The Democratic ascendancy and why it happened
Feb 11, 2013, Vol. 18, No. 21 • By JEFFREY BELL
If the next two decades are anything like the last two, the presidential outlook for Republicans is pretty bleak. Yet even while digesting some earlier defeats, conservatives could take a bit of comfort from the notion that Democrats had been forced to move toward the center to become competitive again after their disastrous showings in the presidential elections of the 1980s. In the elections from 1992 to 2000, and even to a degree in 2004, the term “New Democrat” was often heard in the land. After 1984 Democrats seldom campaigned for broad-based tax increases or deep cuts in defense spending. Far more Democratic senators voted for the authorization of war against Iraq under George W. Bush than had voted to authorize the Persian Gulf war against Iraq a decade earlier under his father. More Democrats were talking tough on crime, many became supporters of the death penalty, and in the late 1990s and early 2000s, the party pretty much dropped its decades-long campaign for federal gun control. In 1996 President Clinton made good on his 1992 campaign promise to “end welfare as we know it” and in 1997 signed a good-sized tax cut as part of a deficit-reduction deal with a Republican Congress. Even on the core Democratic commitment to unlimited abortion rights, New Democrat rhetoric was to make the procedure “safe, legal, and rare.”
Things began to change in the last decade and a half with the rise on the Democratic left of what came to be called the “Netroots.” At first it seemed possible this was a reaction to high profile events that infuriated the left, especially the impeachment and trial of Bill Clinton in 1998 and the election of George W. Bush, who in December 2000 was in effect declared the winner of the Electoral College by a 5-4 vote of the U.S. Supreme Court in an election carried by Al Gore in the popular vote. MoveOn.org, a trendsetting militant left organization, got its name from opposition to 1998’s impeachment process, and there is no doubt that the resolution of the 2000 election was a traumatic event for the left. Bush’s unusual status as an elected president who had lost the popular vote contributed to making Democrats far more confrontational toward him than they had been toward his father.
But when Howard Dean saw his presidential fundraising go through the roof in 2003, it was clear something much deeper was happening in the Democratic party. By 2008, all three Democratic candidates for the presidential nomination—Obama, Hillary Clinton, and John Edwards—were running to the left of earlier primary candidates and (in the case of Clinton and Edwards) well to the left of where their own Senate voting records had been just a few years earlier. Obama’s nomination was correctly considered a victory for the left, and Clinton clearly benefited from her husband’s centrist aura in the more conservative primary states, yet it is difficult to remember a single issue where either Clinton or Edwards was to the right of Obama’s stated positions. Today the term “New Democrat” is the equivalent of a curse among the party’s political and policy elites.
The Democrats’ sharp move to the left since 1998 is the most recent leap forward in polarization, which has been the underlying trend of American politics since the 1960s. What few could foresee is how well the Democrats’ decision to embrace the left would work politically. Political polarization involves a rallying of popular forces behind or against a worldview. In the late 1960s and early 1970s, Nixon rallied what he called the Silent Majority against the left-led cultural and political upheavals of the 1960s. Reagan did something similar in California when he took office as governor in 1967 in the wake of unprecedented campus upheavals and urban rioting that had erupted there in 1964 and 1965.
Reagan was also increasingly involved in the American conservative movement, which had unexpectedly prevailed over the Eastern establishment in the epic Republican nomination struggle of 1964. In becoming its preeminent figure following the landslide defeat of Barry Goldwater and his own election as governor, Reagan inherited a grassroots state-by-state infrastructure that helped him battle an incumbent president to a near-standstill in the primaries of 1976, laying the groundwork for his nomination and election in 1980.