Saturday, December 22, 2007

Democratic delusions

For me, reading the Outlook section of the Washington Post makes about as much sense as a bug flying into one of those outdoor blue lights. I know, like the bug, I am flying into a certain death; but the pull of a certain topic, like the beautiful glow of the blue light, often proves too much to resist. Today's blue light in the Post is an article by John Judis and Rudy Teixeira, "Get Ready for a Democratic Era." Above the headline is a tag that reads, "Heading Left." Since I have my doubts about whether a Democrat will win the White House in 2008, and whether Congress -- even a non-veto proof one -- will remain in Democratic hands, I read the Judis and Teixeira article in hopes that my pessimism would prove wrong and that I could embrace what the authors believe is a certain dissolution of Republican power in presidential politics.


Judis and Teixeira's belief that the Democrats are poised for a major victory at the polls comes down to this:

1. Voters never really bought into the Republican social agenda, and their contempt for President Bush, reflected in his low popularity rating, has hardened this opposition.
2. The same voters who favor Democratic positions on social policy also support the pro-environment, pro-education position of the major Democratic candidates as well.
3. Americans are really turned off by Bush foreign policy, especially the Iraq war, and want a president who will "restore" America's place in the world as a country that lives up to its rhetoric on the rule of law, human rights and social compassion (putting aside, for a moment, that the image of the United States as a righteous and noble country has always been one that Americans have embraced much more so than the rest of the world, including our allies).
4. The Electoral College coalition that has sustained the Republicans in every presidential election since 1980, with the exception of 1992 and 1996, is on the verge of collapse. Women, minorities and professional-managerial types have little interest in the Republican vision for America.

If American voters cast their ballots based on what they tell pollsters, then Democrats would have a lock on Congress and the presidency. Americans who favor abortion rights, oppose or don't care about school prayer and other forms of religious piety in politics or policy, like clean air and water, carry little about intervening in the civil wars of other countries, want some meaningful change in the way we deliver health care and believe that higher education should not bankrupt middle-class families have constituted a majority for some time now. For the Democrats, the problem has never been the core of their ideas. Their problem is the truly awful candidates they nominate for president and their staggering inability to communicate with the public.

Here's a number that Judis and Teixeira don't mention: the last Democratic president to win a majority of the presidential popular vote was . . .

Jimmy Carter, who did it once, in 1976. Before that, you have to go all the way back to 1964, when Lyndon Johnson beat Arizona congressman Barry Goldwater by carrying 61% of the popular vote and 44 states, losing only Arizona and five Deep Southern states (Louisiana, Mississippi, Alabama, Georgia and South Carolina). In 1976, Carter barely beat Gerald Ford, the Republican incumbent, with 50.8% of the popular vote. Sixteen years later, in 1992, Bill Clinton won a plurality of the popular vote in a three-way race (43%) and four years later won re-election with 49% of the popular vote, still a plurality, in a three-way race. Extra points if you can identify the third party candidate in those two elections and the Republican loser in 1996. Hillary Clinton can invoke all the nostalgia she wants about her husband's presidency, and what a happier and better place the country was because of his time in office. The fact remains that American voters never truly embraced Bill and/or Hillary Clinton while they were in office. Relative peace and prosperity aside, President Clinton could not withstand a Republican assault on his presidency in 1994, and again in 1998 when he was impeached over lying about a blow job from a White House intern. Think about this for a moment: Americans, by and large, agreed with Clinton's domestic and foreign policies for the majority of his time in office. Americans had far less enthusiasm for Ronald Reagan's domestic and foreign policies during his two terms in office. But I am willing to believe that no Congress would have mounted a successful impeachment drive against President Reagan had he been caught in the same position as Clinton was with Monica Lewinsky. Remember, Reagan did not govern with a Republican majority in both houses for his entire eight years in office.

Al Gore could not beat George W. Bush despite a "successful" two-term Democratic presidency. John Kerry could not beat W in 2004 despite a disastrous turn in Iraq, a bumbling economy, widespread discontent with the religious fervor that accounted for so much of Bush's approach to policymaking and a dramatic drop in support for the president personally. Not only did Americans find Bushworld less than they imagined the first time, they stopped liking him as much. But they liked John Kerry far less. On paper and in debates, Americans liked what they heard from Kerry more than Bush. Tell them it was Kerry and not Bush and suddenly they didn't like what they heard nearly as much.

