Blue Period

Can the Democrats succeed where Karl Rove failed?

The last enduring Democratic majority began with a midterm sweep. After being routed by Herbert Hoover’s Republicans in the 1928 election, the Democrats stormed back to pick up 56 seats in the House and eight in the Senate, leaving both chambers roughly split between the two parties when the 72nd Congress convened in December 1931. The victory, coming on the heels of the 1929 stock-market crash, set the stage for Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s triumph in 1932, which ultimately left the Democrats with 60 seats in the Senate and 313 in the House, and established Roosevelt’s party as the dominant political force in American life for a generation.

Not even the most optimistic Democratic strategist dares to dream that the Democrats’ midterm sweep in ’06 will presage a Roosevelt-style landslide in ’08. But the Democrats have reason to hope that they might at least consolidate their majority in the next election and gain unified control of the federal government for the first time since Bill Clinton’s first term. The money is going their way—the leading Democratic presidential candidates have outraised their Republican counterparts by nearly 3 to 2—and so are the polls. According to the Pew Research Center, the Democrats have opened up a 15-point edge in party identification, their largest edge in at least 17 years.

From the archives:

"Thinking of Jackasses" (April 2005)
The grand delusions of the Democratic Party. By Marc Cooper

"Clintonism, R.I.P." (January/February 2005)
How triangulation became strangulation. By Chuck Todd

Just two years ago, many liberals were bemoaning the GOP’s supposed invincibility, trading defeatist books about “The Republican Revolution and the Erosion of American Democracy” and “The New Conservative Coalition and the Drive for Permanent Power” like Soviet samizdat—if samizdat had occupied the front table at Borders. They were wrong to panic, but right to worry: Many of the factors that allow a lasting majority to emerge—the seeming exhaustion of both parties’ traditional agendas, the rise of new hot-button issues, a recent national trauma—are present in contemporary American politics, and Karl Rove recognized the opening. But as Joshua Green explains in this issue (“The Rove Presidency,” page 52), Rove’s push for Republican dominance too often ran against the grain of public opinion, or else collapsed under the weight of incompetent implementation. From the Middle East to Social Security reform to immigration policy, the Bush White House has made a habit of swinging for the fences, and missing on every swing.

So the opening has passed to the Democrats, who suddenly and unexpectedly have the makings of a durable majority of their own within their grasp. What’s more, they have the outlines of a message that might allow them to seize that majority. The issues that split the Democratic Party throughout the Clinton years—between the center and the left, the deficit hawks and the Great Society liberals, The New Republic and The Nation, Robert Rubin and Robert Reich—still stir passionate debate, but in recent years the factions have been converging. This convergence has been particularly evident in foreign policy, where the debate over the Iraq War has been decisively settled in favor of the opponents of preventive war. But it may prove more enduring on the domestic front, where the gap between the left and the center-left has closed dramatically since the days when the two sides feuded bitterly over everything from free trade to health care to welfare reform.

On the one hand, you have The New Republic, the flagship magazine of centrist liberals, expressing regret for its role in derailing the Clinton health-care plan in the 1990s; on the other, you have the left-wing economist James Galbraith counseling readers of The Nation that “it’s time to get over” the free-trade battles of the ’90s and accept that both NAFTA and manufactured imports from China are here to stay. Protectionism and corporation bashing still find an audience, but even John Edwards, the progressives’ darling in the ’08 race, is running on an antipoverty platform that seeks to build on, rather than overturn, the welfare settlement of the mid-’90s, and is pushing a relatively market-friendly plan for universal health care. At the same time, many of the architects of Bill Clinton’s deficit-cutting centrism—including Larry Summers and even Robert Rubin—are paying greater attention to left-wing concerns over outsourcing and growing income inequality.

The result is an emerging consensus that uses the centrist achievements of the ’90s as a jumping-off point for a new-model populism. Conservatives have spent years mocking liberals for lacking big new ideas, and in a sense their charge still rings true. But the new-model populists have a big old idea, universal health care, that’s increasingly popular, and a host of smaller ideas—from wage insurance to assist the victims of outsourcing to universal 401(k) programs to help working-class families build assets for their children—all paid for, presumably, by tax hikes on the rich.

Populist rhetoric has never turned off as many voters as its (usually elite) detractors like to claim: Even in 2000, at the height of the boom years, Ralph Nader’s far-left populism and Al Gore’s center-left “people versus the powerful” rhetoric combined to win a clear majority of the popular vote. Today, after almost seven years of uneven economic performance, rising health-care costs, and outsize gains for the rich, support for increased welfare spending is higher than at any point since before the 1994 Republican revolution. The middle class isn’t being immiserated, but even college-educated Americans have seen their incomes stagnate, and with the housing boom fizzling and foreclosure rates rising, it’s not just the poor who find the idea of a stronger safety net more and more appealing.

These are the short-term trends that helped tip ’06 to the Democrats; in the long term, a new-model populism’s prospects look brighter still. The Republicans are to a large extent the party of married couples with children, while the Democrats are the party of unmarried voters, who tend to be more sensitive to economic risk, and thus more supportive of welfare spending, than members of intact nuclear families. But the nuclear family has been in steady decline for years, pushed along by falling marriage rates and rising out-of-wedlock births, trends that are likely to create an ever-larger base for a left-populist majority.

The pressure of continued outsourcing may also increase the public’s appetite for a smart left populism, as even well-educated workers—in fields from financial services to health care—begin to face stiff competition from overseas. In this landscape, it’s easy to imagine the middle-class anxiety that the political scientist Jacob Hacker termed “office-park populism” defining the domestic debate over the next 20 years, and easy to imagine a Democratic majority that capitalizes on the opportunity.

A leftward realignment based on these trends would probably be gradual (like the right’s decades-long climb to power after Barry Goldwater’s crushing 1964 defeat) rather than sweeping (like the 1932 transformation beloved of students of realignment theory). But even slow-motion realignments require architects, and the memory of Ronald Reagan’s role in the Republican revolution, in particular, is a reminder that having a message isn’t enough; you need a messenger as well.

Twice in the past 25 years—in 1986 for the Democrats, in 1994 for the Republicans—an opposition party retook one or both houses of Congress, as the Democrats just did. Each party thought it had a governing majority within reach, but each lost the subsequent presidential election, riding a weak horse to defeat. Long-term trends make new majorities possible, and traumatic events (such as 9/11 and the Iraq War) can help catalyze their formation, but without effective leadership, the opportunities are easily squandered, whether on the campaign trail or in the White House. Just ask Karl Rove and George W. Bush.