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August 27, 2014 4:13 PM 2020 Vision

By Ed Kilgore

As most progressives agonize over the fruits of the 2010 GOP landslide and its impact on the future via redistricting and a constricted Democratic bench, TNR’s Brian Beutler is looking ahead. As he points out, the next pre-redistricting cycle, in 2020, will very likely be on much better Democratic turf (hard to imagine one worse than 2010, actually), beginning with the fact that it’s a presidential rather than a midterm election.

But then Beutler veers into googooism, suggesting that, somehow, Democrats trade redistricting “vengence” for the leverage to force Republicans into a national system that will make redistricting nonpartisan forever and ever:

The details would be complex, but the basic offer would be simple: Either agree to mutual, permanent disarmament, and make one of the country’s many undemocratic processes more democratic, or enjoy the wilderness for a decade.

Sounds good, and I’m all for the sentiment, believe me; I used to rage about gerrymandering with every other breath. But having also spent a big chunk of my adult life staring at various schemes to do what Brian’s talking about, I’m reasonably sure it’s just not possible, at least with the kind of precision that lends itself to a national proposal. To make a very long story short, “independent” redistricting bodies are rarely independent (even the random membership the new system in California ensures has yet to meet any sort of test of time); “fair” or “pro-competitive” mapping schemes don’t really work unless you’re in a state with exquisite partisan balance; and no system can account for between-redistricting demographic changes, which are often very, very large. That doesn’t mean reducing partisan gerrymandering in any given state isn’t a worthy goal, but there’s not an available “national” solution, and there also isn’t an obvious way to implement one without some highly contingent “triggering” system that would be more confusing than the status quo.

Beutler seems to fear an endlessly and mindlessly extended cycle of redistricting folly. But that’s not exactly what we are experiencing in any event. Oldsters may remember than a decade ago the CW was that the 1992-94 redistricting process had created a GOP lock on the House that could not be broken. It lasted all the way until 2006. That’s mainly because Republicans got greedy in many states and maximized their short-term gains at the risk of exposing their incumbents to disaster if the political climate (or demographics) changed significantly. They learned an important lesson, and in the latest cycle focused more on bolstering incumbents than on maximizing gains. It’s worked out for them well so far, but the decade is young. It’s not all just about “winning or losing” the redistricting battle; as Grantland Rice would say, it’s also about how you play the game.

UPDATE: Yes, the original version of this post attributed the piece I was talking about to Danny Vinik. Sorry about that, Danny and Brian.

Ed Kilgore is a contributing writer to the Washington Monthly. He is managing editor for The Democratic Strategist and a senior fellow at the Progressive Policy Institute. Find him on Twitter: @ed_kilgore.

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