The party is in desperate straits. It has lost the popular vote in five of the past six presidential elections. It consoles itself with a majority in Congress, but even there its ranks are dwindling. On nearly every issue of national significance—from social affairs to fiscal matters to foreign policy—its positions are increasingly out of step with those of the majority of Americans. Riven by factions, it sometimes seems more like a collection of squabbling interest groups than a coherent political entity. People have started muttering that it might become merely a regional concern, or even go the way of the Whigs and die out.
This is the plight of the Republican Party today. “If we’re being honest,” the chairman of the Republican National Committee, Reince Priebus, moped earlier this year, “we have not really won a decisive presidential election since 1988.” Polls show that the party’s stance on practically every issue is a loser: same-sex marriage, international affairs, immigration, even taxes and the deficit. But this dismal situation was, a quarter century ago, the plight of the Democrats.
In the late 1980s, Democrats were the party of racial quotas, handgun bans, and welfare rights, viewed as soft on crime, weak on communism, and antagonistic to family values. The party’s lone president since 1964, Jimmy Carter, won post-Watergate with just 50 percent of the vote. “You’d look at polls and see that the American public agreed with the Republican Party on every meaningful voting issue,” Bill Andresen, a House Democratic aide at the time, recently recalled. The Democratic brand was so toxic that many of the party’s politicians shunned its liberal national candidates, particularly the 1984 presidential nominee, Walter Mondale. As William Galston, who was Mondale’s issues director, told me, “It was not possible to build a platform long enough that southern Democrats would appear on it while Mondale was at the podium.”