Sarah Palin’s resignation and Mark Sanford’s downfall have renewed the media meme that the GOP is “leaderless,” therefore doomed. Google “Republican leaderless” and you get more than 38,000 results.
The GOP has very real problems, but this one is mainly hype. In American politics, the -party that is out of power is naturally leaderless. The United States does not have a parliamentary system with one person heading the opposition. In our system of federalism, bicameralism, and separated powers, the party that does not hold the presidency has many voices. In search of drama, however, journalists depict this normal state of affairs as if it were a terminal crisis. They have been doing so for a very long time.
In 1898, in the middle of the first McKinley term, the New York Times declared: “Facing the greatest questions and the greatest opportunities that have presented themselves in a generation, the Democratic Party is without unity, without a policy, and without a leader.”
Early in the Eisenhower administration, Time magazine used similar language: “Seven months after the great defeat, the Democratic Party is disorganized, in debt and leaderless.” It quoted one Democrat as complaining of the party’s “intellectual anemia” and “almost total collapse of the . . . organization.”
A 1965 editorial in the New York Times lamented New York governor Nelson Rockefeller’s decision not to run for president in 1968. (He eventually changed his mind.) His withdrawal removed “a chief spokesman for the forward-looking Republicanism that alone as a political philosophy can compete against the Democrats.” The paper saw no one available to take his place. Figures such as George Romney and Richard Nixon “did not distinguish themselves the last time around and the party remains embarrassingly leaderless.”
Three years later, Nixon was in and the Democrats were out. Columnist James Reston faulted them for lacking a coherent response to Nixon’s policies: “[A]s often as not Democratic alternatives contradict one another, and the party as a whole seems to be settling for the old political rule that it is the business of the opposition party merely to oppose.”
In a 1981 New York Times Magazine piece, Martin Tolchin admired Speaker Tip O’Neill’s mastery of House politics, but lamented: “The Democratic Party is now a leaderless party. Its identity will probably be shaped more by the Reagan Administration than by its own warring parts. The heart of the Democratic strategy — if it can be so dignified — is to await, and exploit, the Administration’s failures.” Even after the Democratic takeover of the Senate in 1986, Richard Cohen of the Washington Post wrote: “Now the Democrats, issue-less and leaderless, will set out to show who won the election. Given their recent record, it will be Ronald Reagan. Lame duck or dead duck, when he quacks they will quake.”
Bill Clinton’s 1992 victory put the Democrats back in power and the GOP back in the “leaderless” box. Right after the 1992 election, one representative observation came from a Knight-Ridder reporter: “Republicans face civil war in their party. Leaderless now and dispirited, Republicans are bracing for a nasty struggle among their contentious factions.”
During the George W. Bush presidency, the Democrats were “leaderless” again. A Gannett story on the 2002 midterm election noted: “Democrats are in disarray and leaderless, with no compelling vision for America.” After Bush’s reelection, Newsweek’s Howard Fineman wrote: “The Democrats are leaderless and reeling, seemingly bereft of inspiring ideas.” A few months later, he returned to the theme: “Leaderless and intellectually rudderless, the Democrats are desperate for issues, and they have decided (to the extent there is a ‘they’) to make a piñata of [Tom] DeLay.” Even after Katrina, The New Republic’s Ryan Lizza said: “Democrats are, at the moment, leaderless. There are few Democrats who command enough attention to make the party’s case to the country.”
In each case, journalists were correct that the out party lacked a comprehensive policy agenda and an overarching leader. But there was no reason to expect such things in the first place, and their absence did not spell doom. After more than a century of periodic “leaderlessness,” both parties are still around.
– John J. Pitney Jr. is the Roy P. Crocker professor of American politics at Claremont McKenna College. With James W. Ceaser and Andrew E. Busch, he is coauthor of Epic Journey: The 2008 Elections and American Politics (Rowman and Littlefield).
EDITOR’S NOTE: This article has been amended since its initial posting.