I don't believe Hillary Clinton will be the Democratic nominee. I named her the Hillary-tanic earlier in the year and nothing has changed to alter my opinion that her candidacy was doomed from the start, and will amount to the most expensive pre-general election failure in the history of American presidential politics. Almost sixteen years after Americans met her on "60 Minutes" defending her husband against the true and not-so-true charges leveled against him on matters ranging from his penchant for bimbos to financial misdeeds, Hillary Clinton is still working to get people to like her. Yes, she's smart. Yes, she's tough and calculating. Yes, she can take a punch and throw one. But far many more people dislike her than should at this point in her career as a public figure. So New York voters like her. So what? The Democrats don't need to win New York again; they need to make inroads on the electoral map in the Midwest, the Rocky interior states and the South. Hillary Clinton is not going to do that.

So who is? The best of the lot is Barack Obama. He's smart, charismatic, mature -- he should be elected for answering, "Of course I inhaled. That was the whole point," when he was asked the requisite "Have you ever smoked marijuana?" question -- and a quick study. Is he "ready" for the presidency? Compared to whom? W? Ronald Reagan? Bill Clinton? Ross Perot? Mitt Romney? Rudy Giuliani? Mike Hukabee? Obama is as ready as any of them, if not more. If he were not, then you wouldn't see Clinton's campaign going after him like it has in the last six weeks or so.

Suppose Barack Obama is nominated. He has a funny last name, a black father, admitted youthful indulgence in illegal drugs and a life of experience that makes the righteous Christian conservatives drool with anticipation. Can he be the one to make inroads into the Republican hold on the electoral college? Whether he can or not, he has a much better chance than Hillary Clinton, whose high negatives and inability to connect on a human level with so many voters will not change between now and the November 2008 election.

For better or worse, all the survey results and opinion polls cannot capture the mysterious "it" factor in American presidential voting. I wish I could believe that Iraq will be a noose around the Republicans' neck; but I don't think so. Too many Americans are unconnected to this war, and those that are will not vote for a presidential candidate who talks negotiation and compromise, which they associate with "weakness" (see Kerry, John. 2004 Election). Americans don't want to pay more taxes either. They want their big cars and big houses and big TVs and big stomachs and big portions and big shoes and everything else than screams excess. They want it all and don't want to pay for anything. And, despite all the talk of the mythological American character, ours is a nation that still consumed with consuming. Given the choice between financing a plasma television and investing in a universal health care system, Americans will take the television. They can watch it in bed while home from work -- sick.

Deciphering who will win or lose a presidential election is not an eHarmony-type matchmaking process. Lining up our likes and dislikes with presidential candidates does not always mean that we will like what the model chooses. Sometimes opposites attract; sometimes people with little in common other than a certain chemistry that makes them click prosper for decades, while the perfect couple -- the one with everything in common -- fall apart after days, a few months or a couple of years. What Americans tell their pulse takers they want and what they end up choosing are, in many cases, very different things. We all like to think that, in the event of a terrible fire or flood, we'd race right back in the house or the building to save that beloved cat, elderly neighbor or favorite possession. But once that building catches on fire all bets are off. Our reasoning process changes completely, and we become survivalists. So much will change between now and the November election, yes. The candidates running will not, however. They are who they are, and the one Americans choose will not be the one that matches their eHarmony profile. It will be the one that wins their heart.


David Kaib said...

Maybe. But Republicans have often won when no one would have considered them likable - see Nixon, Bush I. I'd suggest a different fault line between Bush II versus Kerry and the present crowd. W excites his base, just as most of the Republican candidates would.

The front running Dems, by contrast, aren't. Their positions on the war, torture, illegal surveillance, taxes and the lot seem designed to get David Broder's vote. Kerry said the war was good, just mismanaged. Clinton says it was a mistake for Bush, but not her. In either case, its depressing for people that think that Bush's actions have been more than a little wrong.

Besides exciting the base, these Republicans come off like they stand for something. The Democrats, continually channeling Mike Dukakis, don't. How many times can Pelosi and Reid take a stand that is mildly opposed to W, fold, and then give him everything he wants? They end up looking like a) they make decisions based on politics not principle b) like Bush's position was the right one all along and c) that they are in fact weak.

In other words, this mess belongs to Mark Penn, Stan Greenberg and the rest.

Gregg Ivers said...

Very astute. One minor point.

The 1968 Nixon was the "new Nixon." Don't forget how well he capitalized on the war issue (he'll fix it; not retreat) and playing to the "silent majority," a term that his candidacy created.

Humphrey was a terrible national candidate. He talked more -- and faster -- than Kerry. He was the second choice -- Kennedy would have won the primary and probably the general if not for . . .

And don't forget the 1968 Democratic convention. No one could have survived that disaster. It made Humphrey look anything but presidential.