The 1998 Elections: A Symposium: Should We Worry About a Democratic Party Collapse?

Steven Hayward

October 1, 1998

Quite unnoticed by all of the pundits and prognosticators, one of the most startling shifts in American politics has begun in the 1990s. The Democratic party is simply imploding in many (not all) parts of the country, and the Republicans are surging. The travails of Bill Clinton are less a cause of this trend than a distraction from it. In fact, as disastrous as Clinton has been for Democrats, his formidable political skill has actually kept the damage from being even worse.

This trend has been a long time in developing. Twenty years ago Daniel Patrick Moynihan, the thinking man’s liberal who is tellingly without honor in his own party, noticed that the Republican party was becoming the Party of Ideas: tax cuts, privatization, school choice, deregulation, missile defense, and so forth. But aside from the great Ronald Reagan, what the Republicans lacked to go along with their ideas was a full bench of quality candidates willing to engage seriously in public life. As Alan Ehrenhalt observed in his book The United States of Ambition, talented liberals see politics as the primary avenue of ambition, while talented conservatives choose business, law, investment banking, or practically any other career over politics. Democrats, Ehrenhalt observed, simply work harder and longer at politics during the working day than Republicans do, and that’s why he predicted that Democrats would continue to be more successful than Republicans at politics even if their ideas were less and less popular. So long as the Republicans fielded second-stringers to go against Democratic first-stringers, Republicans would get pushed around the field.

There is much to be said about the premise of Ehrenhalt’s thesis. The Republicans’ neglect of the rhetorical necessities of public life still constitutes their chief liability. But suddenly it is the Democrats who seem to be suffering from a short bench of quality candidates, while Republicans have been building a bench of lower-level office holders (city council, state legislature, etc.) who can be expected to gain valuable political experience and rise through the ranks to national office. The Democratic party is, by contrast, in free fall in many areas.

Michigan may be the worst case. That a state with such a strong labor and teacher union influence should nominate the odious Geoffrey Fieger as their candidate for governor is not only shocking, but shows the disarray and weakness of the traditional Democratic party power base there. The story is similar in other states. Oklahoma’s Republican Senator Don Nickles has drawn as his Democratic opponentùan air conditioner repairman (who was nevertheless pushed into a runoff with a candidate who had died). Texas Governor George Bush and Pennsylvania Governor Tom Ridge have drawn token opposition in their re-election bids. New York Governor George Pataki should also cruise to a second term. The Florida Democratic party is in a state of civil war, with many black Democrats thinking of bolting to the Republican party, while Republican Jeb Bush looks to have a smooth path to the governor’s office over the once-formidable but now distinctly has-been Buddy MacKay.

Why has this happened? The facile explanation is Clinton, but this is a mistake. Though Clinton contributed in meaningful ways with his disastrous first two years, the deeper reason is that the unacceptably liberal ideology of the Democratic party is slowly catching up to them. Image and fluff count for a lot in election contests, but in the fullness of time ideas and principles guide most voters. Clinton’s skillful concealment of the Democrats’ liberal ideology (i.e., “The era of big government is over.”) actually reinforces the tendency of denial that anything is wrong among far left true believers. The left, still the energetic core of the Democrats, carries on through pantomime, disguising the character of their ideas with gestures of misdirection. But the people are seeing through the act, and have discerned that this is a street theater hustle.

It is distinctly possible that we will look back in ten years and wonder what happened to the Democrats, and whether anything can be done to save them from total oblivion. It would be a bad thing for Republicans if a new age of dominance came too easily, if a large majority were won by default, without having had to articulate a governing vision that shapes public opinion in a new direction. It would be a mistake to confuse a broken axle with a realignment.

Steven Hayward is a Bradley Fellow of the Heritage Foundation in Washington, D.C., a Senior Fellow with the Pacific Research Institute for Public Policy in San Francisco, California, and an Adjunct Fellow at the Ashbrook Center.