October talk about the Democratic Party having one foot--its presidential foot--in the grave is hitting levels unmatched since the late 1920s, exceeding even the morbidity following Walter F. Mondale's 1984 defeat. And the odor of embalming fluid is all the stronger because so much of it is coming from Democrats themselves.
But do they really understand their current circumstances? Part of the national Democratic malaise is a familiar myopia displayed by previous Democrats during similar Republican economic boom years of the Roaring '20s and the Gilded Age of the late-19th Century.
The current Democratic case of the tactical and philosophic shakes has to do with the cumulative loss of skills and confidence over the last two decades of national politics. Unlike the famous Confederate general, Bedford Forrest, who got there "fustest with the mostest," latter-day Democrats have gotten there latest with the leastest.
These disadvantages, then, suggest that perhaps we should pay less attention to Democrats' own self-analysis and more to where they stand amid the evolution of the GOP issues and stratagems that, save for Watergate, have been the winning national dynamic for almost a quarter-century. In some ways Democrats are probably worse off than they think, but other aspects of their predicament have a chronological silver lining of sorts.
The Democrats' central problem is that their national tide went out 21 years ago in a 1968 presidential election that now stacks up alongside America's prior national political watersheds. The enormous scope of the collapse was decisive--the Democrats' share of the presidential vote dropped from 61% in 1964 to 43% in 1968 (and then to 39% in 1972 as party fortunes soured further and George Wallace's 1968 third-party support lined up with Richard M. Nixon and the GOP). Then there is the subsequent Republican domination of the White House, which by January, 1993, will have run 24 years with only a four-year interruption. Such lopsided White House control has occurred after each past watershed, and has come no other way. What made the partisan upheaval confusing at first, of course, was the temporary 1970s dislocation of Watergate.
But for Democratic strategists, confronting this reality is still only the beginning of comprehension. Their decline has, in fact, happened in stages.
The disastrous national losses of 1968-72 were largely rooted in racial, social and patriotic issues--the sort of Democratic thematic vulnerabilities Republicans still enjoy resurrecting with campaigns against flag-desecration and TV commercials about furloughed murderers. More than anything else, these GOP themes and Democratic failures destroyed the old New Deal coalition on the national level.
Stage two came in the late 1970s, when inflation, fanned by Lyndon B. Johnson's 1960s "borrow, don't tax" Vietnam War buildup, began to roar. All three of 20th-Century America's big inflation waves--during and after World Wars I, II and Vietnam--originated under Democratic regimes. Worse still, they rode in tandem with excessive growth of government and bureaucracy, increased taxes and bracket creep. Attacks on the inflationary state scored heavily for conservatives in the 1980 elections, stoking tax-revolt fires and piling more wood on the funeral pyre of New Deal ideology.
Big government's embarrassment was the private sector's opportunity under Ronald Reagan; tax reduction and market economics went into overdrive. Within a few years, converging deregulation, Horatio Alger entrepreneurialism, disinflation, tax cuts and soaring stock markets brought stage three, more or less replicating the go-go spirit and success of the two previous Republican capitalist heydays--the late-19th Century and the 1920s. This threw the final kerosene on fires burning away the old economic and ideological self-confidence among Democrats.
The result hasn't been impressive. Despite conservatives' glum assessments of periods like Franklin D. Roosevelt's New Deal and Johnson's half-baked "Great Society," the Democratic Party--certainly no left or socialist party--is not even a reliably liberal party. On the contrary, it is middle-class and capitalist enough that in times of great Republican prosperity, the Democrats become conformist, even me-tooish, in their intermittent courtship of business and finance.
Because this is such a far cry from the Democrats' activist role under the Andrew Jacksons, William Jennings Bryans and Franklin D. Roosevelts, the party seems at these moments to have lost its soul, wandering aimlessly (and not quite acceptably) in the waiting rooms of Rotary clubs and stock exchanges.
During the late 19th Century, the sole Democratic President, Grover Cleveland, was as conservative as his GOP predecessors, and the pattern held nearly as well in the 1920s. No Democratic Presidents sat in the Oval Office, but congressional Democrats--just as in the 1980s--often tried to outdo Republicans in proposing tax cuts for business and finance, causing cynical chuckles in GOP circles.
To review these 1920s episodes after watching 1980s Democrats is to experience deja vu . Last year, Michael S. Dukakis proclaimed to the Democratic Convention that the election was about "competence, not ideology," in part because his chief fund-raiser, a former Republican, was collecting record sums of money in business and financial circles.
That fund-raiser, Robert A. Farmer, now Democratic Party treasurer, recently supported giving ambassadorships to campaign contributors because, he said, a U.S. ambassador's secondary job is to promote U.S. business interests. And House Ways and Means Committee Chairman Dan Rostenkowski (D-Ill.) was quoted in one 1988 bestseller as saying, "What atmosphere do I ever expect to live in when I leave Congress? I want to mingle in this community of business activities."
This attitude may have promoted the economy at times, and as a Democratic survival posture it has also displayed elements of realism. Historically, however, such periods have been Democratic low points, eras of lost philosophical moorings when even sympathizers begin to wonder if the party still has a future.
In many ways, that is where the Democrats are today--enmeshed in much of the same me-tooism they often displayed during the 1920s. If anything, the party's continuing control of Congress has only strengthened its general conformity to the mood of the decade. The better news for the Democrats is that me-tooism has often characterized the darkness before the dawn. Calvin Coolidge-era Democrats, as well as Republicans during their own beaten, me-tooist Nelson Rockefeller progressive period in the mid-1960s, were actually on the threshold of major event-driven revivals. The mea culpas and funeral notices turned out, in later hindsight, to be auspicious contrarian indicators.
The further irony is that today's national Democratic disarray may not be critical. If Democrats truly had to deserve national power to win it, they'd be in trouble; but that isn't the American way. The great watershed changes of U.S. national politics have been largely event-driven. After a generation or so, the existing presidential majority runs out of cohesion, and events--from Civil War to a stock market crash and a depression--serve to unravel the old coalition and force the creation of a new one.
For Republicans, economic weakness has been the historic Achilles' heel. A strong Democrat might have won by tapping national nervousness in 1988--even Dukakis carried four dozen Midwestern counties that hadn't voted Democratic since 1964--and the volatile stock markets of the last 10 days serve to remind that 1992 or 1996 could be an opportunity in the historic Democratic tradition.
In the meantime, Democrats who remember better and prouder days won't want to look in the mirror too often. It's not a flattering sight.