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THE MUSINGS OF A TRADITIONAL SOUTHERN DEMOCRAT

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Sid in his law office where he sits when meeting with clients. Observant eyes will notice the statuette of one of Sid's favorite Democrats.

Saturday, July 05, 2014

Shut Out of White House, G.O.P. Looks to Democrats of 1992 - A year before the 1992 primaries, President George Bush, a Republican, had an 80 percent approval rating — a level the Democrats’ top expected 2016 candidate, Hillary Rodham Clinton, can only dream of.

John Harwood writes in The New York Times:

It took 24 years for Democrats to end the last period of Republican presidential advantage, in which issues and the makeup of the Electoral College helped Republicans win five of six elections, and to start their own behind Bill Clinton.

By 2016, the Democrats’ own stretch — winning the popular vote in five of the last six elections — will have lasted 24 years. Now, one of the biggest questions in American politics is how close Republicans are to replicating Democrats’ process of rejuvenation and winning the White House again.

The most conspicuous evidence suggests they have moved further away since Mitt Romney’s loss in 2012. In its policies and unflattering poll ratings, the Republican Party has grown largely indistinguishable from its feisty Tea Party faction. And that does not take into account demographic trends that favor Democrats.

Rank-and-file congressional Republicans forced a government shutdown last year over their leaders’ objections, and they may do so again this fall. They have buried immigration legislation of the kind that a Republican National Committee report said was vital to appealing to a growing Hispanic electorate. One promising presidential contender, Senator Marco Rubio of Florida, was pummeled by the right for even trying.
 
A second top establishment candidate, Gov. Chris Christie of New Jersey, has suffered grievous political wounds. A third, former Gov. Jeb Bush of Florida, has voiced ambivalence about running. Intraparty debate on a new economic agenda remains tentative and muted.
 
But the Democrats’ experience showed that party overhauls could be halting, unpredictable and subject to rapid shifts in circumstance. Democrats glimpsed false dawns themselves while losing five of six presidential elections beginning in 1968: They held the House throughout and gained seats in every midterm election after a Republican presidential win.
 
Republicans are contemplating tinkering with their nomination process, something Democrats tried with little success. The Democrats’ 1988 Super Tuesday primaries, intended to provide an opening for an electable Southern moderate, instead made winners out of Michael Dukakis and Jesse Jackson.
 
When Republican policy experts published a manifesto in May playing down supply-side tax cuts, one conservative columnist condemned their “capitulation to the left’s inequality and middle-class talking points.” When moderate officeholders in the mid-1980s created the Democratic Leadership Council to pull the party toward the center, Mr. Jackson blasted a betrayal of the poor by “Democrats for the leisure class.”
 
Republicans outside Congress worry about lawmakers’ refusal to act on immigration. “Idiotic,” said Frank J. Fahrenkopf Jr., a Reagan-era national Republican chairman who calls demographic change the greatest threat to the party.
 
Democrats once similarly despaired about their inability to attract middle-class whites while championing the interests of poor blacks and Hispanics. A year before Mr. Clinton’s 1992 breakthrough, a book by a prominent journalist, Peter Brown, bore the title “Minority Party: Why Democrats Face Defeat in 1992 and Beyond.”
 
By some measures, Democrats’ plight then was more severe than Republicans’ is now. George McGovern in 1972, Jimmy Carter in 1980 and Walter F. Mondale in 1984 carried a total of eight states in their lopsided defeats.
 
Now, as the Democratic-leaning nonwhite electorate has steadily grown, Republican presidential nominees have lost the popular vote in five of six elections. But none lost by a landslide. George W. Bush eked out an Electoral College victory in 2000, then won a second term in 2004.
 
That helps explain why the Republican reinvention lacks definition and urgency. In Mr. Bush, John McCain in 2008 and Mr. Romney in 2012, Republicans have nominated standard-bearers who, by conventional calculations, held the broadest potential appeal.
 
Democratic reformers challenged a range of the party base’s core beliefs, on the death penalty, welfare, trade expansion and the use of military force. Republican reformers have not.
 
“We have a lot of ideological confidence,” said April Ponnuru, policy director of the conservative YG Network. Instead of “liberalism lite,” she said, the party needs simply to freshen its menu of conservative solutions.
 
That conviction represents a gamble that Republicans are relatively close to winning the White House again. It also reflects a higher degree of homogeneity and ideological zeal than Democrats had during their years in the presidential wilderness.
 
Some challenges may prove easier than others. Elaine C. Kamarck, one of those who pushed Democrats to change, predicted that Republicans could “thread the needle” on social issues by broadening their traditional “pro-family” message to embrace same-sex marriage, for example.
 
Realigning Republican foreign policy with a war-weary electorate, as Senator Rand Paul of Kentucky seeks to do, will be harder. Tougher still will be reconciling the party’s opposition to government spending with the popularity of the giant Social Security and Medicare programs, especially now that older voters make up a disproportionate share of the Republican base.
 
“They’ll work it out, because that’s what American political parties do,” Ms. Kamarck said. “They morph. They survive. They move on.”
 
And those movements, as Democrats showed, can come with surprising speed.
 
A year before the 1992 primaries, President George Bush, a Republican, had an 80 percent approval rating — a level the Democrats’ top expected 2016 candidate, Hillary Rodham Clinton, can only dream of. A leading Democratic liberal then, Gov. Mario M. Cuomo of New York, and other prominent party leaders chose not to run.
 
That left room for the less prominent Mr. Clinton, who ran as “a different kind of Democrat.” But Mr. Clinton, then governor of Arkansas, used discretion in targeting Democratic constituencies such as labor unions. He embraced ratification of the North American Free Trade Agreement, for instance — but not until he had secured the Democratic nomination.
 
A nominee’s power to recast the party’s image on high-profile issues offers a safety valve for Republicans in 2016, whatever they do now on immigration or other issues. At least, they hope so.

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