New Democrats and the Rightward March

Bill Clinton not Republicans are Responsible for rightward shiftJoel: “Oh no, no, no! Oh, my heavens, no! No! Oh God! Oh Porgy! Oh my dear heavens, no, no, no, no, no, no, no….”

Crow: C’mon, c’mon! Read ’em all!

Joel: There’s six pages of “no’s” here, Crow!

Crow:Well, y’think that’s enough to convey the raw terror she must feel as a giant bowl of “California Cornucopia Vegetable Jubilee” slithers towards her on all fours, it’s hellish maw…[1]

That’s how I felt today reading David Atkins article, Where Did the Republican Political Acumen Go? Look, I admire Atkins; he’s a keen political observer but, “Oh, my heavens, no!”

He started by discussing what a great political machine the Republicans had in the early days of the Bush Jr administration. I agree with that. But Republicans generally have good operations when they control the White House. The Republican Party is an authoritarian group. When they have power, their army falls in line. It is only when they don’t have power that they fall to pieces.

But Atkins really lost me when he wrote, “Conservatives had forced or persuaded a Democratic president to declare the era of big government at an end, to smash welfare, to deregulate Wall Street and pass free trade agreements one after the other.” Really?! That’s not my memory of the 1990s. I’ll admit, this is a time of special focus for me since I’m working on a book that focuses on the New Democrats and their abandonment of liberalism. But still, I remember the 1992 campaign and how conservative Clinton was. I especially remember him promising to “end welfare as we have come to know it.”

So it isn’t the brilliant Republican political machine that pushed Clinton and later Obama to the right. What I would call the center right is where these men feel most comfortable. Another thing I remember from the 1990s is just how crazy the Republicans were. They are marginally worse now, but they were still crazy. Remember how Vince Foster was murdered by the Clintons? Even Ken Starr investigated it! This was mainstream stuff. The Republicans didn’t get Clinton to bend to their will; it was the other way around. Imagine what Clinton might have accomplished if he had been a real liberal!

What the Republican political operation shows is that political operations don’t mean that much. Even with a hopeless eight years, they still managed to get the White House back. (They also came close to doing it democratically!) And after all this madness, they may well get it back in 2016. They don’t need to be smart or reasonable or even disciplined. All they need is a good economic slowdown or crisis. That’s how politics works in the United States. Remember, as brilliant as Karl Rove may have been, Bush still lost the 2000 election. This is despite the fact that the unemployment rate had stopped falling and was beginning to rise. Bush should have won that election fairly easily and didn’t.

I think that David Atkins is falling for a myth. The Republicans’ lack of success in governing is not a choice. They really aren’t good at it. If they had been, they would have managed to create their conservative economic utopia in Iraq. Instead, they made a mess of it. All they’ve really been good at is continuing to exist during the dark 1960s and 1990s. Just like bad managers, if political parties stay around long enough, they will be rewarded with power. I understand the desire to look back on it and provide a narrative. But there has never been a brilliant Republican Party in my lifetime. Time in grade.

None of this should be taken as a reason for Democrats to feel safe. Quite the contrary. It means that regardless of how good a job we do, Republicans will soon be back in power. This is why the New Democrats bug me so much. Their idea was that by moving to the right, they could win elections. But just as with the Republicans, the Democrats’ time had come in 1992 and 2008. By electing a conservative Democrat in 1992, the party allowed the political landscape brought in by Carter and Reagan to ossify. Bush Jr came in and pushed things further to the right. Obama is now allowing that new normal to ossify. The problem we face is not the brilliance of the Republicans, it is the cluelessness (or simple conservatism) of the Democrats.


[1] That’s from Crow T Robot’s great screenplay, Earth Vs. Soup. Watch; enjoy; learn:

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About Frank Moraes

Frank Moraes is a freelance writer and editor online and in print. He is educated as a scientist with a PhD in Atmospheric Physics. He has worked in climate science, remote sensing, throughout the computer industry, and as a college physics instructor. Find out more at About Frank Moraes.

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