Saturday, November 13, 2004

History and the Future of Politics

The Times' Week in Review has this very interesting article about historical political situations similar to the one we are in now. There's a lot of meat in this one and a lot of fun things to think about, even if it is pure speculation. The article does make a convincing case that Bush is a McKinley-esque character. But who is the Teddy Roosevelt to Bush's McKinley? Certainly not Dick Cheney. Some would say that a McCain or Giuliani will lead the party out of its current conservatism to a more moderate stance, but I am not as optimistic that they are indeed moderates. A closer historical parallel, in my view, is the 1960's:
Bill Clinton was a charismatic Democrat who managed to win the White House for two terms, but afterward it slipped back to the Republicans; Dwight D. Eisenhower broke a 20-year Democratic monopoly in 1952, but John F. Kennedy retook the White House in 1960.
In both situations we begin with a long reign of one party, the Democrats from 1932-1952 and the Republicans from 1980-1992. This trend is broken by a newcomer who can appeal to the whole country, Eisenhower in 1952 and Clinton in 1992. After eight years of moderate politics, the country splits evenly between two candidates. In both 1960 and 2000 the "incumbent" vice-president was defeated, but in both cases by very slim margins. The post-mortem votes in Chicago which may have put Kennedy over the top are reminiscent of more recent shenanigans in Florida. There are a number of similarities between Kennedy and Bush. Both came from strong political families, both had brothers in the same job they had before becoming President, both diverted from their party predecessors, both cut taxes, both became involved in contentious and unpopular wars abroad.

Segueing from Kennedy to LBJ, who won by larger margins when he ran in 1964, we get Bush's second term. As happened in Vietnam, the situation in Iraq will likely deteriorate into more of a mess than we have now. What happened after could provide needed insight into what may happen politically in our country over the coming years. In 1968, LBJ decided he would not run again (as is guaranteed to happen with Dick Cheney) and the Democratic party was thrown into turmoil. A schism formed between those who wanted a pro-war candidate and those who wanted out of Vietnam. Could we see a similar split forming in the Republican party? It certainly doesn't seem likely right now, but if the nature of the war changes drastically it isn't completely implausible that we could see such a divide. In any case, there will be a fight in 2008 over who gets to define the future of the Republican party between the Bush followers who held power and moderates like McCain and Giuliani who may see a different path for the party. The divide could even come from the more traditionally conservative wing of the party that feels marginalized in this era of a "conservative" president not vetoing one spending bill and running larger-than-ever budget deficits.

On the Republican side in 1968, Nixon rose from the political dead (after his loss to Kennedy in 1960) and his successful "Southern Strategy" set the scene for elections in the next 40 years. What the Democrats will need is essentially their own "Southern Strategy." The focus should not be on finding a Clinton-esque candidate - Dick Nixon was no Barack Obama. But what Nixon did was bring together the Goldwater fiscal conservatives with cultural conservatives upset over the Democrats support of civil rights, two constituencies which had previously been on different sides of the political spectrum. Will we see Al Gore return and lead the Democrats to a new generation of leadership? That all depends on whether the Democrats can formulate a plan to bring together new constituencies in the next election. That all depends on what Bush does in the next four years. He is likely going to pursue very controversial policies. Some of these policies will no doubt alienate some portion of the Republican party. This has already started on some level. Fiscal conservatives are not happy with Bush's uncontrollable spending. Those living in Western states are not happy with Bush's immigration policy. The Buchanan wing of the party is not happy with Bush's interventionist foreign policy. No doubt his policies in his second term will exacerbate these faults and create new ones. The Democrats must be willing and able to cleverly take advantage of these divides and run with them. If they can, they will form the context for the next 40 years of politics as Nixon did in 1968 for the last 40.


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