President Obama and cast 83,000 more votes for Democratic House candidates than for Republicans. But the delegation Pennsylvania will send to the Capitol in January will consist of 13 Republicans and 5 Democrats. Congressional district lines drawn by the Republican-controlled legislature are responsible for this. Republican legislatures in Wisconsin, Ohio, Virginia, and other states worked similar mischief. Democrats drew lines favorable to themselves in Maryland and Illinois, but Republicans had the upper hand in redistricting due to their gains in statehouses in the 2010 elections.
Beyond gerrymandering, Democrats are at a disadvantage because of the concentration of Democratic voters in urban areas. With their voters packed into metropolitan districts, Democratic candidates are left to struggle for votes in the nation’s many rural districts. (For more on these issues, see http://www.nytimes.com/2012/12/15/us/politics/redistricting-helped-republicans-hold-onto-congress.html?pagewanted=all&_r=1&)
What is the solution for Democrats? Court challenges to gerrymandering should be pursued, but the judicial process is slow and often unsuccessful. Democrats are left with the reality that they must dedicate themselves a patient, long-term, but intensive effort to overcome the unfairness of the congressional election system. If they do so, President Obama’s task of promoting economic recovery and growth will be far easier as of January 2015.