A tree is best measured when it’s down, so they say.
In 1972 the Democrats were, by any measure, down. George McGovern had crippled the party’s power centers in the big cities and the unions, and rode to the presidential nomination on the shoulders of a coalition which was undoubtedly well-intentioned, but looked, by turns, funny and scary to middle Americans watching on TV. Feminists, gays, black-power activists, lettuce-picking union activists, people with indifferent attitudes toward hygiene, grooming, and wardrobe. Party regulars complained that McGovern was “nominated by the cast of Hair”. After McGovern’s historic drubbing by Nixon, the Democrats scooted back into the White House on the strength of anti-Watergate agita but lost again when Reagan launched the conservative revolution. The Democrats spent three election cycles in the wilderness.
And they learned.
They moved away from the redistributionist tendencies of McGovern and tacked to the right. They compromised with Republicans: without the support of Democrats in the House, Reagan’s tax cuts and gigantic deficits never would have happened. The Democrats consciously moved away from the New Deal and the Great Society, and ultimately proclaimed that the era of big government and welfare state was over. They took measures to enable conservative Democrats to step forward, supporting the Democratic Leadership Council and Super Tuesday primaries down south. They put forward Fritz Hollings, John Glenn, Klansman David Duke, tinfoil whackadoodle Lyndon Larouche, pro-business conservative Paul Tsongas, Bill Clinton, and a gal named Ann Richards who actually won the governor’s job in Texas. And Gary Hart, who ironically got his start as McGovern’s campaign manager. When Obama won in 2008, he hired so many pro-business people that the left complained; and the left fumed as Obama compromised on health care and tax policy and financial regulations, dragged his feet on gay rights and Guantanamo and Afghanistan and climate change, and expressed willingness to give ground on the social safety net.
The Democrats moved to the center.
And now a bit of contrast.
The Republicans have been on a downward spiral for quite some time. In 24 years they’ve won the popular vote exactly once in presidential races, and it took a fraudulent war to accomplish that. America has repudiated their medieval social policies on women and gays, their neo-Neanderthal foreign policy, and their 30-year effort to transfer trillions of dollars from the middle class to the rich while destroying Social Security and Medicare. The Republicans face a demographic catastrophe, unless they learn, like the Democrats did.
And have they learned? No.
Unlike the Democrats who have successfully tacked to the center, the Republicans are more extreme than ever. Republicans of even a decade ago would be purged today. Even George Bush, who said only a few years ago that he was okay with civil unions, picked two black moderates for the State job, signed some environmental legislation, tried in his own way to improve schools, expanded public spending even more than Clinton did, expanded economic regulation dramatically, expanded Medicare, and supported renewable energy. Today George Bush would be thrown out of the GOP as too liberal. To say nothing of Reagan, who would be condemned as a RINO today just for his string of tax increases, or Nixon and Eisenhower, who would be Democrats today.
The Republicans never seriously considered adjusting their policies. Instead they have decided to go tactical, and cheat. Suppressing legal voters, suppressing efforts to register voters, attacking unions and other groups who try to support Democrats, trying to rig the electoral college in favor of Republicans, gerrymandering the House so Boehner can keep his job even when more people voted for Democrats, endless lies, threatening violence and secession when they lose, using obstructionist tactics in the Senate, and trying to buy elections outright via Citizens United.
The business with the unions is very telling. Reagan was no big fan of unions – the air-traffic controllers found that out – but thirty years ago he still wooed union voters so successfully that he got the endorsement of the Teamsters. Reagan won them over with his policies, dubious as they were. Today’s Republicans would never dream of trying such a thing: they have given up on winning union support so they want to destroy the unions instead. Likewise, past GOP efforts to woo women, blacks, gays, Latinos: they still pay lip service to the notion of attracting these voters, but that never seems to translate into actual policy. Now they just want to keep those groups from voting at all. Or, at best, they want the votes of these groups, but don’t want to give them anything in return. They would rather do anything, than move an inch to the left.
This is what happens, when facts, logic and reality don’t matter to you. “We conservatives are the only sane people in this country, and if those damn voters are too stupid to see that, then we’ll just take them out of the loop! It’s for their own good! Democracy is over-rated, especially when we lose!”