This column appeared in the January 3, 2017 edition of the Louisville Courier-Journal.
By: Scott Jennings
“I thought we’d get to see forever, but forever’s gone away. It’s so hard to say goodbye to yesterday.” – political philosophers Boys II Men, 1991.
With just over two weeks left in his term, President Barack Obama is signaling that he intends to do anything but go quietly once Donald Trump takes office, rejecting the example set by most every other president. Obama’s failure to emulate the class and deference shown him by George W. Bush—allowing his successor to lead without interference from the previous occupant—will not work to the Democratic Party’s advantage nor will it be good for our divided nation.
Indeed, it is hard to say goodbye when giving up high public office to someone in a different party. Just ask former Kentucky Governor Steve Beshear, who set up a political apparatus upon leaving office to undermine Matt Bevin, the Republican who stunned Democrats by defeating Jack Conway in 2015.
Instead of moving on, Beshear spent all of 2016 pressuring Frankfort politicians to defend his most unpopular policy – the implementation of Obamacare. Democratic legislative leaders, feeling compelled to follow their old leader, forced votes on legislation to codify Beshear’s Obamacare executive orders (bills, by the way, which had no chance of becoming law because of a Republican-controlled Senate).
It was a dumb strategy with disastrous consequences, as those votes played a central role in the overwhelmingly successful Republican campaign to take over the Kentucky House. In race after race, Democratic incumbents, forced to walk the Obamacare plank months earlier by Beshear and House Speaker Greg Stumbo, faced a barrage of ads informing voters of their pro-Obamacare position.
You can draw a bright line from Beshear’s unprecedented decision to hang around to Democrats losing the state House. What if Beshear had simply accepted the results of the 2015 election, retiring quietly after voters rebuked his Obamacare move by choosing Bevin? Perhaps Stumbo and his caucus would have focused on other things, robbing the GOP of a winning argument.
Beshear never faced the voters after implementing Obamacare via executive fiat in 2013, but other Democrats did – Alison Grimes blown out by Mitch McConnell in 2014; Conway thumped by Bevin in 2015; and Stumbo robbed of his majority and personal seat in 2016. Three elections brought three straight electoral disasters for Beshear’s Kentucky Democratic Party, all related to his health policy decision.
Will the same thing happen to Obama’s Democratic National Committee? Obama has already presided over what Sam Stein, the senior politics editor of the Huffington Post, called “the destruction of the Democratic Party” since 2009, leaving them “in a much worse position.” On Obama’s watch, Republicans took over both houses of Congress, won a record number of state legislative chambers (67 of 98), and control 33 governorships. The liberal political news site Daily Kos admitted Republicans won more political power in 2016 than in any election since 1928.
Finally, a chance for conservatives to mean it when we say “Thanks, Obama!”
Beshear and Obama won two elections rather easily, and there is no disputing that both possess personal political skills beyond that of their opponents. But both also presided over electoral calamities in the years since their own reelections, birthing a reasonable conclusion that voters, however much they liked them personally, did not approve of their liberal policy tilt.
Obama has announced he’s going to live in Washington after leaving office and caused eye rolls when he said that he would have won a third term if permitted to run again. It’s Alexander Hamilton’s warning against presidential term limits come to life:
“Would it promote the peace of the community, or the stability of the government to have half a dozen men who had had credit enough to be raised to the seat of the supreme magistracy, wandering among the people like discontented ghosts, and sighing for a place which they were destined never more to possess?” Hamilton wrote in Federalist 72, expressing well-founded fears at a time when the average life expectancy was 36! Obama, just 55 years old, could be the nation’s Discontented Ghost-in-Chief for decades, haunting Trump and the next three presidents.
Beyond politics, the moral impact of Obama’s refusal to recede cannot be understated as he’s leaving the nation more politically divided than when he took office, according to polling done by the Pew Research Center. Any post-presidential meddling would undermine Trump’s efforts to unify a country sorely in need of healing.
Obama famously said before the 2014 midterm election: “I’m not on the ballot this fall…but make no mistake: These policies are on the ballot, every single one of them.” Voters overwhelmingly rejected those policies in two straight elections, turning huge swaths of voters—especially in non-urban areas—toward the Republican Party at every level of government.
But there is always more to lose, as the Frankfort Democrats can tell you after spending 2016 following a spent political force down the rabbit hole. Will Democrats in Washington make the same mistake? If they are smart, they will say goodbye to yesterday as soon as possible.
Scott Jennings previously served as an advisor to President George W. Bush and U.S. Senator Mitch McConnell. He is a partner at RunSwitch Public Relations and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter @ScottJenningsKY.