The DLC Precedent

by Ramesh Ponnuru

In 1989, William Galston and Elaine Kamarck wrote an influential essay on how the Democratic party, having lost five of six presidential elections, could revive itself. The liberal journal Democracy recently asked them to revisit the essay–they conclude that it holds up pretty well, Democrats having largely applied its message–and draw what lessons they can for the Republicans, who have now lost the popular vote five of six times.

The journal’s latest issue carries responses to their recent argument by Jamelle Bouie and by me. I conclude by noting some differences between the predicament of the Democrats in the late 1980s and that of Republicans now.

Fourth and last, the Republican governance of the 1980s was successful. The public was reasonably happy with its results, and many Democrats came to see that Republicans of the era had a point or two about taxes, inflation, crime, and welfare. By 1992, Bill Clinton could promise to “end welfare as we know it” without losing votes over the issue in the Democratic primaries.

The Democrats of the Obama era have not had such undeniable successes, at least yet; and the public is not happy with how things are going, at least yet. So while Republicans may well have a lot to learn from Democrats about public policy, figuring out what that is will not be easy. As creative as the New Democrats undeniably were, tomorrow’s Republicans may have to be more so.

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