The chattering class has thoroughly masticated the election results by the time the ink dries on this article, yet there remains a need to put the 2002 election in a long-term perspective, for it appears that the foundation of a genuine political realignment is beginning to solidify.
A prominent political scientist wrote: “There are two basic reasons why the American voter has become such an enigma to even the experts and the professional politicians. First, we have moved into a new political era in which the old rules and axioms no longer apply. Second, we are in a period of party realignment, with millions of voters being tugged in conflicting directions at the same time.”
This analysis sounds very applicable to the recent election; however, it was written in 1951 by Samuel Lubell. Lubell was trying to explain the deeper causes of Harry Truman’s stunning upset of 1948, and why he thought Truman’s win breathed new life into the Democratic New Deal coalition and assured Democratic Party dominance for another generation. Lubell’s book that developed this analysis, The Future of American Politics, is long out of print, but remains a classic worth keeping an eye out for in used bookshops, because Lubell was right. The Future of American Politics is a model of the political art, reading as fresh today as it did 50 years ago. Among today’s pundits only Michael Barone comes close to Lubell in understanding the complex interplay of geography, ethnicity, religion, and group interest.
Most observers and analysts have pointed to the mid-term elections of 1902 and 1934 as precedents for this year’s Republican win. In the off-year elections of 1902 and 1934, two presidents named Roosevelt scored gains for their party. Yet the deeper parallel is with the famous presidential election of 1948. It is time to stand Lubell’s analysis on its head.
On the surface this parallel between 2002 and 1948 looks compelling, if not obvious. There is a clear similarity between President Harry Truman’s famous give-’em-hell barnstorming against the do-nothing Republican Congress and President George W. Bush’s vigorous campaigning against the obstructionist Democratic Senate this fall. And like the Democrats in this election, the Republicans in 1948 had few discernable themes or ideas.
The magnitude of the Republican triumph is being ascribed to the popularity of President Bush as a war leader, and to the fact that Republicans enjoy a large advantage among voters as the party perceived as being better able to see to America’s security. This is true, but too superficial. Wartime popularity has never been an automatic election asset. Indeed, the midterm election of 1942, less than a year after Pearl Harbor, represents a powerful counterpoint. The nostalgic view held today that the World War II years saw America united in patriotic purpose over the war is not strictly accurate. In the year after Pearl Harbor there was considerable dissent, chiefly from isolationist, Anglophobic Republicans, that taking the war against Nazi Germany was a mistake, and that the war should be confined to Japan alone. This sounds not unlike the way Democrats today attempt to establish a wedge between a war against Osama bin Laden and a war against Hussein’s Iraq. (There was also the charge, still alive today and with a new echo about Bush since 9/11, that Pearl Harbor was an FDR plot to get us into the war.)
Going into the 1942 election, Franklin Roosevelt and the Democratic Party targeted 115 isolationist Republicans for defeat in Congress. They defeated only five. Democrats lost 55 House seats and 9 Senate seats in 1942—the fourth worst off-year election drubbing of the entire 20th century, even worse than Democrats did in 1994. This result in the midst of a patriotic war with a still-popular president seems hard to explain. Through the mists of time it has been forgotten that the New Deal had begun to run out of steam by the end of the 1930s. (One reason this political fact has been “forgotten” is that liberal historians never taught it in the first place.) The war granted a reprieve to the declining fortunes of the New Deal, but throughout the 1940s there was a palpable sense of Republican resurgence that was thought certain to break out after the war. And of course Republicans took over both houses of Congress in the first post-war election in 1946. America, Walter Lippmann wrote after the war, “has been wanting to have a conservative administration since 1944,” and will have “something like a nervous breakdown if it is frustrated much longer.”
