The Magazine

Greed, Oppression, Patriarchy

What unites the Democrats? A cartoonish view of Republicans.

Jan 20, 2003, Vol. 8, No. 18 • By NOEMIE EMERY
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FINALLY THE DEMOCRATS have found their hot issue: The Confederate heart of George Bush, and of Bill Frist, who by virtue of their membership in the Republican party have indicated their desire to live in a slaveholding past. Bill Clinton, Hillary Clinton, and Nancy Pelosi--to name just three prominent Democrats--have delivered themselves of the judgment that Republicans and those who vote for them are all closet racists. The demise of Trent Lott was only a smokescreen to hide this dark secret. The liberal interest groups are piling on, and the liberal pundits are going on witch-hunts, energized as they haven't been since the Florida recount (and as they surely were not in the 2002 midterms). The difference between their elation on this, and their ennui and confusion about other issues says a great deal about the state of their party. Parties run sometimes on hope, and often on anger. The Democrats these days are running on fear.

Democrats will tell you, many with straight faces, that the cause of their fall from majority status was the stand that they took in the mid-1960s for the civil rights cause. Republicans will answer that the racist vote was never that big or that critical, that when Barry Goldwater ran in 1964 on a straight states' rights ticket, he carried all of six states, and that Lyndon Johnson, passing civil rights acts in the heat of the crisis, won in a landslide. Republicans will tell you, further, that they began to win only when the Democrats split over issues of war and disorder; winning small in 1968 when the country was wracked by murder and riots; and winning huge in the 1972 election, when George McGovern produced a negative landslide for Richard M. Nixon, who remained so unpopular that two years later he became the first president forced to resign. The most telling fact of that era, they will say, was not that the South was absorbed into the Republican orbit but that the Democrats in 1972 made their peace with an activist base that defined itself in opposition to the mores of the country, as being soft on defense, and suspicious of American power and motives.

Ever since, attaching this base to enough of the center to make a majority has been an enduring problem for the Democrats; in only three of the nine presidential elections since 1968 have they been able to seize hold of that office, each time with a southern governor who claimed to be "different" and never with more than half of the vote. Bill Clinton was supposed to have fixed all of this when he ran in 1992 as a "New Democrat," but he did not reconcile the splits in his party so much as paper over them. Since his departure, the old splits have reappeared.

The corporate issue, for instance, once a great unifier of Democrats, still splits the populist, anti-corporate base of the party from its moderate pro-business elected officials. The past two years saw a series of battles over taxes, globalization, and the best way to handle the corporate scandals, which Democrats were unable to capitalize on. In 2001 the Bush-Baucus tax cuts managed to peel off a dozen Senate Democrats, while enraging the liberal base. (In 2002 the need to protect these 12 senators mostly took the tax issue off the table in the elections.) The left saw the corporate scandals as the fruits of systemic corruption, and longed to lay waste to the culture of markets, a viewpoint that did not take hold. Last July, a poll taken by the liberal Democracy Corps found that by a 10-point margin respondents agreed that the crimes "were the result of illegal behavior by a handful of individuals, and should not reduce or decrease our confidence in the ability of markets and corporations to govern themselves." On September 29, the Washington Post reported that "the uproar over corporate accountability appears to have little political potency. . . . Among those who are pessimistic about the economy, only 13 percent blame Bush." After the election, the left blamed the party for dropping the ball on what it believed was a great winning issue. But if there was an "issue" there, it was not one the party could agree about.

More telling still is the issue of war and peace, the Democrats' long-standing bane. On August 5, 2001, the New York Times ran a story about Democratic unease over grandstanding by Hillary Clinton, Mario Cuomo, and other prominent liberals to stop Navy bombing exercises in Puerto Rico. "The liberals clearly did not expect that they would meet with such resistance, if not hostility. . . . Moderate and conservative Democrats nationwide are beginning to complain that the party, under pressure from its vocal liberal wing, has gone too far in trying to stop the training operations. Their biggest concern, they say, is that the party has left itself vulnerable to charges that it is antimilitary."