Full marks to Jay Cost for his deft evisceration of Chris Matthews and Howard Fineman, and their resurrection of Dwight D. Eisenhower as a liberal Democrat. What Fineman and Matthews don't know about American history could fill a book—and in each instance, has done so.
My subject, however, is the recurring Democratic complaint—or, more properly, talking point—that the Republican Party has now ‘strayed’ so far to the right that its onetime standard bearers, from Abraham Lincoln to George W. Bush, would not only fail to recognize their political home but would be estranged from it.
This fantasy is nothing new, of course, and in the last election cycle was even said about Ronald Reagan. You might have thought that Reagan was the far right Hollywood dunce who was the cat's paw of a handful of California millionaires and couldn't tell the difference between movies and real life, thought ketchup was a vegetable, waged aggressive brinksmanship against a patient Soviet Union, and blamed pollution on trees. But that was the Ronald Reagan of, say, 1983. The Ronald Reagan of 2011 is a principled progressive who raised taxes and protected abortion, and when he wasn't helping Mikhail Gorbachev dismantle communism was swapping Irish jokes with Tip O'Neill.
Yes, of course. Indeed, it was in Reagan's time that it became commonplace for liberals to shake their heads in sorrow and wonderment that "the party of Lincoln" might oppose the late-20th century Democratic civil rights agenda, as if Abraham Lincoln—who disliked abolitionists and supported the transportation of freed blacks to Africa—would today endorse racial quotas and affirmative action.
Curiously, while Matthews and Fineman worry that contemporary Republicans might offend Ike (who was born in 1890 and would have no idea what is meant by gay marriage) or Theodore Roosevelt (who busted trusts and introduced regulation in an era when the federal government played almost no role whatsoever in the national economy) there seems to be no reciprocal concern about the extent to which the Democratic Party has "strayed" to the left in recent decades, breaking faith with the great names in its history.
What, for example, would Thomas Jefferson think of his Democratic Party and its urban base, or collaboration with labor unions? What would Andrew Jackson think of a Democratic Party that is underwritten by East Coast financiers, and frequently opposes the projection of America power beyond its borders?
For that matter, what would Franklin D. Roosevelt think of the modern Democratic Party? FDR was vociferously opposed to public employee unions, rhetorically challenged the foreign tyrants of his day, and believed Social Security should not be a European-style "dole" but a temporary measure to relieve distressed old folks who had lost their life's savings. He made no effort to challenge segregation in the Democratic South—one of the firmest bases of his coalition—and summarily discontinued programs (Works Progress Administration, Civilian Conservation Corps etc.) when he concluded their usefulness had passed.
When the Japanese attacked Hawaii in 1941, FDR did not reach out to moderate Japanese, or separate the policies of the imperial government from the sentiments of the Japanese people. He removed American citizens of Japanese descent from the West Coast to prison camps, and pledged to Congress that "no matter how long it may take us to overcome this premeditated invasion, the American people in their righteous might will win through to absolute victory."
Indeed, it is worth wondering what the party of Charles Schumer and Sheila Jackson-Lee and Debbie Wasserman Schulz and Paul Krugman and Rachel Maddow thinks of Franklin D. Roosevelt.