No wonder a Republican triumph in 1948 against the hapless Harry Truman seemed inevitable. How did the Truman upset occur? The inept campaign of Thomas Dewey has always taken the brunt of the blame. Historian Fred Siegel rightly describes Dewey as having the soul of a bank teller. The Louisville Courier-Journal described Dewey thusly: “No presidential candidate in the future will be so inept that four of his speeches can be boiled down to these four historic sentences: Agriculture is important. Our rivers are full of fish. You cannot have freedom without liberty. The future lies ahead.” This is only the slightest of caricatures: Dewey’s performance was worthy of P.G. Wodehouse’s satirical character Roderick Spode, the would-be fascist dictator of Britain given to bromides such as “Nothing stands between us and victory, except defeat!”
But as with most important events there was much more to the story than Dewey’s mediocrity—much that is relevant for our present moment and our recent election. The 1948 election was the first election of the Cold War era, just as the election of 2002 was the first election of the terror war era. (Although the Cold War was already hardening at the time of the 1946 election, it was a more central feature of the 1948 election.) It has been said glibly that the war on terror is shaping up to be the successor to the Cold War, for all the good and bad that such a thought entails: a long, expensive, often rancorous and sometimes bloody affair with no clear end in sight. In a very profound sense we are today going through very much the same kind of soul-searching and deliberative argument about what a long-term global struggle against terrorism entails as we did in the early days of the Cold War right after World War II.
Baby boomers tend to take the Cold War for granted as an immutable fact of life during their formative years, and so it is important to understand that the Cold War didn’t just start one day. In fact there was a period of time, stretching really from the end of World War II until about 1950 or so, where our nation’s leaders struggled uncertainly through a lot of difficult and often unanswerable questions about what kind of struggle this would be, and what was required of us as a nation. Above all, the open-endedness of the Cold War—the lack of any end in sight—made it a terrifying and unprecedented moment for America. Things were in a genuine state of flux; our allies, especially Britain, implored us to be involved in Europe, and held their breath wondering whether we would act with strength and constancy. In other words, if you think of our present circumstances in the terror war in terms of an analogy to the Cold War, then we are today about where we were in 1947 or 1948.
A Gallup Poll in early 1948 showed that 65 percent of the public thought foreign policy problems were the most important issue facing the nation, and 73 percent of voters thought Truman was being too soft on the Russians. However, Republicans were divided about the Cold War and speaking inconsistently, just as Democrats today are divided on the terror war and speaking inconsistently. Many leading Republicans, still inclined to isolationism, opposed the Marshall Plan, NATO, and the Truman Doctrine that was the cornerstone of containment. Republicans did not have a clear foreign policy to articulate about the Cold War. For much of the public the anti-Communism of the Republican Party seemed feckless and unserious. Lubell noted of Republican Senator Robert Taft that “What he did say [on foreign policy] was so vague that persons listening to the same speech got diametrically opposite views of what Taft meant.”
By contrast, the Democrats at that time featured a number of substantial foreign policy leaders—George Marshall, Dean Acheson, Chip Bohlen, Paul Nitze, and others—and conveyed a seriousness about meeting the Cold War challenge. Today, by contrast, the most substantial and serious foreign policy figures tend to be Republicans, while the best the Democrats have to offer is… Joe Biden? Strobe Talbott? Madeline Albright? Sandy Berger?
The “gravitas gap” between the parties in 1948, and again in 2002, became an important factor at the ballot box. Samuel Lubell argued that Truman’s victory in the key state of Ohio owed to German-American voters, whose concern for the future of the heart of Europe led to a large swing from the Republican Party in 1944 to Truman in 1948. Other precincts in key Midwestern states with high European immigrant communities also swung strongly to Truman over the issue of the Cold War. What these and other swing voters could perceive was that Democrats were more serious about the Cold War than Republicans. And when voters perceive a party to be more serious and competent to handle the most important issue, they tend to get the collateral benefit of being perceived as being better able to handle a wide range of domestic issues as well. Truman’s win breathed new life into the New Deal coalition, carrying it well into the 1960s. And today, the polls suddenly show surprising strength for Republicans on domestic issues where they were formerly weak, which is one reason why the Republican tide carried so far across the board to state governorships and legislative seats. (Republicans now hold a majority of state legislative seats for the first time in 50 years.) Samuel Lubell noted in 1951: “One handicap the Republicans have been laboring under is that many voters think of them as the unsound, speculative party of our time.” This is now the position of the Democratic Party.
