The New Democrats and the Return to Power
By Al From, Alice McKeon
Palgrave Macmillan Copyright © 2013 Al From
All rights reserved.
1968 — 1992
On the night of the 1980 election, I had a party and nobody came.
By the time the party was to start, it was clear that the Democrats had lost the White House and were well on their way to losing control of the Senate and dozens of seats in the House. I had lost my job in the White House, and most of those invited to the party had lost their jobs, too.
There was no reason to celebrate. And so it was throughout the 1980s.
The Democrats spent the 1980s wandering in the political wilderness. In 1980, 1984, and 1988, the Republican candidate won landslide victories, gaining on average 54.1 percent of the popular vote and nearly 90 percent of Electoral College votes. The Democratic Party's performance in national elections during the decade was the worst in the party's history. According to political writer and analyst Ron Brownstein, the Democratic candidates won a smaller percentage of the Electoral College vote in those elections than any party's candidates had won in three consecutive elections since the advent of modern parties in 1828.
In 1980 incumbent President Jimmy Carter lost 44 states to Ronald Reagan. But it was in 1984 that the party truly reached its nadir. On November 6, 1984, former Vice President Walter F. Mondale lost 49 states, the second 49-state shellacking in four elections. Only by winning the overwhelmingly Democratic District of Columbia and his home state of Minnesota by a mere 3,761 votes did Mondale avoid losing every state. Four years later, when Massachusetts Governor Michael Dukakis was routed by Vice President George H. W. Bush, it marked the fifth Democratic defeat in six presidential cycles, a losing streak interrupted only by Jimmy Carter's narrow victory in 1976 in the wake of the Watergate scandal.
The party of Roosevelt, Truman, and Kennedy had reached bedrock.
Members of my generation, born around the Second World War and the end of Franklin Roosevelt's presidency, grew up believing that Democrats were the majority party, the dominant party of American politics. We were the children of the New Deal era of American politics, an era dominated by Democrats and driven by Democratic policies. Our party had won seven of nine presidential elections between 1932 and 1964. During those nine elections, we won a majority of the popular vote for the White House, and we dominated Congress, too.
How had the Democratic Party, that had been the engine of economic and social progress for so much of the twentieth century and had been so politically successful during the New Deal era failed so badly in the 1980s?
Until we answered that question, it was unlikely that we could turn the party around. Before we could shape new ideas and launch a comeback, we had to understand why Democrats were getting blown away in presidential elections. Otherwise, as smart as we thought we were, we were bound to fall into the same traps and repeat the same mistakes as the candidates before us. As Bill Clinton would often remind me: Doing the same thing over and over again and expecting a different outcome is the definition of insanity.
In 1985, along with about three dozen governors, senators, and congressmen, I formed the Democratic Leadership Council (DLC) to analyze the party's precipitous decline and make it competitive again in presidential elections.
Our diagnosis was not earthshaking: When voters again trusted the Democrats to grow the economy and expand opportunity, to defend the country, and to support values most Americans believed in, they would turn to us for national leadership. During the New Deal era, Democrats were identified as the party that helped America recover from the Depression, saved the country and the world from fascism, and represented the interests and values of ordinary Americans.
That identification was strong enough to hold together a party that was, in reality, a broad and disparate coalition that often disagreed on specific issues. The harsh reality of the New Deal era — the nine elections between Roosevelt's in 1932 and Johnson's in 1964 — was that it was the anomaly, not the norm. By the 1980s the Democrats had fallen back into their pre-New Deal ways.
From 1860 to 1932, Democrats were largely the remainder party of American politics — a confederation of disgruntled constituencies with little sense of national purpose. During that period, Republicans won 14 of 18 presidential elections. The only Democrat to win a majority of the popular vote was New York Governor Samuel B. Tilden, who lost the controversial 1876 election when an electoral commission appointed by Congress voted along party lines and awarded the election to Rutherford B. Hayes. The only Democrats to win the White House were Grover Cleveland and Woodrow Wilson, who both won twice but never won a majority of the popular vote. Over those eighteen elections, Democrats averaged around 43 percent of the popular vote.
In late 1987 in a speech in Houston, Charles S. Robb, then chairman of the DLC, articulated the historic plight of the party:
Except for the New Deal era, Democrats have won the White House only when the Republicans have split, gotten themselves embroiled in scandal, or presided over a national calamity. In fact, between the Civil War and the Great Depression, Democrats were less a national party than a rather feckless confederation of disparate and often aggrieved constituencies: white southerners, Midwestern farmers, and ethnic workers in the East. What held this improbable collection together was a common fear of being ground down by America's transition from an agrarian to an industrial society.
