This weekend, Sarah Palin again played footsie with a 2012 presidential run. Maybe she will, maybe she won’t. But either way, the GOP nomination battle will take place in her shadow. It’s her party now. And as Delaware’s Mike Castle can attest, Republicans who don’t understand that increasingly find themselves out of a job.
George McGovern would understand. When parties lose power, pundits generally expect them to move to the center. But they don’t, at least not at first. Instead, recent history suggests that defeated parties become more extreme. The Republicans nominated a relative moderate, Richard Nixon, in 1960, and lost a squeaker; four years later, they nominated the arch-conservative Barry Goldwater. In 1980, the voters turned out a moderate Democrat, President Jimmy Carter, and four years later, Democrats nominated his more liberal vice president, Walter Mondale. And most significant of all, for the purposes of analogy, is what happened between 1968 and 1972, when a centrist, Hubert Humphrey, lost a close race, and Democrats responded by nominating McGovern, the most left-leaning candidate ever to seek the presidency.
The process works something like this. When parties lose power, activists ascribe the loss to the ideological impurity of their incumbent president. In so doing, they vent the frustrations they kept bottled up while their side was in power. Since defeat frees them from the messy business of governing, ideological purity suddenly becomes easier. And since defeat usually hits party moderates disproportionately hard, the opponents of purity usually hold less sway.
The clearest example is the Democrats in the late 1960s and early 1970s. By the time Humphrey lost in 1968, Democratic presidents had been in power for eight years, and by passing civil-rights laws and the Great Society measures, had moved American politics substantially to the left. But liberal activists were unimpressed. For them, the Kennedy-Johnson years mostly constituted a betrayal: Government efforts on behalf of minorities and the poor had been paltry, and Democratic presidents had taken the country into Vietnam. Freed from the excruciating compromises required to keep the Democratic Party’s big tent aloft, liberals were now free to act on principle.
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• Shushannah Walshe: Palin’s Wins Stoke White House Run So between 1968 and 1972, grassroots activists—many of them incubated in the anti-war movement—took over the Democratic Party, state by state. In 1970, activists rewrote Michigan’s party platform so that it advocated reparations to North Vietnam. In Washington state, they demanded amnesty for draft evaders and a ban on the building of missiles. “The old Liberal Idea,” wrote the famed campaign chronicler Theodore White, “held that the job of a politician was to be a craftsman… as long as the politician moved the state or the majority in the right direction… they [activists] left the pace of change to him… In 1970, the Liberal Theology drew new lines—men of morality must take over the party and operate it; politics was too important to be left to the craftsmen of accommodation.” In 1972, several of those craftsmen of accommodation—Edmund Muskie, Scoop Jackson, and Humphrey himself—sought the Democratic presidential nomination and were stunned by a purist, George McGovern, the darling of the party’s newly dominant liberal activists.
Something similar is happening in today’s GOP. Between 2000 and 2008, George W. Bush pushed American politics sharply to the right: cutting taxes, appointing highly conservative judges, and shredding government regulation. But the Tea Partiers aren’t inclined toward gratitude. In their minds, Bush was an accomodationist, a big spender. Like the McGovernites in the Vietnam-era Democratic Party, the Tea Partiers are taking over the GOP, state by state. And in all likelihood, they will select a party nominee who runs substantially to the right of both Bush in 2000 and 2004 and John McCain in 2008.
That candidate, whether it be Palin herself or a Palin wannabe, will, I suspect, be crushed in the general election. The one major advantage today’s Republicans have over the Democrats of the early 1970s is the economy: If it is actually worse in 2012 than it is today, all bets are off. But if it improves, even modestly, Republicans are likely in for the kind of rude awakening that Democrats experienced in 1972. The reason is that in their fervor to make their parties ideologically pure, the Tea Partiers, like the McGovernites, have not noticed that the bulk of the country is actually moving the other way. In retrospect, the story of the Vietnam years is not the rise of the anti-war left; it was the rise of the suburban Sun Belt, that rapidly growing swath of the country that would elect Reagan, Gingrich, Bush, and DeLay. The McGovernites were so angry that Kennedy, Johnson, and Humphrey had compromised their liberalism that they didn’t notice that the fastest growing share of the electorate didn’t want any liberalism at all.
Similarly, the Tea Party is today garnering all the headlines, but the rising demographic force in today’s politics is not aging white conservatives, but Hispanics and Millennials, two rapidly growing portions of the electorate that are uncomfortable with any right-leaning ideology at all, let alone the right-wing purism of Palin and company.
Historically, it is only after a party loses two or three times that its activists come to terms with the reality that retaking power will require not ideological purity, but ideological compromise of the most wrenching kind. After McGovern lost 49 states, the Democrats nominated Jimmy Carter, who on economic policy was not merely to McGovern’s right, but to Humphrey’s. And after Mondale lost 49 states in 1984, they nominated Bill Clinton, who was even further to the right.
Like the McGovernites in the Vietnam-era Democratic Party, the Tea Partiers are taking over the GOP, state by state.
It may seem odd to talk of a blowout Republican defeat in 2012, when the GOP is headed for a blowout victory in 2010. But it is precisely the over-interpretation of the latter that could produce the former. When the dust from this massive recession settles, it will be clear that America is not moving right; it is moving left because America’s fastest-growing demographic groups reside on the center-left. Hold on, Republican moderates; you may be poised for a big comeback in 2016.
Peter Beinart, senior political writer for The Daily Beast, is associate professor of journalism and political science at City University of New York and a senior fellow at the New America Foundation. His new book, The Icarus Syndrome: A History of American Hubris, is now available from HarperCollins. Follow him on Twitter and Facebook.