With donkey and elephant going toe-to-toe in the US political arena, there’s an interesting article in the Boston Globe discussing (from a purely party perspective) potential benefits to be found in defeat for the Democrats (don’t want to get negative but let’s be realistic here).
It takes as its model the 1964 demolition of the hard right Goldwater Republican candidacy by the cynical muscle of Lyndon Johnson’s Democrats – at that point a party still caught between Rooseveltian big-state liberalism, the bright-eyed idealists of the civil rights lobby and the stubborn, racist remnants of the southern alliance from which the party took its name. At the time many thought this marked a setback so staggering that it would mean the demise not only of the Republican party, but of conservatism in general.
Flash forward four years and Johnson’s protege Hubert Humphrey is whopped by Richard Nixon – a former right wing radical, loathed by ‘the liberal elite’ but an expert in the wooing of middle America – ‘the silent majority’. In the next thirty-six years Republicans established a lock on the White House (24 years) and in the mid-90’s grabbed a foothold in Congress which they have widened into their current position of dominance. The Democrats have never really recovered, with the Carter and Clinton presidencies both aberrations – in ’76 the Republicans made the mistake of nominating Ford over Reagan and were still hampered by Nixon’s resignation, whereas Clinton was a one-off with magnetic charisma and a genius political instinct for pragmatism. Gore and Lieberman tried to follow the Clinton route but were (narrowly) defeated by a candidate able to appeal both to his core conservative constituency and to voters in the middle. Gore suffered largely because, in his all-out attempt to woo the conservative ‘silent majority’ he lost the support of the liberal left (for which Ralph Nader is often blamed – it was ultimately the Democrat Party’s fault for taking this support for granted).
Today it appears, at first, that the Democrats have learned their lesson with overwhelming backing for Kerry in the primaries, but the consensus for the man from Massachusets is an artificial construct; any unity is a result of protest against Bush rather than support for the Democrat nominee. The GOP have established that their brand is for national ‘security’, tax cuts and small government. Despite fine speechmaking by Kerry, there is no similar instinctive shorthand for the Democrats’ platform… beyond the fact that they don’t support Bush.
So Kerry might win tonight/tomorrow/next week (recount dependent), but what of 2008? Will the Democrats find themselves all at sea, with neither a solid base of support for their policies nor a reviled opponent to consolidate their voters? Maybe not, but a worrying number of their votes tonight seem likely to be cast on the basis of protest rather than principle. Opportunistically you can’t fault the KE ’04 campaign, but the Democrats need substance if they are to become a great force in American politics again, and especially if they are to challenge a Republican party who are strong, motivated and seem to be scarily united as to their goals.
EDIT: In the name of honesty should point out that a number of stylistic changes have been made by the author as well as correction of a few grammatical embarrassments.
Nosemonkey addendum: The Village Voice’s blog has an interesting piece showing how the Republicans’ current tactics of voter suppression and dodgy dealings also date back to the Goldwater campaign. Let’s hope it is as successful for them this year as it was in ’64… Worth a look.