As Republicans became identified as the party of national dynamism, expansion, and progress, Democrats became identified as the party of those who were left behind, who often found their interests at odds with unfettered capitalism, technological progress, and the relentless forward movement of the nation. We became a party of protest, of habitual and seemingly permanent opposition.
Franklin Roosevelt changed that. Under FDR, Democrats offered a broad agenda for economic and social progress. Policies begun under the New Deal and boosted by the war effort rebuilt the American economy, created the great American middle class, conquered fascism, and saved the free world. The New Deal message was crystal clear: economic progress and upward mobility for the greatest number of Americans and antitotalitarianism on the global scene. Democrats reaped the political benefits. Between Roosevelt's victory in 1932 and Lyndon Johnson's in 1964, Democrats averaged about 52.5 percent of the popular vote.
Throughout this period the liberal agenda drove the Democratic Party, fueled economic and social progress, tempered the harshness of untrammeled capitalism, tipped the balance of economic power from the privileged few to the striving many, and benefited our core constituencies. It forged a collection of distinct interests — working men and women, retirees, farmers, and, later, minorities — into a purposeful national party dedicated to expanding opportunity and stimulating upward mobility for the greatest possible number.
But as the 1960s passed into the 1970s, the liberal agenda ran out of steam, largely because of its own success, and the intellectual coherence of the New Deal began to dissipate. The Democratic coalition split apart over civil rights, Vietnam, economic change, culture and values, and the great cause of liberal government that had united the Democratic Party for three decades degenerated back into a collection of special pleaders. The party was no longer seen as the party of prosperity, opportunity, and national strength. Not surprisingly, Democrats began losing presidential elections again — five out of six after Johnson's victory in 1964 until Clinton's in 1992.
The beginnings of the two schisms over civil rights and antitotalitarianism that shattered the New Deal coalition became apparent in the years immediately after World War II.
The party first included a civil rights plank in its 1940 platform, but Franklin Roosevelt never put civil rights high on his agenda, focusing instead on economic recovery and building what his 1944 platform boasted was the strongest military in the history of the world. That kept white southerners firmly in his camp. President Truman took a much more aggressive stance. In 1948 he established a highly publicized Commission on Civil Rights and ordered the integration of the armed forces. At the 1948 Democratic Convention, a group of liberals, led by Minneapolis Mayor Hubert Humphrey pushed for and won a strong civil rights plank in the party's platform. During Humphrey's speech supporting the plank, southern delegates walked out. They formed the States' Rights Democratic Party, known as the Dixiecrats. The Dixiecrats purported to support what they called "the southern way of life" but were primarily for segregation and against federal intervention to enforce integration. They nominated South Carolina Governor Strom Thurmond to run against Truman. The Dixiecrats won just four states — Louisiana, Alabama, Mississippi, and South Carolina — but the fissure in the solidly Democratic South never healed.
In 1947 the founders of the Americans for Democratic Action (ADA) — a liberal organization founded shortly after FDR died by Eleanor Roosevelt, John Kenneth Galbraith, Walter Reuther, Arthur Schlesinger, and Reinhold Niebuhr to keep the New Deal vision and values alive — decided to take a firm stand against communism and Soviet expansionism. Concerned that liberals were sowing the seeds of their own destruction by avoiding the Soviet challenge to the West, the ADA decided to back President Harry Truman for the Democratic nomination in 1948 against Henry Wallace, FDR's vice president before Truman, who was a hero to many liberals and saw communists as allies in the fight for domestic and international progress.
Because it reconnected Democrats with the antitotalitarianism of FDR, that decision had a profound impact on the party's course over the next two decades and likely delayed the demise of the New Deal coalition until Vietnam shattered the consensus on anticommunism. The tough stance against communism kept many southern conservative Democrats in a strained alliance with the party as it became a louder champion of civil rights. It also defined the Cold War and played a major role in Democratic presidents involving the country in the wars in Korea and Vietnam.
In 1960 the first 12 sections of John F. Kennedy's party platform were devoted to defense and international policy. It wasn't until the section on economic growth that the platform even addressed a domestic issue. And, in his famous inaugural address, Kennedy made clear his commitment to the prevailing Democratic strand of tough-minded internationalism:
Let the word go forth from this time and place, to friend and foe alike, that the torch has been passed to a new generation of Americans — born in this century, tempered by war, disciplined by a hard and bitter peace, proud of our ancient heritage — and unwilling to witness or permit the slow undoing of those human rights to which this nation has always been committed, and to which we are committed today at home and around the world. Let every nation know, whether it wishes us well or ill, that we shall pay any price, bear any burden, meet any hardship, support any friend, oppose any foe, in order to assure the survival and the success of liberty.
