Will the GOP Ever Win Another Presidential Election?
It's hard for a party to win four straight presidential elections. The Democrats may pull it off.
A graduate school colleague pointed me to a piece by Daniel Altman headlined “Why I Hope to Vote Republican in 2024” and with the subhed, “Face it: Hillary Clinton will be a two-term president, and I’ll vote for her. But a Democratic stranglehold on the White House is bad for America.”
While I was intrigued by the major point I was distracted by the notion that Hillary’s election, much less re-election, was a foregone conclusion. As I noted on my friend’s Facebook page, we haven’t elected presidents of the same party to four consecutive terms since FDR-Truman, and those were unique circumstances.
As it turns out, the pithy subhed misserved Altman, who made exactly that point and went well beyond it: it’s incredibly unusual in any functioning democracy for a single party to control the executive for a decade. Looking at the Economist Intelligence Unit’s index of democracies—of which only Spain, Belgium, Japan, and Costa Rica are rated as less functional than the USA—none currently has had a head of government from the same party for more than nine years running (Uruguay, Mauritius, and Germany are all tied at that number). Indeed, of the twenty-five countries on the list, only nine (the aforementioned three plus the USA, South Korea, Austria, New Zealand, Canada, and Sweden) have a current chief executive whose party has held the post for as many as six years.
The reasons democracies tend to experience regular party turnover are varied but, essentially, people eventually get tired of the party in power. The party tends to run out of ideas, having either implemented their programs or failed to do so. The programs become unpopular. The economy tanks. Scandals erupt. A bold, charismatic leader from the other party emerges, transcending platforms. And, of course, the other party tends to change its platform in response to repeated loss at the polls.
While I’ve never been a fan of Hillary Clinton, going back to the 1992 campaign, she has undeniable strengths. She’s unusually smart and disciplined. While her path to power was unusual, she’s got real experience as a White House insider during her husband’s eight years, six years in the Senate, a failed presidential campaign, and four years as Secretary of State. At the same time, she’s not a natural politician. To say that she lacks her husband’s charm and ability to appeal to the masses is both a gross understatement and an unfair standard; few meet that bar and we’ve elected many presidents who fall short of the Bill Clinton bar. But we haven’t elected one in my memory—going back to the 1976 campaign–who’s as much a cold fish as Hillary.
Then again, you can’t beat somebody with nobody and Altman is right: the GOP platform no longer meshes with the demographic realities of the country.
White men, the mainstay of the Grand Old Party, represent a shrinking share of the American population. Republicans thought they had a chance to recruit Latino voters because of overlaps on some social issues, but their candidates’ apparent allergy to immigration may have destroyed that possibility. The Republicans have been able to control the House of Representatives by aggressive redistricting through state assemblies, but that advantage may also be on the wane.
Only a sort of pendulum reaction by young people disillusioned by the Obama administration — though they are probably as open to other Democrats as to Republicans — offers any hope now. But young voters are among the Americans most concerned about inequality, which many Republicans refuse to take seriously. Moreover, as younger voters begin to appreciate the benefits of health insurance, they may find new faith in the Democratic Party.
As for Altman, while he’s arguably concern trolling, the sentiment here is right:
I want to vote Republican because I think that more than one party can propose a viable plan for the country’s future. The idea that policy can take only one direction, corresponding to a single platform or set of beliefs that isn’t better served in any way by any other party’s platform, speaks more of ideological zealotry that pragmatic realism.
Policy issues are not all black and white or arranged along a single spectrum; they can be multidimensional and require complex solutions.
Though neither party in the United States seems prepared to give the other credit for good ideas, voters can be more discerning. In the last presidential campaign, I preferred a few of Mitt Romney’s views on trade and foreign aid to those of Barack Obama. I’ve also liked some of what I’ve heard on taxes from Rob Portman and immigration from Marco Rubio. I still voted for Obama, though — not because I abhorred Romney so much but because I worried about the people who would surround him.
I wouldn’t always have had such fear. When I was a kid, I heard my friends’ parents described as Reagan Democrats. At that time, the gap between the parties on social issues, in particular, was much smaller. You could vote for a presidential candidate without fearing that his party would force him into a much more extreme mandate. That’s less true now. George W. Bush was seen as a centrist before his election; some commentators even wondered whether there was much to choose between him and Al Gore. In the end, Bush became the servant of one of the most warmongering and economically corrosive strands of so-called conservatism that the nation had ever seen. Gore, meanwhile, became the environmentalist antihero of big business’s nightmares. Today, whether through one man’s pliability or the other’s embrace of a signature issue, the difference between them is clear.
Now, I happen to think the Bush-Gore example a poor one. Yes, they were both relatively centrist politicians when they ran against each other in 2000. But Bush spent eight years governing the country and Gore went off to find a new path. It’s highly unlikely that Gore would have directed his energies to environmental issues had he picked up a couple hundred more votes in Florida.
Nor did Bush govern as a right wing ideologue. While he was a deeply committed evangelical Christian and never made any bones about it, he didn’t attempt to roll back any significant social advance made under Clinton. And some of his platforms—No Child Left Behind, Medicare expansion, and Millennium Challenge and other foreign aid programs—were arguably quite progressive. No, he became unpopular mostly because of the Iraq War, with a little help from Katrina and the global financial meltdown.
For that matter, in the two post-Bush presidential elections, the GOP nominated relatively centrist candidates in John McCain and Mitt Romney, both of whom easily defeated much more hard core challengers.
Still, there’s no denying that the party is stuck in the past on both social and economic issues. The Tea Party wing seems to have lost some of its vigor, as seen in the most recent round of primary contests, but they still maintain a veto power on governing in both Houses of Congress. Further, while there’s no obvious “it’s his turn” candidate for 2016, nor is there someone on the horizon who’s obviously a Big New Ideas guy, either. The party is still running on autopilot from Ronald Reagan’s 1980 campaign despite vast changes in the landscape since then—including the fact that the GOP seems to have permanently won the battle for low top marginal tax rates.
And, again, while Altman is likely concern trolling here, he’s right here:
I would much rather that Democrats’ time in the White House ended because of a strong Republican alternative than because of their own debasement and decay. Hopefully, a worthy Republican candidate — and a more centrist, up-to-date Republican Party — will be able to sway me by 2024.
The GOP has no choice but to bring itself up to date on the social issues, in particular, if it wants to be more than a regional party. But, at the national level at least, there are no signs that it’s trying to do so.
The bottom line, then, is that while I can’t see the Democrats winning four presidential elections in a row, I don’t see who the Republicans will nominate in 2016 or 2020 capable of broad enough appeal to garner 270 Electoral votes. If Romney had managed to win Florida, Virginia, and Ohio he’d still have been four Electors short. There were no other Blue states within two points of going Red. And the demographics are not moving in the right direction.