Between 1860 and 1932, only two Democrats were elected president. That era of Republican dominance was ended abruptly by the election of Franklin Roosevelt, which began a 36-year period of Democratic political supremacy during which only one Republican, Dwight Eisenhower, won the White House.
In the four presidential elections since 1968, Democratic national candidates have managed to win a total of only 17 percent of all the electoral votes. That's right, 17 percent. But it has really only been since 1980, and their party's loss of the Senate that year, that many Democrats have confronted the reality of their minority status. And when a political party is trounced -- the way both the 1932 Republicans and the 1980 Democrats were -- that beaten party usually passe through four identifiable and predictable stages.
Stage One: Blame the Candidate. Like the human beings of whom they are mostly made up, political parties are reluctant to accept rejection. After their 1932 drubbing, Republicans chose to blame it all on their Outsider-Engineer -- incumbent candidate Herbert Hoover. Democrats took only two words to explain their own 1980 thrashing: Jimmy Carter, another Outsider-Engineer.
This stage includes the gratuitous disparaging of the winning opposition candidate as both a fluke and a lightweight: The GOP proclaimed that noth's handsome blue eyes; Democrats insisted that both of Ronald Reagan's ears could be cleaned with one continuous Q-tip. "Wait until 'we' nominate our own guy, we'll be back" was the defeated party's confident cry after the first loss.
Stage Two: Blame the Customer. Four years after their first defeat, the 1936 Republicans were beaten even worse by that Same Guy. In 1984, an identical fate befell the Democrats. In both cases, the beaten party had nominated One of Its Own: Alf Landon and Fritz Mondale were not antipolitics outsiders, but well-liked insiders.
The explanation for the loss? The voters had obviously changed for the worse. By 1936 American voters, the GOP discovered, had surrendered their rugged individualism to an intrusive federal government in exchange for paying work. The 1984 electorate that gave Ronald Reagan 525 of 538 electoral votes had turned "macho," "sexist" or "racist," according to the losers' post-mortem. Because political success in a two- party system requires winning more than half the votes, the self-defeating Blame the Customer stage is usually short-lived and followed by
Stage Three: Find the Gimmick. What was the secret to FDR's Svengali-like hold on the American nation? He was great on radio. And RWR's success formula? He's great on TV. Some Democrats still prefer to attribute Reagan's two landslides to his deftness with a TelePrompTer as though their party's sure route to victory in 1988 began with a ticket of Brent Musburger and Wink Martindale. The Find the Gimmick stage, which concentrates on the medium rather than the message, is obviously a variation of Blame the Customer.
In 1945 when FDR, who was both silver- tongued and golden-voiced, died and was succeeded by Harry Truman, who was neither, the Republicans knew their rightful restoration was imminent. So when underdog Harry Truman beat a united GOP in 1948, the Republicans had a nervous breakdown. It was followed by one shouted demand:
Get Me a Winner, the Fourth Stage. The solution was Ike in 1952.
Contemporary Democrats look to be mostly split between Find the Gimmick and Get Me a Winner, with a joyless faction still stuck at Blame the Customer. Because the United States has not had a clearcut military victory since 1945, there is a shortage of visible military heroes. A former college and professional basketball star and Rhodes scholar, Sen. Bill Bradley of New Jersey, is the semi-heroic name most often heard among wistful Democrats. But Bradley is not running. That leaves at least one question to be answered: Can the George Bush of 1988 do a passable imitation of the Harry Truman of 1948?
Democrats doubt it.