Wednesday, July 18, 2007

Explaining 2008

As is generally recognized the Republicans are going to get pounded in 2008 (here, here, here). The most important indicator is the strong turn to the Democrats, particularly among youth. Ronald Reagan's "children" almost made the country majority Republican, but George W. Bush's "children" are going to make it majority Democrat.

The question is though: what will it mean? The failure of Bush as a president? The failure of the Republicans as a party? The failure of conservatism as an ideology? The election won't give a decisive answer to this, since ideologies aren't on the ballot; parties and candidates are (and President Bush isn't). But let's take a look at Britain: there the failure of Tony Blair over Iraq is most definitely his personal failure, not one that will long affect the Labor party or center-left ideology in general.

This is the key: the Bush presidency failed in ways that exactly fit the stereotypical image of the Republican party. (And in the mass view, the Republican party=conservatism, just as the Democratic party=liberalism.) It's that congruence of his failure with the perceived failings of the party that makes his failure "stick" to the party. Each party/movement is susceptible to different such besetting sins. Had Bush been a Democrat, his polls would still be in the 20s, but the Democrats would still have a significant chance to win in 2008. Why? Because his failures aren't "Democratic" mistakes, they're "Republican" mistakes. That may be unfair, but it goes the other way around too. Had Jimmy Carter been a Republican, his mistakes would not have tainted the Republican brand the way they tainted the Democrat brand.

So what are the policies failings that taint the brands?

For the Republicans it's:
1) Starting failed wars
2) High unemployment
3) Slashing programs for deserving poor
4) Abusing executive power

When a Democrat does any of these things (think LBJ and Vietnam) they may become personally unpopular, but the brand doesn't suffer. When Bob Dole pointed out in 1996 -- in response to the usual "aren't you Republicans all war mongers" line -- that the big wars in his lifetime had all been started by Democrats, it was a mere debater's point that made him look like some kind of cynic -- even though it was completely true. Unfair? Well the Democrats have their own crosses to bear:

For the Democrats it's:
1) Allowing America to be humiliated by foreigners
2) High inflation
3) Allowing undeserving poor to live off the public
4) Crime waves

A Republican can have these failures (think the crime wave and the welfare state expansion under Nixon) and not suffer the way Carter did for them.

A major party realignment starts when a Democrat or a Republican president fails in a way characteristic of his party. It is confirmed when the succeeding president of the other party manages to go two terms without a serious failure characteristic of his party. Young voters bond to the President who seemed to reverse the sins besetting the other party, without falling into his own party's characteristic weaknesses. A young voter pulling the lever for Reagan in 1980 "knows" (even if it's not actually borne out by facts) that he's going to be tougher than Carter on Communism, crime, inflation, and welfare cheats. But he that party allegiance won't jell if Reagan gets America into a failing war, or causes massive unemployment, or throws grandma out in the snow.

Unfortunately for the Republicans, the Democrats are much more aware of their weakenesses than the Republicans are. The DLC, for example, is well aware of these Democratic areas of weakness, and recommends a policy of national strength, fiscal conservatism, get tough on crime, and welfare reform.* Republican "moderates" are, unfortunately, obsessed with the idea that opposing abortion, gay rights, etc., looses the Republicans elections, which is just not the case. Electorally, social issues are either a winner for the conservative side or, more usually, make no difference one way or the other.

What the Republicans really need is an "RLC" devoted to preserving general Republican positions while cautioning the party on the need for: prudent foreign policy (translation: no Iraqs), respect for constitutional checks and balances (translation: no Dick Cheneys), and preserving the safety net (translation: no Hoovers). That way they would know their weakness. As for social conservatism: experience shows that it's really hard to enact a policy in Congress in policy that is radical enough to turn off American voters (the Terry Schiavo business came close, but absent Iraq, etc., would have been only a blip on the screen). It's not the John Ashcrofts "RLC-ers" need to be warning against, it's the "Vulcans" and Alberto Gonzalezes.

You can see the result in the fact that we have now had three Republicans who fell exactly into the trap they should have avoided, while the Democrats have had only one classic Democrat failure.

Hoover tainted the Republicans with unemployment and throwing grandma out in the snow, Nixon with executive abuse compounded after the fact with (strangely enough) failing to end quickly enough the Vietnam disaster his Democratic predecessor started, and Bush now with Iraq, compounded by executive arrogance. The only Democrat to taint his brand was Carter with foreign humiliation, continuing crime, and inflation.

So the big question after 2008 is whether President Clinton and the Democratic Congress will be able to avoid: foreign humiliation, inflation, welfare cheats, and crime waves. Despite the rumors of a leftward swing of the Democrats, I think the continuing consensus of the Clinton wing and the overall environment will keep the Democrats moderate -- but the first could be tougher. If she can't avoid it, then she could find the Democratic realignment vanishing as fast as did the post-Watergate one.

I) I could probably add to the Republican list of "besetting sins" a no. 5 "unfair hostility to immigrants and minorities" and to the Democratic list a no. 5 "unfair pandering to immigrants and minorities" with the proviso that the minorities in question change. Before 1945 it was pretty much Jews and Catholics, while after 1965 it became blacks and Latinos.

2) Were the 1968-1972 elections a realignment (one that got aborted by Watergate)? Certainly if you think of crime waves, and undeserving poor and pandering to minorities as besetting sins of the Democrats then they could be (and were) painted as guilty of them. But I think Vietnam scrambled the whole thing. Johnson was a Democrat fighting a senseless war which didn't fit the narrative. As a result in 1968 Humphrey was basically running as a centrist -- in between the radical demonstrators and Nixon (not to mention Wallace). And in 1972, McGovern wasn't the president, and I don't think realignments really happen unless the person(s)/party in the White House (and/or Congress) manifestly screws up. In any case as far as I know, 1968 and 1972 had very few coattails for the Republicans.

3) I should have given the Republican poo-bahs credit for having been very savvy about avoiding the Hoover charge, not actually eliminating any welfare programs until they have been manifestly proven to be really damaging (think welfare reform in 1995). As a result, no Republican president has fallen victim to the "they threw grandma out in the snow" charge since Hoover.

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