The New Politics of Evasion
New thinking and favorable demography have largely addressed the Democrats’ old problems. Now it’s the Republicans who can’t face reality.
The election of 2012 revealed a stark reality: Whatever may be the case in the states and congressional districts, the Republican Party faces deep difficulties at the national level. Many Republicans chalk this up to gaps in messaging and technology, to the selection of candidates who can’t fire up the base, or to what is for them the incomprehensible charisma of Bill Clinton and Barack Obama. Although a few Republicans are daring to go further, challenging party orthodoxy on issues such as immigration and same-sex marriage, they are a beleaguered minority. Most party leaders hope that cosmetic changes will be enough for the party to do better in 2016—without challenging the convictions of its core supporters.
The authors of this article have seen this movie before. A quarter of a century ago, in fact, we found ourselves with roles in it. In a 1989 manifesto, “The Politics of Evasion: Democrats and the Presidency,” (PDF) we debunked the views of our Democratic colleagues who hoped, as do so many Republicans today, that their fortunes would start looking up when a popular two-term President passed from the scene, and we laid out the kinds of changes the party would have to embrace if it wished to regain its competitiveness in presidential elections.
We were under no illusions that these changes would come without a fight. There was indeed a fight, but the changes happened, laying an enduring foundation for a stronger party. The narrative that follows helps explain why (as several reporters have told us) “The Politics of Evasion” is enjoying a samizdat revival in Republican circles.
Democrats in Disarray
In 1989, the Democrats were a party in trouble. They had just lost their third presidential election in a row, and prospects for regaining the presidency in the future looked dim. Holding onto control of the Congress permitted various party leaders—on the record and off—to continue to assert that things were not as bad as they looked. It all added up to, in the words of the country’s premier political columnist, David Broder of The Washington Post, “[t]he Democrats’ collective ability to deny the bleak reality of the present and past.”
In its post-election analysis, the party settled upon a catalog of explanations about what had gone wrong. Most of the recriminations focused on the Democratic candidate, Massachusetts Governor Michael Dukakis. One pundit criticized his performance in the second presidential debate as showing “slightly less animation and personality than the Shroud of Turin.” Others focused on fundraising and technology, media and momentum. No one was very interested in talking about the issues or what the Democrats stood for, even though there was a mounting body of evidence indicating that the party’s problems were much deeper and more fundamental than the ones being discussed. As this systematic denial of reality stretched from 1988 into 1989, we realized, along with Al From and Will Marshall (founders of the reinvigorated Democratic Leadership Council and its think tank, the Progressive Policy Institute) that the Democrats were in urgent need of some reality therapy.
And so, in the summer of 1989, we sat down to write “The Politics of Evasion,” which the newly formed Progressive Policy Institute published that September. The essay was a frontal assault on three “myths” that Democrats had been using to explain away a series of dismal defeats. Our depiction of the party’s political standing was blunt: “Without a charismatic president to blame for their ills, Democrats must now come face to face with reality: too many Americans have come to see the party as inattentive to their economic interests, indifferent if not hostile to their moral sentiments and ineffective in defense of their national security.”
As is often the case when you set out to dispel cherished illusions, most of our fellow Democrats were not happy. For some years after, we were not very popular. The skunk at the garden party or the canary in the coal mine (choose your analogy) never is. There were, however, some important exceptions; notably, a young governor from Arkansas with presidential ambitions—Bill Clinton—and his allies in the Democratic Leadership Council (DLC). They took the findings of “The Politics of Evasion” to heart, and Clinton became the first Democratic President to win two terms in a row since Franklin D. Roosevelt.
Today, nearly a quarter of a century later, the relative position of the two political parties looks very different, so it’s a good time to look back at our controversial essay. We’ll examine what we got right, what we got wrong, and the condition of today’s Democratic coalition. We’ll point out how Bill Clinton’s campaign and subsequent presidency successfully addressed the myths. Finally, we’ll assess the similarities and differences between the Democrats circa 1989 and the Republicans today, and draw on our experience to suggest some lessons for those seeking to reform the Republican Party.
