Throughout much of the postwar era, the national political system was the opposite of what it is today: Democrats had a virtual lock on Congress while Republicans dominated the presidency. While many Democrats were perfectly content with this state of affairs, some knew that a party that is consistently locked out of the White House is not really a national party. Moreover, the presidency is essential for the pursuit of certain policies and without it a party cannot speak with one voice or set the national agenda.
By 1985, a few Democrats had tired of Republicans controlling the White House. Jimmy Carter’s single term was widely viewed as a fluke, while Richard Nixon’s massive victory in 1972 and Ronald Reagan’s huge win in 1984 loomed large in their minds. Many Democrats despaired of ever seeing another Democrat in the White House.
It was believed that Democrats had gotten off track, veered too far to the left. This resulted largely from their big victory in the 1974 congressional elections. In the wake of the Watergate scandal a number of liberals were elected to Congress who probably never would have won in any previous year.
The Watergate class of Democrats purged many conservative Southern Democrats from committee chairmanships and otherwise let it be known that they were no longer welcome in the party. This led to a 20-year drift of Southern Democrats out of the party their families had belonged to since the founding of the Republic, into the GOP, which had been the enemy of their blood since the Civil War.
The 1984 Democratic nominating process had been especially painful to mainstream Democrats because the primaries had been dominated by hard-core liberals such as Jesse Jackson, George McGovern and Alan Cranston. This forced the ultimate nominee, former Vice President Walter Mondale, to cover his left flank by taking positions on issues that were too liberal for the general election.
Among the issues that were too liberal was the nuclear freeze, which Mondale endorsed to get the nomination and then ignored. Thus he ended up with the worst of all worlds—being blamed for supporting a very left-wing policy, but not getting left-wing support for it because he was viewed as an insincere supporter.
Out of the ashes of the 1984 defeat, some congressional Democrats and governors began to push for a change in direction for the party, away from leftist dogma and toward more pragmatic policies that would benefit the average voter. The leader in this effort was a Democratic operative named Al From and the group he founded was the Democratic Leadership Council.
Among the early supporters of the DLC was Arkansas Governor Bill Clinton. The ideas developed through the DLC in the 1980s formed the foundation of his successful 1992 campaign for the White House and guided his policies in office. He became the first Democrat since Franklin D. Roosevelt elected to more than one term as president.
In a new memoir, just published on Tuesday, From has detailed the origins and development of the DLC. In The New Democrats and the Return to Power he explains the strategy that ultimately led Democrats to becoming highly competitive at the presidential level.
Republicans could learn a lot from From’s success. They are basically in the same position Democrats were in after 1974, with the right-wing Tea Party dominating their party, pushing an extreme agenda and forcing relative moderates like John McCain and Mitt Romney too far to the right to win in the general election.
As yet, there is no evidence of a Republican Al From. Some moderate Republicans created a Republican Leadership Council a few years ago, but according to Wikipedia it went out of business due to a lack of interest. While there are many Republicans hoping to discourage right-wing extremism, their interest is purely pragmatic and their efforts are cosmetic; there is no organized effort to get the GOP to adopt more moderate policies.
At least publicly, Republicans remain committed to the Tea Party agenda of repealing the Affordable Care Act at all cost and shutting down the government again if necessary to slash benefits for the poor. The party also remains committed to extreme right-wing positions on abortion, gays, immigration and taxes, with all dissent immediately silenced by groups that enforce ideological purity, such as American for Tax Reform, the Heritage Foundation, Club for Growth and others.
After the 2012 election, the Republican National Committee announced a project to find out why it was losing presidential elections and it issued a report with a few modest suggestions. But with the failure of the rollout of the website for the health reform legislation, all thoughts of changing direction among Republicans have been forgotten. They are all convinced that bashing Obamacare will carry them to victory in 2014 and 2016.
I think this is a short-sighted strategy, as were the Republican decisions to offer nothing in place of the Affordable Care Act, the refusal of Republican governors to accept expanded Medicaid or set up health insurance exchanges, to shut down the government in September and others. Petulance and extremism that are tolerable in a single member of Congress will not be tolerated by voters when it comes to electing a president.
At present, I see no Republican capable of winning the White House. Those that have potential, such as New Jersey Governor Chris Christie, are already being attacked by Tea Party favorites such as Senator Rand Paul of Kentucky for being a de facto liberal—the kiss of death in a party where the Tea Party dominates presidential primaries.
I think Republicans will do well enough in next year’s congressional elections to convince them to stay the course and perhaps even to run someone further to the right than McCain or Romney in 2016. But if Hillary Clinton wins a 1972 or 1984 type landslide in 2016, Republicans will finally be forced to see the need for meaningful reform and rethink their rigid right-wing ideology, and some will likely put money into a Republican DLC to push the party back toward the center. When that day comes, Al From’s book will offer guidance.
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