What does the future hold for American politics?
While speaking at the Clinton School of Public Service at the University of Arkansas, Debenedetti, national correspondent for the Politico website, shared five broad lessons about current politics that he's gleaned from the first two months of Trump's transition to the presidency.
1) The Democratic identity crisis runs deep
The Democratic Party has full control of the governorship and both the House and Senate in only six states following the 2016 election.
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"But most importantly, the Democratic Party has no national leader," Debenedetti said, adding that this has led to a great deal of finger-pointing and a separation into factions.
Debenedetti identified these factions as the Bernie Sanders party — who are working to make Minnesota U.S. House Rep. Keith Ellison the new Democratic National Committee chair — and the Democratic establishment — which is split between those trying to learn from the mistakes of the Clinton campaign and those insisting she would have won if not for the distrust stirred up by Sanders supporters.
Overall, the party is just trying to answer questions leftover from the lost election and find a leader that can help them unite again, Debenedetti said.
2) Republicans are dealing with an identity crisis of their own
Despite having majority control in government many Republicans have admitted to not expecting victory in the 2016 presidential election.
Because of this, those who backed the other Republican candidates are holding on to their principles despite decisions to fall in line in support of Trump near the end of the election. Debenedetti points to Marco Rubio's objection to Trump's pick for secretary of state, Rex Tillerson — during a confirmation hearing Rubio and Tillerson sparred over Vladimir Putin.
"In other words, the GOP's broad coalition of libertarians, neoconservatives, movement conservatives, Tea Partiers, Trumpers and whatever other buzzwords you want to use is still as broad as ever, but it's also as fragile as ever," Debenedetti said. "Even their party leaders are beginning to acknowledge that the all is well feeling that they've been trying to run through their press releases and speeches ever since we had the election, that that feeling might not last forever, let alone the full four years of President-elect Trump's first term."
3) Republicans' first step is to completely overwhelm Democrats
Democrats have been reacting with outrage to nearly all of Trump's nominations for leadership roles, Debenedetti said.
"But Democrats, unable to effectively coordinate a plan in their current state of disarray and with no way to stop the nominations with not enough votes in the Senate, were left essentially helpless," he said.
In response, Republicans have adopted a blunt force tactic, which could signal things to come — illustrated by Trump's latest news conference being scheduled on the same day as several confirmation hearings.
4) Characters may be the same, but the old norms of Washington are gone
During a confirmation hearing for Trump's attorney general pick, Alabama GOP Sen. Jeff Sessions, another senator, New Jersey Democratic Sen. Cory Booker, personally testified against appointing Sessions to the Cabinet. This is the first time in Senate history that one sitting member has opposed another in such a direct manner, Debenedetti said.
And it's Trump who is pushing these and other big changes.
"In the new Washington, lawmakers — both Republicans and Democrats are talking about this openly — are now actively training themselves for a potential era of legislation via tweet storm," he said.
5) The most consequential political fights will be local
While Obamacare, immigration reform and cyber security will be on a national stage, Debenedetti doesn't believe that big ticket races, like the one for chair of the DNC, are going to be the defining contests in the coming years.
"All we need to do is follow the money," he said. "Republicans have been very organized here in investing heavily in local races down to the town level for years. Winning enough, for example, state legislature and governor seats ahead of the 2010 election cycle to gain majorities or total control of states where they could influence the process that happens every ten years of redistricting."
Democrats are starting to do the same in order to win back local seats ahead of 2020, led by Barack Obama and former attorney general Eric Holder, he said.
In the meantime, Trump has set the tone for more D.C involvement in state races — making public his support for the Ohio Republican Party chair last week.
To listen to the entire speech, click the audio player above.
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