I’m a big fan of Brian Beutler. And I agree with his conclusion in his recent article, The Trump Crack-Up Is Just the Beginning of the Republican Civil War. His point is that even if Trump loses the general election badly, the Republican Party won’t change. But he pushed one of the most common and ignorant claims about the Democratic Party, and more generally political science.
According to Beutler, after the three presidential losses (1980, 1984, and 1988), the Democratic Party reassessed itself and decided that it had to move to the right. Thus brought Bill Clinton and victory. That’s a nice narrative. But it’s totally wrong. Carter wasn’t a liberal. He was the beginning of the emergence of what would become the New Democrats. What’s more, he was — as were Walter Mondale and Michael Dukakis after him — part of that new breed of Democrats who weren’t really ideological but just technocratic.
We look back on them now as liberal, not because of their policies, but because they lost. Remember, I was around during Bill Clinton’s term. And according to the conservative movement, he wasn’t just liberal, he was a radical — a communist, even. That’s because Democrats are always leftist radicals in the minds of conservatives. And this is why it makes no sense to try to take welfare “off the table.” Did Bill Clinton ending welfare as we know it make the Democratic Party any less prone to attacks that it was the party of welfare recipients? Of course not!
But as I’ve shown elsewhere, and as is documented with scientific precision in Lynn Vavreck’s book, The Message Matters, the economic fundamentals favored the Republicans in 1980, 1984, and 1988. It would have been very surprising if the Democrats had won any of those races, because the fundamentals were not only against them, they were against them forcefully. Carter eked out a slight victory in 1976 because the fundamentals were only against him slightly.
Neither the nation nor the Democratic Party base was begging for the Democratic Party to move to the right in 1992. Bill Clinton was not the answer to the previous three elections. He was, however, a gifted politician in a party that had mostly been taken over by conservative elites. The only thing the party was responding to was the desires of powerful people in or aligned with the DLC.
I find this stuff really annoying because it just isn’t hard. My job — what people are willing to pay me for — is technology writing. If you want me to make Fortran 77 interesting and understandable, I’m your man. I have a basic understanding of computer science and programming. But political writers generally don’t know anything about political science. And it is particularly sad in the case of Brian Beutler, because he’s both smart and insightful. But how about learning a little about the science of it? Instead, it is just fine to depend upon what everyone “knows” — which turns out to be untrue.
So yes, the Republican Party won’t change even if Trump only manages to get 30% of the vote. But the Democratic Party is no different. What’s more, why is the presidency such a big deal? Does political science teach us that the presidency is all that matters? No, of course not. And as it is, 31 state legislatures are controlled by Republicans, compared to just 11 by Democrats! They also control the Senate and the House. And after the next election, they will almost certainly still control the House — and might control the Senate. It seems to me that the Republican Party is doing okay.
This all disturbs me. But we aren’t going to change it unless we can see the truth and look clearly at the political science. And believing that Bill Clinton was a response to political changes in the country is perhaps the biggest part of the problem. Because now conservatives win even when the Republican Party loses. And someone as smart as Brian Beutler should understand that.