Once a generation…

It seems that once a generation or so, the Democratic Party has the chance to capitalize on a massive failure of Republican leadership, as perceived by the electorate, in order to establish a sustainable Democratic majority in Congress and to capture and hold onto the Presidency.  We are at such a crossroads in 2008.  Hopefully, we as Democrats won’t blow it like we did a generation ago in 1976.  Tomorrow, we have the Iowa caucuses.  We should think hard about whom we choose as our standard-bearer.  Read this, and if you agree, pass it on to any caucus-goers or primary voters you may know. 

 Once a generation, the Republican leadership of this country screws up royally in the eyes of the people, handing the Democrats the opportunity to govern, and if handled well, to govern for more than a decade.  Whether it is because of economic insecurity (ie, the Great Depression, the 1975 recession, or today’s unfolding housing crisis), or an unpopular war (Vietnam, Iraq), or an ethics scandal (Watergate or the numerous Republican lapses of recent years), or some combination of the three, Republicans hand the Democrats power on a silver platter from time to time. In 1932 the Democrats seized the moment and realigned American politics in their favor for several decades; in 1976, they somehow managed to snatch defeat from the jaws of victory.  Okay, enough hackneyed metaphors.   

In the 1930 congressional elections, a year after the stock market crash, Democrats gained 52 seats in the House and 8 in the Senate, amid Republican President Herbert Hoover’s dithering.  And in 1932, following years of depression and Hoover’s ineffective policy responses, the liberal Democratic presidential nominee, Franklin Roosevelt, promising that the only thing we had to fear was fear itself, won the presidency.  He went on to hold office for four terms, and through his vice president, Harry Truman, a total of 5 terms, or twenty years.  Truman’s successor in the 1950s, President Eisenhower, was popular.  The 1960 election was lost by his vice president, Richard Nixon, to JFK, largely because of Nixon’s mediocrity, not because of the failure of Republican rule during the previous eight years.  JFK’s successor, Lyndon Johnson, held the White House largely because of another mediocre Republican, the extremist, Barry Goldwater.  Then in 1968, we had the return of Richard Nixon, who, after committing political malpractice, offered the Democrats that “once a generation” opportunity again in the mid-seventies.

In 1974, following Nixon’s resignation due to Watergate, the Democrats gained 49 House and 5 Senate seats (similar to Democratic gains in 1930). The unpopularity of the Vietnam War and the perception that Nixon prolonged it, economic stagnation (a rare combination of recession and inflation, fanned by the Arab oil embargo), and of course Watergate, gave Democrats a powerful opportunity to realign American politics in their favor. They maintained strong majorities in both houses in 1976, but did not increase them due to Carter’s narrow victory over Ford.  Carter of course squandered his 4 years, and the Democrats have been on the defensive ever since.

Fast forward 32 years to 2008. 

First, 1992 was not one of these watershed years for Democrats, coming so soon after the Reagan era, which, with the fall of the Soviet Union and strong economic expansion, was perceived as a success.  Sure, Bill Clinton held the White House for 8 years, but he beat George H.W. Bush due at least in part to a popular third party candidate (Ross Perot) stealing votes from Bush; and he held the White House in 1996 due at least in part to a mediocre candidate (Bob Dole).  One could argue that the Democrats failed to hold the White House in 2000 (much as Richard Nixon failed to hold it for the Republicans in 1960) due to Al Gore’s mediocre candidacy; but we all know that that isn’t true, because Al Gore in fact won that election…but not convincingly.

In 2006, amid an unpopular war and Republican ethical lapses, the Democrats gained 31 House and 6 Senate seats.  Has the Party capitalized on the first of Bush’s last two years to lay the groundwork for a new sustainable Democratic majority?  The signs are not good.

The Congressional leadership in the past year has been unimpressive.  Led in the House by the nervous partisan, Nancy Pelosi, and in the Senate by Nevada’s humdrum Harry Reid, the Democrats over the past year have whined about Iraq, but have added very little to the resolution of that conflict.  They have bashed China and railed against free trade.  And they have created a lot of drama about the Bush budget, but were unable to influence it very much.  They came into power saying they would look for opportunities for bipartisanship, but they chose instead to grandstand for their constituencies (a popular Democratic pastime). Polls show Congress in the proverbial dog house as much as is W.  And it’s not for a lack of strong, charismatic and at times pragmatic Democrats in Congress.  It’s just that Pelosi and Reid (and their pals Murtha, Dick Durbin, and Chuck Schumer – can’t he lose that New York accent?) should be replaced by the likes of House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer, Congresswoman Jane Harman, and Senators Barbara Boxer and Jim Webb, among others.

So, what’s left to do if you care about the Democratic Party?  Recapture the presidency.  With an wide-open race on the Republican side, and no formidable standouts among the GOP hopefuls, the Democrats would seem to have a great opportunity this year.  Al Gore would be the best choice.  But, at this point, it would be very difficult for him to get in the race, unless the primaries are inconclusive, which is unlikely.  Even so, it would be very difficult to get Clinton, Obama or Edwards to hand over their delegates to Gore; after all, the primary voters will not have voted for him. 

Which brings us back to Hillary Clinton, probably this year’s best choice for president.  Just as Harry Truman did for FDR from 1944-52 and Al Gore was supposed to do for Bill Clinton in 2000, Hillary Clinton can do; she can continue her husband’s legacy well into the next decade. That legacy isn’t half-bad:  readjust wealth distribution in favor of the less fortunate, strengthen the country’s tattered social safety net, promote free trade and a market economy, and pursue a realistic foreign policy under the twin pillars of multilateral diplomacy and military strength.  My belief is that the election of Barack Obama would likely squander this “once a generation” opportunity for Democrats.

If you agree, put this in the hands of Iowa caucus goers before tomorrow night!

It may be grandiose of me to think I can hawk my political opinions among the millions of American primary voters.  But what the heck?!  After all, I did work in Council Bluffs, Iowa ahead of the 1988 caucuses, as well as in eight primaries across the country that year.  And, the e-world in which we live allows me, a single voter with strong opinions, to dash off my recommendations as if I were the editorial board of the New York Times. 

 And, you can read this and more on my blogs.  One, which is called High Politics (http://highpolitics.wordpress.com) I am doing with like-minded and not-so-like-minded friends.  The other, called Scherblog (https://scherblog.wordpress.com), is, as the name implies, a bit more narcissistic.  It is a lot like what you may have received from me in email form over the years.

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