Myths Debunked, Lessons Learned
“The Politics of Evasion” explored three myths that were prevalent among Democrats following the 1988 presidential election: the Myth of Liberal Fundamentalism, the Myth of Mobilization, and the Myth of the Congressional Bastion.
The Myth of Liberal Fundamentalism stated that “Democrats have lost presidential elections because they have strayed from traditional liberal orthodoxy.” Our argument was simple: This analysis was a myth because there simply were not enough liberals in the electorate to carry Democrats to victory—a reality that prevails to this day. The table below illustrates one of the more enduring patterns in American politics: Despite some liberal gains during the Obama era, conservatives consistently outnumber liberals, and moderates hold the key to victory in presidential elections.
Since 1989, the Democratic Party has moved away from the Myth of Liberal Fundamentalism and become a party that manages to attract moderates. In 1992, Bill Clinton ran as a “New Democrat.” He famously promised to end welfare as we know it, campaigned against outsized budget deficits and trade protectionism, and proposed to “reinvent” government, not expand it. By denouncing an obscure rapper named Sister Souljah who had made remarks about blacks killing whites (instead of other blacks), Clinton sent a signal to the electorate that he was not afraid to take on even the Democrats’ most loyal constituency. To the astonishment of many observers, African-American voters responded with overwhelming support. By his second term, some of them were referring to Clinton as America’s “first black President.”
Since “The Politics of Evasion,” Democratic candidates who succeeded in winning the presidency, Clinton and Obama, did so by holding on to liberals and attracting a substantial majority of the moderate vote. Clinton won 61 percent and 62 percent of moderates in his two elections; Obama won 60 percent and 56 percent of moderates in his two elections. The two losing Democratic candidates, Al Gore and John Kerry, won overwhelming numbers of liberals but did less well among moderate voters, with Kerry winning 54 percent and Gore winning 53 percent.
In the first decade of the new century, the Republican Party advanced a “base strategy,” under the guidance of strategist Karl Rove. As the table illustrates, this strategy was plausible for the Republicans, who in modern American politics begin every election with about one-third of the electorate in their pockets, but far more difficult for Democrats. Looking back at the Democrats’ four winning elections since 1989, it is clear that the Democratic Party is actually a moderate/liberal coalition party and not a liberal party—a positioning likely to yield positive returns in the years to come.
Further evidence that the Democrats have come to understand the Myth of Liberal Fundamentalism comes from a look back at Democratic primaries. Since 1989, the most liberal candidates running in Democratic presidential primaries have failed. Indeed, none of the aspirants who ran as the most liberal candidate in the field got very far at all. In 1992, Senator Tom Harkin of Iowa went into the race as a vocal New Deal Democrat. After winning his home state, his only other victories came in the Minnesota and Idaho caucuses. In 2000, former Senator Bill Bradley campaigned as the liberal alternative to Vice President Gore and was out of the race by Super Tuesday. The 2004 Democratic primary was filled with candidates who were more liberal than that year’s nominee, Senator John Kerry—from Howard Dean, who waged his race based on full-throated opposition to the Iraq War, to Senator John Edwards, who pledged a twenty-first-century war on poverty. In 2008, Barack Obama ran to the left of Hillary Clinton on Iraq but to her right on some domestic policies such as health care. In the end, there were not many substantive differences between them.
Had the Myth of Liberal Fundamentalism survived, subsequent Democratic primaries would have debated, among other issues, the welfare-reform act that Clinton signed into law in the summer of 1996. During the run-up to that historic event, passions within the party ran high over the wisdom of the emerging law. There was a highly publicized rift between Hillary Clinton and her mentor, Marian Wright Edelman of the Children’s Defense Fund, and the noisy resignation of three Administration officials, one of them Edelman’s husband, Peter. One might have expected this to be an enduring source of acrimony within the party. And yet, Bill Clinton was not subjected to a primary challenge from the left in 1996, and in November he ended up with 84 percent of the African-American vote and 78 percent of the liberal vote. In the middle of the 2004 nomination season (not the general election), Kerry even bragged about his vote on welfare reform. Today’s Democratic Party is a moderate/liberal coalition. Younger voters, who make up the heart of the Obama coalition, are more likely to be liberal and moderate than older voters, and far less likely to be conservative.
