William A. Galston and Elaine C. Kamarck are senior fellows in the governance studies program at the Brookings Institution. Galston was a deputy assistant to the president for domestic policy from 1993 to 1995. Kamarck created and managed President Bill Clinton’s “reinventing government initiative.” This essay is adapted from “The New Politics of Evasion” in the Fall 2013 issue of Democracy: A Journal of Ideas.
The GOP is in serious trouble — and it is trouble that we, as long-time Democrats, recognize all too well.
Since their defeat in 2012, Republicans have offered plenty of excuses: candidates who can’t fire up the base, gaps in messaging and technology, the hard-to-match charisma of a historic president. And most Republican leaders seem to hope that cosmetic changes will be enough to reverse course in 2016 — without challenging the convictions of the party’s core supporters.
A quarter of a century ago, it was our party that was in a bad way. After losing a third presidential election in a row, Democrats offered a litany of explanations for what had gone wrong. Many of the recriminations focused on 1988 candidate Massachusetts Gov. Michael Dukakis. Others pointed to fundraising and technology, media and momentum. Even after Dukakis’s defeat at the hands of a decidedly uncharismatic George H.W. Bush, Democrats continued to tell themselves that their fortunes would start looking up when Ronald Reagan left the arena.
We disagreed, and in a 1989 manifesto, “The Politics of Evasion: Democrats and the Presidency,” we set out to debunk the myths that Democrats were using to explain away their dismal defeats. “Too many Americans have come to see the party as inattentive to their economic interests, indifferent if not hostile to their moral sentiments, and ineffective in defense of their national security,” we wrote. We pointed to evidence that the party’s problems were more fundamental than the ones being discussed. And we laid out the kinds of changes the party would have to embrace if it wished to regain its competitiveness in presidential elections.
Of course, as Democrats, we welcome today’s reversal of fortunes. We’re gratified that many fewer Americans see the party as out of touch and that many more are open to the Democratic agenda. And no doubt the Democrats’ electoral success has been helped by the fact that it is now the Republican Party that is a victim of adverse demographic trends, unpopular positions on the issues and a demanding base that is far from the country’s center of political gravity.
But we also believe that our democracy is better off with two healthy political parties willing to debate fiercely — and then reach honorable compromises. A Republican Party dominated by a new generation of reform-minded conservatives who care more about solving problems than scoring points would be a huge step toward restoring a federal government that can govern. So we’d like to pass on to Republicans now some of the advice we offered Democrats then.
The first step is to dispense with the evasion. Our manifesto explored three myths that were prevalent among Democrats in 1989— and that can be seen among Republicans today.
The Myth of Fundamentalism
The Myth of Fundamentalism held that Democrats lost presidential elections because they strayed from traditional liberal orthodoxy.We argued that there simply were not enough liberals in the electorate to carry the party to victory. To win, it would need to both hold on to liberals and attract a substantial majority of the moderate vote.