Sunday, February 06, 2005

Politics and History

People may be forgiven for thinking the current political landscape is delusional. The Democrats seem completely oblivious to the fact that they lost the 2004 Election by any measure, with Bush retaining the White House, and the GOP increasing seats in both the House and Senate. For their part, the Republicans talk as if they had won the race for the Presidency with more than 50.8% of the Popular Vote, and seem to believe they are primed to take the sort of command in Congress that Democrats enjoyed for more than a half-century. There is, however, reason for each party’s optimism.

The Democrats are in somewhat of a more desperate position. The simple math puts them in the minority is every leg of government. The Dems, as a result, are bluffing to hide their relative weakness, hoping to get to the Midterms without significant long-term damage. They also are riding on support from their long-term allies, the liberal press and academia, where Conservatives were banished long ago. These assets are real, and have helped the Democrats many times before.

As for the Republicans, they face the same problem now, as they did during the Reagan years; most Americans consider themselves Conservative, certainy many more than consider themselves Liberal. However, that does not translate to an automatic preference for Republicans over Democrats, and there are several reasons for that dichotomy. First, while Conservative Democrats do not exist anymore in the US for any real intent, there are a number of Liberal Republicans, and this dilutes the message of the GOP. Next, politics are regional, and as Schwarzenegger’s run to the Governor’s mansion in California showed, the Republican message adapts to the culture where it is played. Democrats do the same thing,of course, and the resulting range of images which often stray from the party platform confuse people, often resulting in the “they’re just like each other” mistake. It takes a deeper look to see the larger forces at work. For here, I want to address the historical forces I recognize at work.

The Democratic and Republican Parties, compared to most political parties, are anomalies; political parties generally die out in less than a century, because they are unable to adjust to changing realities. They either accomplish their major goals, like the Federalists, and so lose any reason to continue as they have, or they fail to stay relevant, like the Whigs, and are replaced by something more popular. The Democrats, and after them the Republicans, have changed their identities a number of times, and both are likely to do so in the near future, though for different reasons.

The Democrats gained their initial identity under General, later President, Andrew Jackson. They lost national position through flaccid responses to North-South feuding, as much interstate trading as slavery issues alone, and especially when the Republicans came to power under Lincoln. Reconstruction nearly destroyed the Democrats, but with Grover Cleveland, the Democrats found new authority under a Reform mandate. The bad news for the Democrats fell in two words: Tammany Hall. In the 19th century, most politics of value to the average American was Local and State; the Federal Government of significance only in wartime. The Tammany Hall scandal matttered, because it showed that while Federal Democrats might be more reform-minded, many in control of State and Local machines were nothing of the sort. This led directly to the success of Reform Republicans like William McKinley and Teddy Roosevelt.

The Republicans temporarily lost power back to the Democrats because of infighting. Teddy Roosevelt’s feuding against Taft let Woodrow Wilson gain the advantage in 1912, and with it the White House. Wilson’s policies after World War One were too high-handed for the Congress and most Americans, and it was not difficult for Warren Harding to retake the White House for the Republicans in 1920. Economic stability in the U.S. during the 1920s (as compared, for example, to the economic conditions in Europe) worked to the advantage of Calvin Coolidge and Herbert Hoover - at least until the Stock Market Crash, and Hoover’s paralysis in response.

Franklin Roosevelt became the icon of Democrat success in part due to Hoover’s poor communication skills. FDR’s economic fixes were not really the right ones, except that he had specifics to offer, and the confidence to stand behind them. And confidence mixed with eloquence is strong stuff in politics, enough to establish the Democrats as the dominant party in America for more than a generation. Enough that even though Eisenhower introduced the foundation for Civil Rights through desegregation policies and support for black leaders, it’s the Democrats who gained the most credit in most people’s memories.

But Time brings arrogance and assumption to many men. In 1968, Johnson’s moronic methods of expressing positions had undercut the support for Democrats in the South and West, allowing George Wallace to draw support away from the Democrats’ nominee Humphrey, and allow Richard Nixon to win the 1968 Presidential Election with only 43% of the Popular Vote. Nixon ran the White House largely as a fiscal and social moderate, but in the end he couldn’t overcome his personal shortcomings, and the Democrats eviscerated the man, reducing the GOP to near-destruction in the 1974 Midterms.

The Republican Party was reborn with the rise of Ronald Reagan. Reagan’s devotion to the Conservative cause, provided a clear choice for Americans. In 1964 the Democrats were too strong, in 1968 and 1972 Reagan wouldn’t attack Nixon, but in 1976 Reagan came on strong, nearly defeating incumbent Ford for the GOP nomination. By 1980, Carter’s failed policies across the board made Reagan the natural choice.

But there was only one Ronald Reagan. When he left office in 1989, his successor was hardly in the same mold, and definitely not to the same scale. The Democrats were in some measure of trouble, having failed to win more than one Presidential election in the past six, but they continued to control Congress, though they were losing the scale of advantage they were used to having. Bill Clinton used the same split in support in 1992, to win the White House with 43%, in the same way that Nixon won in 1968. Two years later, the collective effect of Clinton’s policies helped voters decide to give the GOP a chance in Congress, and the House leadership shifted to the Right. Two years after that, most Republicans in Congress had failed to show in practice the differences from Democrats they had claimed in campaigns, and the Democrats saw Clinton re-elected. In 1998, the Democrats made gains in the Midterms.

This brings us to George W. Bush. Anybody want to consider what it mean in 2000, for a Conservative Republican former Governor of Texas, to come to office with Republican control of Congress? That’s why the Democrats made such a deal with Jim Jeffords, to throw the Senate back into Democrat control. And that made the 2002 Midterms critical for both parties. Traditionally, the party in control loses seats in a Midterm, but not in 2002. The Democrats then refocused on 2004, hoping to change the flow of political change. The results show they failed.

As a result, the Democrats are looking at the possibility of the Republicans adding to gains in 2006 and 2008, especially since the demographics indicate the President enjoys real support from most Americans; the Job Approval polls fail to note that Bush has increased his floor level of support since the middle of his first term. But the Republicans need to be careful to pay attention to the voters in general; the Democrats were down in 1994, and before that in 1956, and both times came back strong.

The joker in the deck may well be Howard Dean. The Democrats have correctly taken note of his fundraising and web skills, to say nothing of his organizational skills. On the other hand, if Dean takes the chair at the DNC, he will hold the keys to Democrats’ primaries, putting real obstacles in the way of Hillary Clinton and John Kerry; it will put the Democrats on a new course of radical Liberalism in all likelihood; a course likely to solidify their seats in a few Congressional Districts,. but which runs counter to the stated desires of most voters across all demographic measures. It appears the Democrats have decided to double-down, betting everything on a negative reaction to the President. The Democrats did the same thing in Reagan’s second term, but seem to have forgotten that in 1985-8, the Democrats controlled Congress; this time there is reason to believe that if the Republicans are willing to use their power as the majority party, they will be able to produce landmark legislation. That’s why I and others are interested in knowing the true priorities and goals of the 109th Congress; that knowledge will show the direction of this nation for years to come, possibly for the next generation.

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