Is Our Parties Learning?

by David Karol on November 2, 2012 · 12 comments

in Blogs

In a recent post,the estimable Jon Bernstein of A Plain Blog about Politics considers the question of whether Republicans would blame a Romney loss on Hurricane Sandy. He concludes that this would be a good outcome, because the alternative is Republicans blaming the media and increasing toxic polarization and mistrust in the polity. For Bernstein the key point is this: “We can guarantee one thing: Republicans will not interpret it as confirmation that the American people prefer the Democrats’ ideas to their ideas (for which they would be correct, by the way; that’s not how elections work).”

Jon really is one of the most astute analysts out there, but I have to take issue with the “soft bigotry of low expectations” he exhibits vis-a-vis the GOP, to quote his fellow Texan. Jon may be right that next week Republicans would not interpret a Romney loss, (or a worse than expected performance in Congressional races) as a confirmation that their ideas (or some of their ideas) are unpopular, but parties have repeatedly drawn such conclusions in the past and with some reason. Even if most scholars think that party identification plus “valence “ issues like the state of the economy and war and peace explain most voters’ choices, there is still some increment parties may hope to influence. In this respect parties do “learn”, even if not all of what they learn is correct.

In a classic article Marjorie Hershey shows that the dominant narrative emerging from Mondale’s 49 state loss, following on Carter’s almost equally poor showing four years earlier was that the Democratic Party needed to move to the center. Mondale was said to have alienated voters by promising to raise taxes and being too close to “special interests” i.e. Democratic constituencies such as unions, feminists, racial minorities and gays and lesbians.

Hershey goes on to note that this interpretation of the election was not necessarily valid and that much of it was spun by the media and not political scientists. Reagan benefited from an enormous election year economic recovery, so the result may have had little to do with Mondale’s positioning or associations.

Yet Democrats did “learn a lesson”, correct or otherwise, from their loss. The Democratic Leadership Council was founded in an effort to move the party back to “the center.” This did not happen overnight or without intra-party conflict, but it happened. Four years later Michael Dukakis, unlike Mondale, picked a running-mate who was clearly to his right, Senator Lloyd Bentsen of Texas, did not pledge to raise taxes and protested that the election was “not about ideology, but about competence.” Dukakis lost badly as well, albeit not as overwhelmingly as Mondale or Carter. In 1992 the DLC finally got its candidate in Bill Clinton. He ran as a “New Democrat”, one who would “end welfare as we know it” and who, unlike Mondale or Dukakis, supported the death penalty in an era when crime rates were higher than they are today. He was also a southern white male, i.e. a member of the demographic in which Democrats’ fortunes had declined most greatly.

A less dramatic response to repeated defeat was the rise of “compassionate conservatism” in the GOP. Republicans lost two Presidential elections to Bill Clinton in the 1990s. After that their attempt to remove him from office was followed by the first midterm election since 1934 in which the party not controlling the White House lost seats in the House. This paved the way for George W. Bush’s shift from the policies associated with Gingrich and Dole. Gone was the pledge to abolish the Department of Education, instead Bush promoted “No Child Left Behind.” Gone were the attacks on Medicare. Instead, Bush created a prescription drug entitlement for Medicare recipients. Other aspects of compassionate conservatism included a decreased use of racial issues. The 1990s GOP had supported attacks on affirmative action such as Proposition 209 in California. The Bush White House did not continue this. When a similar initiative was on the ballot in Michigan Bush did not support it.

There are many other examples of parties moderating after repeated defeat. Republicans nominated moderate candidates who accepted the New Deal as a fait accompli from 1940 to 1960 after losing badly twice to FDR. Tony Blair’s ”New Labour”, established after four defeats and influenced by Bill Clinton’s example is one case. David Cameron’s more moderate Tories, who only emerged after three defeats by Blair, is another.

There are many “lessons” out there that parties may learn. Some may have little basis, as Hershey notes. There are also different ways to adapt. Republicans could revisit their position on immigration (something elite opinion would like them to do) or they could reconsider the Ryan Plan (which elite opinion finds much more congenial). In this case a narrow loss might be initially blamed on Romney’s failings. There is also never a shortage of ideologues ready to say that insufficient fidelity to the party’s principles was the real problem. These explanations, a poor spokesman and insufficient conviction, are naturally palatable to ideologues so they are only cast aside with reluctance and following repeated losses. Yet in the end parties want to win and they do learn and adapt. If today’s GOP is an exception that is a very big deal because what parties take away from their defeats influences they way they position themselves in the future. It matters not just for 2016 but for the behavior of elected officials during the next four years.

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