Julian E. Zelizer: How Democrats can lose in November





[Julian E. Zelizer is a professor of history and public affairs at Princeton University and co-editor of Rightward Bound: Making America Conservative in the 1970s, published this month by Harvard University Press.]

There was a moment last year when Democrats believed that winning the White House was inevitable. The Republican Party was in disarray; there were ongoing laments that the "Reagan Coalition" could not be rebuilt. President Bush's popularity had reached rock bottom. The surge in Iraq brought greater stability, but there was still no way out of an unpopular war.

Some Republicans unhappily agreed with that Democratic optimism. Speaking to a group of businessmen in August 2007, former Republican House Speaker Newt Gingrich said "the odds are fairly significant that the left will win next year. My personal bet is that it'll be a Clinton-Obama ticket. I think they have a very high likelihood of winning."

The situation doesn't look as rosy for Democrats now. Republicans have coalesced around Sen. John McCain, who is looking more like the maverick war hero from 2000 than the Bush devotee of 2006, even though he continues to support most of the president's programs. Democrats are bitterly divided in a primary that seems almost as intractable as Iraq. The ferocity of the attacks between the two campaigns has disintegrated into vicious accusations.

It's far easier to see how Republicans could win the White House regardless of which Democrat gets the nod at the convention.

To begin, there is Iraq. Notwithstanding Bush's confidence, the situation in Iraq remains unstable. Yet the problems of the reconstruction are no longer on the front pages of the newspapers and internet blogs. The surge seems to have stabilized conditions, enough at least that the problems do not command daily public interest (of course this could change quickly). Ironically, the economic woes in the U.S., which tend to favor the party out of power and Democrats historically, have diverted attention from one of the greatest Republican vulnerabilities. This breather allows Sen. McCain to tap into traditional arguments that Republicans are superior on national security and Democrats endanger the nation. Suddenly its 2004 all over again.

Nor does economic decline ensure Democratic success. It is true that poor economic conditions are usually detrimental to the party that controls the White House. But there are no guarantees in American politics. Public frustration with the Democratic Congress, including its inability to pass stronger economic measures, could soften some of the blow for the GOP. Equally important, McCain could draw on Ronald Reagan's arguments about how tax cuts, deregulation, and industrial subsidies are the best way to stimulate economic growth. There is some evidence that McCain will have strong appeal among "Sam's Club" Republicans, as Minnesota Governor and potential McCain running mate, Tim Pawlenty has called them. Unlike the current "Country Club" leadership of the GOP, McCain would be able to speak to Republicans who want assistance in this economy but are concerned about federal regulations on health care or high taxes. Democrats currently do not have a particularly coherent vision about what they would do differently.

Democrats should be doubly cautious on this front. McCain would have an easy time attacking either Barack Obama or Hillary Clinton as traditional "tax-and-spend liberals" who would bring big government back to help those hurt by bad times. ...


comments powered by Disqus
History News Network