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opinion

Clifford Orwin is a professor of political science at the University of Toronto.

I used to love the Democrats. For all the years I was being raised and educated in the United States, I was a Democrat. I remain one today, as that is how I am registered in my home state of Illinois. I have certainly never been a Republican. Yet, today, the Dems seem as formidable as a plucked chicken, and about as ready to govern.

Even with God's gift to them in the White House – a President whose average first-year favourability rating of 38.6 per cent is more than 10 points lower than his runner-up among the previous 10 U.S. presidents (Bill Clinton, interestingly enough) and more than 20 points lower than most of them – the Democrats have struggled to gain traction.

Although Donald Trump's standing has not been rising, theirs has been falling. In the so-called generic ballot (which asks voters which party they are likely to support in the next congressional election), their lead has fallen a whopping 40 per cent, from 13 percentage points to 7.9 percentage points. While this certainly doesn't preclude their recapturing Congress (and there's lots of time between now and November), it does dampen euphoria about an impending "Blue Wave." For many reasons (among them years of persistent gerrymandering by both parties), it's not so easy to regain control of Congress.

Why have the Democrats failed to profit from Mr. Trump's massive unpopularity? Maybe they haven't deserved to do so. Here's an exercise you might try: Name five leading Democratic prospects for the 2020 presidential nomination. Then remove those 65 or over. Does anyone remain on your list? If so, you've heard of more Democrats than most Canadians – and most Americans, for that matter.

Mr. Trump is not only the least popular recent president but the oldest when first elected. Unfortunately, the Democrats wheeze under their own epidemic of gerontocracy. Just when they need a strong candidate combining youth with just enough experience to be credible – think the Barack Obama of 2008 – they're very weak in this department. This dearth reflects two related failures of Mr. Obama: He succeeded neither in renewing the party nor in cultivating a worthy heir-apparent.

Hillary Clinton was not that heir-apparent. Ask yourself another question. When your heart swelled (as did those of so many Canadians) at Mr. Obama's promise of "change you can believe in," did you suppose that after eight years of his inspirational rhetoric the Democratic Party would revert to the tight control of the Clintons? That the fate of Mr. Obama's ambitious agenda would ride on the election of Ms. Clinton to succeed him? Ms. Clinton, whom he had dismissed in the 2008 primaries as the candidate of old ways and elderly voters? And sure enough, last year it was not Mr. Trump but Ms. Clinton who proved the candidate with too much accumulated baggage.

Another failure of the Obama years was the continuous decline of the Democratic brand. Losing control of the Congress in 2010, the party failed to regain it in 2012 despite Mr. Obama's re-election, then lost the Senate disastrously in 2014. The Democrats sank to post-New Deal lows in congressional seats, governorships and control of state legislatures. Inevitably, these losses have devastated the party's list of plausible presidential candidates. Its lineup of state governors is particularly shallow. And unless Ruth Bader Ginsburg lives forever, it may well lose the Supreme Court as it is has other federal judgeships. In all these respects, it is playing from behind the Republicans.

Even before Mr. Trump's election, Harvard political scientist Harvey Mansfield described the Democrats as the party of drift. That seemed right to me then and still does. On the three issues that Mr. Trump rode so hard – trade restrictions, reduced immigration and a noisy but quasi-isolationist foreign policy – the Democrats have yet to recover from his blindsiding of them.

For all its presentation of itself as progressive, the party has little new to offer. No new leadership (Chuck Schumer in the Senate and Nancy Pelosi in the House), no new programs, no new ideas, no new anything. (Only a new septuagenarian, Bernie Sanders, who passed for the voice of youth in the party by recycling ideas from the 1930s.) You can't beat something with nothing, not even when that something is Mr. Trump.

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