For most of the last 30 years, Democrats have been on the run.
Ever since the Reagan Revolution overwhelmed them — 525-13 in the 1984 electoral college vote; 58 new House members in the 1980 election — Democrats have been running away from the principles and programs that drove them to create the New Deal and the Great Society. Democrats have tried to become the party of “kind cruelty”: the Democrats promised to screw the poor and the vulnerable slightly less than the Republicans would.
As a practical matter, what this has meant is that political campaigns over the last 30 years have mostly been fought on Republican terms. Budgets, social welfare cuts, and strong-on-defense have been the dominant themes of the era. 9/11 and Bill Clinton’s wandering eye put the Democrats back on their heels, afraid to advance any program unless they offset their proposals with equivalent budget cuts. They played “small ball” and hoped the Republicans wouldn’t hurt them too badly.
In response, and entirely appropriately under the rules of politics, the Republicans went for the jugular. They saw an opportunity to remake the politics of the era largely unchallenged by an “opposition” party. They raised defense spending, promoted the national security state, and pushed legislation to make it difficult to unionize but easy to pass wealth across generations. All the while, it should be added, cutting taxes in ways that dramatically favored the wealthiest Americans.
But there was more to it than policy. The Republicans practiced culture war, too. Democrats became tax and spenders who wanted to give poor people all the money from hard working people, all so they and anyone else who wanted one could have an abortion. Meanwhile, the supposedly effete liberals who ran the party were alleged to care more about making the French happy and undermining “real” America in support of gays and minorities than doing what was best for America. Trust me: “death panels” was just one more in a long string of Republican efforts to marginalize the Democratic Party as dangerous and untrustworthy.
And who knows? If Bush hadn’t gone to Iraq, it all might have worked.
The last straw in this political game may well have been the election of 2010. Democrats appear to have realized that their efforts to compromise over health care, and the budget, and social programs and everything else in political life actually cost them votes and power. (To be fair, Republicans would argue that Democrats’ “compromises” weren’t real compromises.) From the Democrats’ point of view, being nice, being afraid to embrace their principles, and fighting on Republicans’ terms simply didn’t work.
Now they appear to have changed their tune. They seem to have embraced “Obamacare” and gays in the military and women’s right to choose, all while embracing a muscular foreign policy and free market economics. The basic spirit seems to be, “this is what we stand for. If you like it, vote for us. If not, don’t.”
What’s been interesting about this is that is seems to have surprised the Republicans. The Republicans seem to be playing from the “old” playbook of “scary Democrats.” But this time, rather than cringing, the Democrats seem to be embracing the ideas and attitudes that they were once pummeled with.
Who knows if this will work. Who knows if it will last more than a few weeks, or even more than one election cycle. But it is quite a change. And while I certainly don’t like everything the Democratic Party advocates, I can say I like the forthright approach. At least I — and all the rest of us — will know what we’re voting for or against.
And that is something to celebrate.
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- realisthappenings said: So should we expect further polarization among the political elites?
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