Friday, March 06, 2009

What the Wilderness Looks Like

For the past several posts, John and I have been spending a bit of time writing about the current state of the Conservative Movement. With the results of the past two elections showing a clear trend in the Democrats’ direction, aided not only by the failures of the Bush administration, but also by demographic and cultural shifts—see Teixeira and Judis—a lot of ink is now being spent debating how the Republicans, and conservatives more broadly, should respond. Do they move leftward and try to recapture some of the vast middle ceded to Obama (thus potentially alienating the conservative base) or do they retrench at the right flank and hope that events bring the electorate back in their direction? While many on the right argue that we are a “center-right” country by temperament, a misreading of the country’s pulse and preferences could spell disaster over the medium and long term. Hence, whether or not the right has a true leader—hence the current kerfuffle about Rush Limbaugh’s place in the conservative pantheon—they seem to be in wilderness mode.
While two election cycles don’t necessarily mean the country is on an irreversible move leftward, I thought I’d look a bit at the last time the country was moving strongly in one direction. Here, however, the move was to the right. If what is happening now is of the same magnitude and duration, Republicans are in for a long period of soul-searching and electoral defeat. My decision to look at where conservatives find themselves was spurred by today’s announcement that Al From, the founder and longtime head of the Democratic Leadership Council, is stepping down as head of the organization. The DLC was created in the midst of the Democrats’ last long period of exile. The goal of the organization, simply stated, was to make the Democrats relevant again. As liberalism reached its nadir in the 1970’s & 1980’s following the collapse of the Great Society, the “big government” solution to policy problems was thrown into disrepute. Richard Nixon and Ronald Reagan were able to capitalize on the excesses of the 1960’s and America’s fear and loathing of rising crime, growing welfare dependency, and affirmative action and bring about a re-ordering of the American polity. The result?? Republicans won 5 of the 6 presidential elections between 1968 and 1988.

To get a sense of just how bad the Democrats’ period of exile was, consider the five elections between 1972 and 1988. With the exception of Jimmy Carter’s Watergate-aided win in 1976, the Republicans not only won all of these contests but won them handily. Here is the Electoral College vote in each of the contests. Overall, Republicans won 2200 electoral votes to the Democrats’ 487—82% of the total. Note how in 3 of these elections (’72, ’80, and ’84) Republicans won more electoral votes in a single contest than the Democrats won in total over all 5!!! While the Democrats managed to maintain majorities in the House and Senate (with the exception of ’81-’87) the party’s national standing was in tatters. It had no dominant spokesperson and no compelling narrative to explain how it would fix the country’s ills beyond simply rehashing liberal dogma. The question then confronting the Democrats, like the dilemma of the Republicans now, was what to do.
When the DLC was founded in 1985 the Democrats were perhaps at their lowest point nationally. In order to regain the party’s footing, the organization called for an end to the traditional “liberal” approach to policy. Rather, building on a cadre of centrist governors and members of Congress—Bill Clinton, Sam Nunn, Joe Lieberman, John Breaux, and Dave McCurdy among others—it proposed solutions that were more market based, pragmatic, and fiscally responsible. With Clinton’s election in 1992 the movement reached its ascendancy and policies such as NAFTA, welfare reform, a balanced budget, and the earned income tax credit helped reposition the Democrats as a party once again competent and identified with economic growth and prosperity.
While Bill Clinton brought the Democrats victories at the ballot box in 1992 and 1996, his centrism brought criticism from his left. Many members of Congress, still ensconced in the old liberalism (now rebranded “progressivism”) were critical of his stands on trade, welfare reform, and health care. While these intra-party squabbles were not totally responsible for the Republicans’ capture of Congress in 1994, one can argue that Clinton was more successful in dealing with the likes of Newt Gingrich and Bob Dole than he was in corralling the Democratic base. Whichever side one took in this fight for the heart of the Democratic Party, one can’t deny the fact that the debate revitalized the party and made it think hard about policy. Despite George Bush’s capture of the White House, the elections of 2000 and 2004 were fought much more closely than those of the 1970’s and ‘80’s. The Republican’s Electoral Vote margin over those two contests was a mere 40 EVs and Bush never captured 51% of the popular vote. Democrats regained their congressional losses of the mid 90’s and laid the groundwork for what we saw transpire last year.
So what can the right learn from the Democrats’ period in the wilderness?? One lesson that can be drawn is that a party needs to grapple honestly with its past excesses. Those on the left who were being honest with themselves realized that there was a reason that voters moved so definitively to the right. While events such as last weekend’s CPAC gathering isn’t going to cater to this type of reflection among today’s conservatives, other more sober venues must. What makes this introspection complicated for many on the right, though, is that they are convinced that what was repudiated in 2006 and 2008 was not conservatism, but Bush-ism. For them, Bush failed not because he was too conservative (or because conservatism more broadly was being rejected) but rather because he was too liberal. With exploding deficits and long term expansions and commitments to Medicare and other programs, “compassionate conservatism” was simply liberalism by another name. Among many congressional Republicans, the decision to now vote against spending increases—despite consistently voting for them during Bush’s reign—signals an attempt to recapture the mantle of fiscal responsibility.

Another lesson for conservatives to ponder is the need for policy debate, intra-party discussion, and diverse solutions. While not everyone on the left shared the DLC’s approach to issues, it not only helped to stop the party’s decline (perhaps it couldn’t sink any lower) but allowed it to regain a foothold in certain parts of the country where the damage of the 1970’s and 80’s was most severe—i.e. the south. Not only was the DLC a centrist organization, it was also heavily southern flavored. Whereas New Deal liberalism was strongest in the urban north, southern Democrats have always been a different breed. By giving Democrats another model, and winning elections because of it, the DLC was able to help the party begin to grow again. One can’t help but look at today’s Blue Dogs and their contribution to the Democrats’ new and expanding majority in Congress as the progeny of what Clinton and others began. If the right wants to regain not only relevancy but power, it seems obvious that they must realize that parties—should they hope to be successful nationally and over the long term—are at root coalitions. The creation and maintenance of these coalitions requires a degree of pragmatism and leadership that seems lacking on the right. It also requires a belief that many of those not currently in the coalition should be allowed under the tent. This also seems to be a point of contention among many conservatives. If the right fails to come to these realizations, they may be closer to the beginning of their time in the wilderness than to the end.

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