Politics & Policy

Same Old Story

History repeats itself in the Democrats' narrative.

After the midwestern Democrat won the Iowa caucus, liberals were aglow. Turnout at the Democratic party’s caucus had shattered the previous mark, almost doubling the totals four years earlier; better still, more Democrats had caucused than Republicans. While it was unclear whether the winner of the Iowa caucus would earn the party’s nomination, it was clear that a Democrat would capture the White House. After all, Democrats had taken back control of Congress in the midterms; and Republicans couldn’t possibly hold the presidency for three straight elections, a feat not achieved since the Democrats, with The Champ at the top of the ticket, did it in 1940. Truly, a new era — a new Democratic era! — had arrived.

The year was not 2008, but rather 1988. We know what happened in November of that year: the Democratic party’s presidential nominee lost. And liberals were left to recriminate and ponder over what had gone wrong, not only in this presidential election but in four of the previous six elections.

Of course, the political situation in 2008 differs from that of 1988. Senator Barack Obama is a more likable, impressive, and even moderate candidate than Representative Richard Gephardt, the victor of the 1988 Iowa caucus (let alone the eventual Democratic nominee that year, Governor Michael Dukakis). And the Republican Party is weaker today than in 1988; the GOP of 1988 was not dragged down by an unpopular war, had not angered the party’s fiscal conservatives, and did not need to fret over the health care issue.

But Democratic intellectuals have leapt to the conclusion that 2008 represents a break with the past. I see Thursday’s results as more of a continuum with the national party’s doleful history since 1972. That, of course, was the first year that the Democratic party was organized not into the old New Deal or Roosevelt coalition (1932-68), but rather in the Social Change or McGovern coalition (1972-present). Instead of the party being organized around the interests of northern Catholics and southern Protestants, it became geared more toward white professionals, suburbanites, and college students.

Revolutionizing the Democratic coalition was a deliberate plan on the part of several antiwar liberals in the late 1960s and early ‘70s and though not crazy, it was unsuccessful. The party’s presidential nominees have lost six of the last nine presidential elections. I expect, though I do not predict, that a similar fate will befall the Democratic nominee this fall.

Perhaps the most frequent assertion has been that the record turnout for the Iowa caucus presages victory in November. “It should be a Democratic year (twice as many Iowans came out for the Democratic caucuses than the Republican ones),” liberal Harold Meyerson in The American Prospect wrote, though he stopped short of predicting Democratic victory. Still, this view reflects the unjustified faith that political commentators in general and progressives in particular put in “grassroots” activists; George McGovern’s 1977 autobiography was simply titled Grassroots.

Although true believers help turn out the vote and staff presidential campaigns, they alone can’t deliver the vote. Just ask Michael Dukakis. Democrats in 1988 had record turnout in both the Iowa caucus and New Hampshire primary — but neither helped Dukakis win the general in November.

Another oft-heard assertion has been that by winning an election in a nearly all-white state, Obama has shown the power of the party’s diversity. Gay-rights activist David Mixner, who served on the McGovern Commission (1969-72), the panel whose rule changes revolutionized the Democratic Party, argued that the candidacies of a woman (Hillary) and black man (Obama) were historic: “[I] it is also a huge victory when people can support other male candidates and not be viewed as sexist or racist for doing so. What a long way we have come.”

Mixner’s point should be conceded on technical grounds, though Jesse Jackson and Geraldine Ferraro were both national candidates in 1984. But ideological diversity is also important, and is a point on which the national Democratic party continues to struggle. When was the last time you heard someone referred to as a “conservative Democrat”?

The party continues to deny pro-life Democrats from reaching a national audience, the most famous victim being former governor Robert Casey of Pennsylvania. Also, Obama, seemingly the most tolerant of the party’s major candidates, does not embrace diversity when it comes to social and cultural issues. Besides his unwavering support for abortion rights, he struggled to connect with rural Iowa voters: “[a]t many stops,” the New York Times reported, “he would face questions from conservative Democrats about gun control and immigration and his answers did not always meet the approval of voters.” As Democratic pollster Stanley Greenberg has shown, the same cultural disapproval from working-class and rural voters sank the candidacies of Al Gore and John Kerry.

A final claim has been that Obama attracted new groups of voters — the young, independents, (liberal) Republicans, and altogether new voters. As Joe Conason wrote, such voters “all actually showed up to help him win. His politics of inclusion, which has sometimes sounded ephemeral and ethereal, suddenly seems to be rooted in reality.” Conason’s words echoed those of the late Fred Dutton, the unheralded founder of the McGovern coalition and key actor on the McGovern Commission. Dutton had been impressed with Gene McCarthy’s showing with such voters in the 1968 Democratic race. In April 1969, Dutton wrote a confidential memo in which he urged that the party form ties with “younger voters, black citizens, and college-educated suburbanites — three constituencies on which the Democratic Party must build as the lower-middle class, blue-collar vote erodes.”

Dutton called this electoral alliance a Social Change coalition, and he admitted later that the coalition had been a dud. “It might not have been politically shrewd,” he told me in 2004. “What surprised me was that young people didn’t vote until they were 35 years old. And black leaders talked a good game [about delivering the black vote] but they didn’t walk a good game.”

Dutton might have added one other fact: his liberal coalition was smaller than that of his chief rival, Ronald Reagan. (The two men had become nemeses during their time on the University of California Board of Regents in the 1970s; at one meeting, Governor Reagan called Dutton a “liar.”) More than a third of Americans identify as conservatives, while only a fifth identify as liberal. As Democratic strategists William Galston and Elaine Kamarck have noted, Democrats have to win three-fifths of independent voters to win. And few Democrats have managed to pull off that feat; John Kerry couldn’t. Although he won more than half of the independent vote, his vote totals weren’t enough.

So it has gone for Democratic presidential nominees since 1972. Most have inspired enthusiasm and even devotion among the party’s base. But they don’t do the same for everyone else. It’s an old story, told time and time again.

– Mark Stricherz is the author of Why the Democrats are Blue: Secular Liberalism and the Decline of the People’s Party. He keeps a blog at www.infrontofyournose.com.

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