Monday, August 07, 2006

Has the Democratic Party 'Jumped the Shark'?

Dean Barnett, talking about the Lieberman-Lamont Democratic primary race in Connecticut thinks that it has. On Hugh Hewitt's site, he writes:
A ROUGH CONVENTIONAL WISDOM seems to be forming that if Ned Lamont wins tomorrow night, it will be disastrous for the Democratic Party. As Martin Peretz puts it in today’s Wall Street Journal, “If Mr. Lieberman goes down, the thought-enforcers of the left will target other centrists as if the center was the locus of a terrible heresy, an emphasis on national strength…The Lamont ascendancy, if that is what it is, means nothing other than that the left is trying, and in places succeeding, to take back the Democratic Party.” Concurring opinions, usually thoughtfully expressed, have seemingly come from every citizen of the mainstream, be they Republican or Democrat, with access to a TV camera or modem.

But they’re all wrong. The Democratic Party jumped the shark years ago. There’s nothing that will happen tomorrow, be it a Lamont rout or a Lieberman shocker, that will bring the party back to its senses. Similarly, there’s nothing that will happen tomorrow that will make the party any more insane, more angry or more destructive.

In short, regardless of the result, tomorrow will change nothing.
Barnett may be right that the Connecticut primary will change nothing tomorrow. In fact, I think that he is right, at one level, even though the headlines on Wednesday will call it a drubbing not only for Lieberman but also for Bush if the incumbent Senator loses.

But my study of history and current events over the past forty-plus years tells me that reports of the demise of the Democratic Party or of its capacity to appeal to mainstream America are entirely premature.

This "jump the shark" stuff reflects a dangerous attitude for any political commentator, particularly an overtly Republican one, to take. The Republican and Democratic parties have proven to be a bit like Freddie Krueger; they can come back at any time, especially when their opponents are contemptuous of them. To quote one of Mr. Barnett's phrase, "a little history is in order."

I well remember the rout experienced by Barry Goldwater, the conservative Republican nominee for President in 1964. Goldwater carried only six states as he was swamped by Lyndon Johnson.

It represented the most recent in a long string of GOP defeats. From 1932 through 1964, Democrats won the presidency seven times. The Republicans won twice in that period and that was only because they'd reached beyond the ranks of standard-issue pols, nominating war hero Dwight Eisenhower in 1952 and 1956. (By the way, I regard Eisenhower as one of our four greatest Presidents. The others: Washington, Franklin Roosevelt, and Abraham Lincoln.)

Throughout the same thirty-plus year period that saw Democratic domination of the national elections, with few exceptions, both houses of Congress were also in the hands of the Dems.

After Goldwater's defeat, pundits of all stripes were declaring the Republican Party dead, members of a permanent minority who could never hope to appeal to the US public or break the Democratic stranglehold on Congress.

Yet two years later, a country increasingly disenchanted with a war that few wanted to fight--the War in Vietnam--and concerned about social unrest, Republicans elected lots of new members to the US House and Senate and to governorships around the country.

On one Tuesday in November, the Republicans seemed to grow a bumper crop of presidential prospects. Among the governors elected or re-elected that year and touted for the presidency were Reagan in California, Romney in Michigan, and Rhodes and Rockefeller re-elected in Ohio and New York, respectively. (Of course, Richard Nixon, once deemed politically dead, was a big winner that year, although on no ballot anywhere. But he gained lots of political IOUs from candidates for whom he campaigned tirelessly in 1966. Those chits would soon come in handy for Nixon.)

A cartoon appeared in newspapers and news magazines in the days after the Republicans' remarkable 1966 performance. It showed Lyndon Johnson in the same pose he had struck for news photographers some weeks before, when he had pulled up his shirt to display scars from recent surgery. Now, the cartoon-LBJ pointed to a different scar, this one labeled Republican wins from coast to coast. "It hurts from here to here," the caricature Johnson declared.

Two years later, on the strength of a Southern strategy conceived by Kevin Phillips and others, Richard Nixon was elected President, initiating the emergence of the Republican Party as the largely-dominant party for the past thirty-plus years.

But woe to any partisan who becomes complacent. Parties in power have a nasty habit of making policies that eventually incur the opposition of vast portions of the electorate, creating new opportunities even for the party that, a short time before, seemed to have "jumped the shark."

Complacency anout that is the best way for partisans to turn victory into defeat.

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