Then came Vietnam. President Eisenhower had first authorized military and economic aid to South Vietnam and sent a few hundred military advisors there. President Kennedy, in line with the promise of his inaugural address and his belief in the "domino theory" (if one state in a region fell to communism, surrounding countries would follow) expanded that aid and by 1963 had increased the number of military advisors to 16,000. When President Johnson escalated the effort to a full-fledged war, large-scale opposition arose in the country, on college campuses, and, most significantly, within the Democratic Party. In 1967 Senator Robert Kennedy came out against the war, and in January 1968 he announced his intention to challenge Johnson for the White House. The party consensus on muscular anticommunism no longer existed.
Running as an anti — Vietnam War candidate, Minnesota Senator Eugene McCarthy challenged the incumbent Johnson in the 1968 New Hampshire primary and won an astonishing 42 percent of the vote. Though Johnson actually won the vote with 49 percent, the close contest convinced him not to seek reelection. Vice President Hubert Humphrey, essentially Johnson's stand-in, won the nomination at a raucous party convention split asunder over Vietnam. Antiwar demonstrators who had no votes at that Chicago convention spilled out onto the streets where they had violent conflicts with the city's police. Humphrey never recovered and lost a close election to Richard Nixon.
Four years later, when South Dakota Senator George McGovern rode anti — Vietnam War sentiment to the nomination in 1972, ultimately losing 49 states to Nixon, the Democratic faithful could argue that, as an insurgent candidate, he represented the party's left fringe. With McGovern's nomination the party became identified with antiwar activists and the peace movement, hardly favorites among its working-class base. As a result, Democrats lost their advantage on national security issues built by Roosevelt, Truman, and Kennedy, a problem that would plague the party for two decades.
The image of Democratic weakness was reinforced during the Carter administration, particularly by the Iranian hostage crisis. On November 4, 1979, Iranian militants loyal to the Ayatollah Khomeini stormed the U.S. embassy in Teheran and for more than 400 days held 52 Americans hostage inside the building. The United States appeared to be a helpless giant taunted by a pip-squeak dictator. The low point came on April 24, 1980, when eight American servicemen were killed and two American aircraft were lost in the Iranian desert during a failed rescue mission. Not one of the hostages was rescued. At a time before cable news, the respected news anchor Walter Cronkite began every broadcast of the CBS Evening News by intoning the number of days our hostages were in captivity, cementing an image of American weakness that voters transferred to President Carter and the Democrats. On January 20, 1981, shortly after President Reagan's inauguration, the hostages were freed. Polling showed that at the time Johnson escalated the Vietnam War, voters had trusted Democrats and Republicans equally on national security. By 1980 twice as many trusted the Republicans as trusted the Democrats to keep our country safe.
As the image of Democrats as the party of strength dissolved, so did the glue that held together an unholy alliance between a party committed to civil rights and white southern segregationists who had made up a core constituency since the Civil War. Ironically, the crackup began around 1964, the year Johnson won 61.1 percent of the popular vote, the highest percentage in 144 years, when white southerners began to defect to the Republicans in droves over civil rights. Johnson lost only six states to Senator Barry Goldwater, the GOP candidate. One was Goldwater's home state of Arizona. The others — Louisiana, Mississippi, Alabama, Georgia, and South Carolina — were the core of a segregated South that had voted solidly Democratic since the Civil War. With the exception of Carter's post-Watergate victory in 1976, most Southern states have voted overwhelmingly Republican in presidential elections ever since.
In the 1970s the Democrats also lost credibility on the economy, another important strand of the New Deal promise. The failed Carter administration was a major culprit. In 1979 and 1980, the inflation rate increased by a total of 25 percent and interest rates rose to 20 percent. Ordinary people found their incomes and savings devalued and their ability to afford a mortgage dramatically reduced. This undermined the party's economic consensus, as policies demanded by leaders of constituency groups, including unions, began to conflict with those needed to fix the economy and promote widespread prosperity. The result was devastating for Democrats in industrial states. In the 1980s Democrats lost Illinois, Michigan, Indiana, Ohio, Pennsylvania, and New Jersey in all three elections. (Continues...)
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