Last week I wondered whether Donald Trump represents a Unique Threat or a Culmination. I tend to think both, an answer that isn’t a contradiction. But the short term goals of expanding Hillary Clinton’s electoral chances will come at the price of a governing coalition. A historian who has written three masterful books about the rise of conservatism since 1960, Rick Perlstein is more adept than most at placing the Clinton campaign’s folly in historical context:
Large numbers of supporters of only glancing or provisional commitment to your governing agenda, shoehorned into your tent in time for Election Day, can become quite the liability for effectuating that agenda when it comes time to govern.
Championing a revision to the tax code, President Jimmy Carter watched as the bill behind which he threw executive support was eviscerated by the very Democrats elected in 1974 and 1976 as part of the national disgust over Watergate and other Nixon-era abuses (the same class of which Joseph Biden, Jr. of Delaware was a member). Perlstein again:
In October 1978, a Congress with more than two-to-one Democratic representation voted for the first time in history to make the tax code more regressive. In each of the progressive measures that was defeated, the deciding votes came from first- or second-term Democratic congressmen. The reason for this poor fortune for the New Deal legacy, paradoxically, was precisely what was understood to be the good fortune of the Democratic Party: habitual Republicans disgusted with their party after Watergate were voting for Democrats for the first time. Many of the Watergate Babies represented traditionally Republican suburbs. They went to Washington and voted their constituencies. It was one of the reasons—though there were many—that Jimmy Carter geared up to run for his second term with the albatross of a failed presidency around his neck.
(Walter Karp’s Liberty Under Siege is the classic guide; please buy it). In the heady days of December 2006 — a decade ago! — when Rahm Emmanuel proclaimed his Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee a model for the future the party had been demoralized for so long that it wanted to win.
In hindsight it reminds me of the Republican Party in 1952, banished from public life since Hoover’s defeat twenty (!) years earlier. Whom did it run? Not “Mr. Republican” Robert Taft but the war hero with the terrifying smile and no political experience other than the formidable task of leading the Allied armies against Hitler. Dwight Eisenhower won in a landslide; the GOP, campaigning on change, won the House and Senate for the first time since 1946. But Eisenhower was a shrewder pol than anyone realized, which is to say, he cared about his survival more than his party’s. The New Deal remained not just popular but a fact of American public life (“Should any political party attempt to abolish social security unemployment insurance and eliminate labor laws and farm programs, you would not hear of that party again in our political history,” he wrote his brother Milton). So starved was the GOP for victory that it abdicated any notions of conservatism. It became a consumptive brother of the Democrats with lunatic fringes dismissed by Lionel Trilling’s liberal consensus. The results? In 1954 the Republicans lost the House and Senate again, out of reach for forty years — the longest exile in America political history. 1958 was another huge rebuke. Ike regarded Senate Majority Leader Lyndon Baines Johnson as a better governing partner than William Knowland.
History is cunning. Without those majorities in 2006 and 2008 my unemployed friends wouldn’t have Obamacare, but without those Blue Dog Dems we would have had sturdier progressive legislation — not perfect, but perhaps less market-driven. Clinton won’t flip the House. Hell, she may not even flip the Senate. But she’s already signaling how the rest of us might write the epitaphs in 2020.