This column is about helping the Democrats. And it’s not because I like higher taxes, more lawsuits, more government waste or a more shamefaced approach to foreign policy. It’s just that we’re better off with two strong parties — or as economists like to say, we’re better off with competition than monopoly.
And competition, to be effective, must be vigorous. More and more, however, what the Democrats have tossed into the ring has been puny, both in terms of candidates and public policy initiatives.
As a consequence, we’re seeing a mounting monopolization of power by one party, or as Walter Shapiro described the situation in his recent commentary in the Los Angeles Times: “Now the Democrats face the bleak prospect of controlling no governmental entity larger than the state of Illinois, unless, of course, liberals still consider Bush buddy Tony Blair an honorary member of their downwardly mobile party.”
None of this happened overnight. Shapiro, from the perspective of covering the last seven presidential campaigns, points to Reagan’s election in 1980 as the pivotal event in the degeneration of the Democratic Party. “The benchmark election that destroyed the party’s belief in its own destiny was 1980, when incumbent President Carter carried only six states and the Republicans gained 12 Senate seats to take control of a chamber of Congress for the first time since the early 1950s. This was the moment when the Democrats lost their half-century claim to be the natural governing party of the United States.”
More significantly, that was also the moment when the big guns in the Democratic Party began a four-year detour in exactly the opposite direction from where the rest of the nation was heading. By those who saw themselves as the “natural” governing elite, Reagan was time and again painted as either dumb or a warmonger, or evil, or all three.
On the Soviet Union, for instance, Reagan simply declared a straightforward line of attack: “Here’s my strategy on the Cold War: We win, they lose.” That’s something the ears at Yale and Harvard weren’t used to hearing — but it worked.
In 1984, Reagan was re-elected with 525 electoral votes, more than any other presidential candidate in the nation’s history, and he came within a hair of making it a totally clean sweep. Walter Mondale garnered only 13 electoral votes, 10 from his home state of Minnesota and three in the District of Columbia — and even in Minnesota, Mondale topped Reagan by only 3,761 votes, less than a percentage point.
Fast-forward two decades, and playwright and screenwriter John Steppling is still mad. He remembered Reagan at the time of his death by writing that the former president had “waged a relentless assault on the poor.” In fact, the unemployment rate fell from 7.1 percent in 1980 to 5.5 percent in 1988, inflation dropped from 13.5 percent to 4.1 percent, and the poverty population, after growing by 7 million people in the 1970s, declined by 4 million during the Reagan years.
Simply stated, Reagan launched an assault on stagnation, not “the poor.”
Still, for guys like Steppling, facts don’t get in the way of ideological hatreds. “Reagan died about 92 1/2 years too late by my reckoning,” he wrote, “and the world would have been a better place had he been bucketed at birth, like a deformed kitten.”
That’s ugly, but not a lot different from what Michael Feingold wrote this time around in the Village Voice as George W. Bush improved his share of the vote among women, Latinos, Jews, Catholics and blacks and the GOP enlarged its hold on both the House and Senate. The nation’s newly re-elected president, proclaimed Feingold, was the “idiot scion of a genetically criminal family that should have been sterilized three generations ago.”
Bottom line — loathing isn’t enough. Probably the best election postmortem for Democrats was provided by Andrei Cherny, a former speechwriter for John Kerry. “What we don’t have and what we sorely need,” Cherny said, is “a worldview that makes a thematic argument about where America is headed and where we want to take it.”
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