The Washington Times

Professional Republicans are increasingly getting the idea that they are a governing majority party, just as the Democrats under FDR became a governing majority party – and visions of 60 years or so of GOP electoral dominance, in the manner of the New Deal coalition, are dancing through their heads.

Democrats, meanwhile, are increasingly conscious that the popular backlash they expected against President Bush and his party hasn’t materialized – and is not very likely to materialize in time for the 2004 election. [Don’t miss Andrew Ferguson’s brilliant and hilarious survey of the Bush-bashing literature in the current Weekly Standard.] Their prospects don’t look so hot, and they know it; they probably have some talking among themselves to do in order to figure out where to go from here.

But I would like to enter a cautionary note. It is simply that the very idea of a governing party or majority party may itself be an illusion.

What about the 60 years of the New Deal coalition? Weren’t the Democrats a governing majority party in this period? Well, in the sense that Democrats dominated Congress in this period, certainly. And further, since the period encompassed the birth, growth and eventual decadence of political liberalism, and this was associated with the Democratic Party from cradle to grave, the Democratic majority was ideological in character. It was not merely devoted to perpetuating itself in power; it had vision and a direction.

Moreover, this liberal vision was also the joint property of the elite media and the universities. More Americans identified themselves as Democrats than Republicans, and if there was not quite a social consensus on liberal values and a gradualist liberal domestic policy agenda, it was close.

So, if this doesn’t meet the criteria of a governing majority party, why not? To me, the answer is: Presidents Eisenhower, Nixon, Reagan and George H.W. Bush. To which I will presently add Presidents Kennedy and Clinton.

Once FDR passed from the scene and the Depression and a world war came to a close, in other words, this supposed Democratic governing majority has had the devil of a time electing one of its own as president of the United States.

What is distinctive about Mr. Clinton is how non-mainstream he was within his party: He ran in 1992 as a centrist “New Democrat.” He also had the advantage of the post-Cold War international environment, in which the great threat to U.S. security was gone. JFK, a war hero, tried to run to the right of Richard Nixon on security issues [the “missile gap”] and once in office, cut taxes to spur growth.

Harry Truman’s security bona fides were beyond question, and in any case it would take Vietnam for Democrats to lose credibility generally on that issue. Jimmy Carter also ran as a centrist and learned nuclear engineering at the Naval Academy.

So, if the Democratic Party was a governing majority party, it was one that could not elect a self-avowed one of its own, a representative figure of mainstream Democratic party liberalism, as president of the United States. Adlai Stevenson failed twice against Eisenhower, Hubert Humphrey against Mr. Nixon and Walter Mondale against Mr. Reagan. [George McGovern was to the left of his party’s mainstream in his landslide loss in 1972.]

It is quite possible to argue that there are two sets of electorates with two very different sets of concerns out there, one determining the presidential outcome and one deciding who controls Congress. During the Cold War, the threat of nuclear holocaust made for a desire for a steady hand near the button and yet, someone who would resist the forward march of the Soviet Union. Meanwhile, the shared public faith in domestic liberalism could ensure Democratic control of Congress, and the GOP security presidents would not be much of an impediment.

I think it is also worthwhile, especially in the current context, to turn the lens in the other direction and note that the evidence suggests it is hard for a political party to run both as the dominant congressional party and as the party of the White House. It may be that the imperatives of a winning strategy in each case are different and contradictory.

This might have something to do with liberalism on the domestic side resulting in dominance of Congress – and a hard-line approach to foreign affairs resulting in dominance at the presidential level. And it may be that these categories are still relevant or newly relevant, now that Republicans have discovered that they, too, can govern by enacting broad, expensive entitlement programs.

But it is also possible that there are structural difficulties in organizing a party to control Congress and win the presidency, too. At the moment, both parties seem to think they can and should play for all the marbles. If that game yields a consistent winner over time, then I say, by all means, we have a governing majority party. But that’s a status the Democratic New Deal coalition never deserved.