Just as the election of 1948 was about more than just the ineptitude of Tom Dewey and the fortitude of Harry Truman, so too the recent election was due to more than just the clumsiness of Democrats and the ruggedness of George W. Bush. It is tempting, though, to suggest that in the 2002 election the role of Tom Dewey was reprised by Walter Mondale. In his debate with Norm Coleman the day before the election, Mondale said: “You don’t have to worry about me and terrorism. I’m against it.” By the time Mondale said this, however, the die was already cast. The real turning point in the election occurred in late September, when the three Democratic congressmen (including one, David Bonior, who had been a party leader for several years) appeared on American TV from Baghdad saying our president couldn’t be trusted but Saddam Hussein could. Pollsters of both parties said that the bottom dropped out for the Democrats at that moment, and Richard Gephardt had little choice but to run to the White House the following week to embrace the President’s Iraq policy in an attempt to limit the damage. It is a reflection on the unfairness of life that Gephardt is the only Democratic leader who has lost his job and seen his presidential prospects the most badly set back.
Lubell’s 1951 book offers a timeless insight into the dynamics of the two-party system in American politics: “Whenever a new majority coalition comes into dominance, as the Democrats in toppling the old Republican ascendancy, it brings with it a distinctively different orbit of political conflict. This orbit also governs the movement of struggle within the minority party.” (Emphasis added.) Harry Jaffa offers this gloss on Lubell’s thesis in his 1964 essay on political parties: “Once a party has demonstrated a winning formula in American politics, then the opposition, to survive, must recast itself—at least to a considerable extent—in the image of its victorious rival.”
This will be difficult for Democrats to do in the near term. Within today’s Democratic Party, the sudden onset of wartime conditions has reopened the Vietnam-era wounds that have never fully closed. Among the most vocal elements of the Left, the reflexive suspicion of American military power has never gone away. Given the intellectual center of gravity of the Democratic Party, this problem cannot be fixed any time soon; our struggle with terrorism is likely to go on for a while, requiring an aggressive forward strategy that leading Democrats are not likely to be fond of. The new House leader Nancy Pelosi, is literally one of Jeane Kirkpatrick’s “San Francisco Democrats.” She opposed the Gulf War in 1991 because of—wait for it—environmental concerns. Pelosi’s frivolous politics will not easily be concealed from voters.
It will be difficult for Democrats to recast themselves for another reason besides the gravitas gap on foreign policy. The result of the 2002 election confirms that the election of 1994 was not a fluke, but rather the beginning of party realignment. A combination of Republican blunders and Bill Clinton’s superb political skill (which meant primarily reviving his centrist “New Democrat” themes that got him elected in the first place) served to blunt the momentum coming out of the 1994 election, giving us a series of elections where the nation split fifty-fifty. Periods of parity between the parties are very rare and seldom last very long. The 2002 election hints at a Republican breakout.
Democrats never did accept the 1994 results, and have persisted in the belief that the 1994 Republican earthquake was an irrational fluke—recall ABC’s Peter Jennings attributing the result to a childlike “temper tantrum” among “angry white males.” Right now the Democrats are nearly as brain-dead as the British Labour Party during the 1980s, when Margaret Thatcher dealt them one drubbing after another. The blind hatred of Bush that now grips leading Democrats will stifle honest reassessment of the party’s political outlook, just as Republican fury at FDR kept Republicans for a generation from coming to grips with the political success of the New Deal.
Democrats are not well-suited to being a minority party. Unlike Republicans, whose skepticism of government power makes them an ideal opposition party, Democrats above all else need majority power for political health. The lack of power will be for Democrats like the lack of sunlight for a garden. Without majority power, the Democratic Party is going to become a hothouse. Assuming President Bush and the Republican Congress are able to govern successfully in the ordinary sense, the Democratic Party is likely to go out of its mind over the next two or three election cycles.
Steven Hayward, F.K. Weyerhaeuser Fellow at the American Enterprise Institute, is an adjunct fellow of the Ashbrook Center.