The second myth we explored was the Myth of Mobilization—the argument that “selective mobilization of groups that strongly support Democratic candidates, especially minorities and the poor, would get the job done for Democratic presidential candidates.” In the wake of Dukakis’s defeat, many Democrats claimed that if only more African-American or Hispanic voters had turned out to vote, the outcome would have been different. This was a testable proposition, so we set out to test it. “The Politics of Evasion” recalculated the 1988 Electoral College results based on three scenarios about African-American turnout levels—52 percent, 62 percent, and 68 percent of voting-age population (the last slightly higher than the record 66 percent reached during Obama’s 2012 re-election campaign). None of these turnout levels would have come close to changing the outcome in 1988. Under the first two scenarios, only Illinois and Maryland would have moved into the Democratic column, and under the third scenario only Illinois, Maryland, and Louisiana would have moved.
What was myth in 1989, however, has become reality in 2012. The nonwhite vote as a share of the electorate has expanded significantly, primarily because of disproportionately large increases among mixed-race voters, Asians, and Hispanics. In 1989, it was easy to see it coming; there was a large and growing Hispanic minority in America, and it looked Democratic in its voting behavior (although not nearly as Democratic as the African-American vote). The problem underlying the Myth of Mobilization was that at the time, most Hispanics could not yet vote: Many of them were too young, and many others were in the United States illegally.
On Election Night 2012, Republicans found themselves on the wrong side of a demographic tidal wave. Receiving less than one-tenth of the African-American vote was to be expected. More shocking was the party’s miserable performance among Latinos and Asian Americans, the two most rapidly growing segments of the electorate. And it will only get worse for them: By the middle of this century, the Census Bureau projects, whites will no longer constitute a majority of our population. In such circumstances, a nearly all-white party, which is what Republicans have become, would have no chance of obtaining an electoral majority.
In an analysis eerily reminiscent of “The Politics of Evasion,” Republican strategist Peter Wehner offers a dramatic calculation: “In 2012, Governor Mitt Romney carried the white vote by 20 points. If the country’s demographic composition were still the same last year as it was in 2000, Romney would now be President. If it were still the same as it was in 1992, he would have won going away. And if it were the same last year as it was in 1980, Romney would have won by a larger margin than Ronald Reagan.” In short, the Republicans’ demographic problem is the mirror image of the one that Democrats faced a quarter-century ago. Back then there weren’t enough minorities to make the Democrats’ electoral strategy work; today, there aren’t enough whites to make the Republican strategy viable. The same long-cycle trends that gradually helped Democrats are now hurting Republicans.
The Congressional Bastion
The final misconception we called “The Myth of the Congressional Bastion.” This was perhaps even more important than the other two myths in sustaining the optimism Democrats felt about their future in 1989. It went something like this: “There’s nothing fundamentally wrong with the Democratic Party; there’s no realignment going on. The proof is that Democrats still control Congress and a majority of state and local offices as well.” We argued at the time that it was unrealistic to expect that the enormous Republican tide witnessed in Southern states at the presidential level would have no effect at the congressional level and that the power of incumbency was masking what was happening in the electorate.
Five years later that myth collapsed. In the 1994 midterm elections the Republicans won the House of Representatives for the first time in 40 years. The House has been in Republican hands ever since, with the exception of the years 2007 to 2011. What “The Politics of Evasion” illustrates is that incumbency can protect a party against tectonic shifts in the electorate for only so long. The Republican hold on the House is not overwhelming, and it is far from permanent. If the generational replacement taking place at the presidential level continues, it will inevitably affect the congressional level as well.
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