Liberals are trying to determine whether this election will be more like 1952 or 1980. In '52, Dwight Eisenhower— an immensely popular figure because of his military service in World War II—defeated Illinois Gov. Adlai Stevenson. But the victory did not put a stake through the heart of liberalism. Though Eisenhower enjoyed two terms and high popularity, Democrats regained control of Congress by 1954 and were back in the White House six years later.
The election of 1980 had a more lasting effect. Republicans would be in the White House for five out of seven terms and control Congress for most of the time between 1994 and 2006. Conservative think tanks, intellectuals and media would help conservative ideas gain mainstream legitimacy.
So which election will 2008 be like? The answer will make a huge difference in terms of whether this is a temporary turn in an otherwise conservative era or we are possibly starting a new political period. We can see similarities between the condition of conservatism today and liberalism in the late '70s that lead to the conclusion that the political status quo is in jeopardy.
Failed leadership: In 1980, liberals were devastated after Jimmy Carter lost. Although he was a centrist, he still represented the Democratic brand and became a national symbol for why Washington needed new leadership. Today conservatives are in a similar position. George W. Bush will end his term with some of the lowest approval ratings in presidential history. Many Republicans are deeply dissatisfied with him. He's tarnished the brand name of the GOP in ways that are comparable to what Carter did in 1980. John McCain has defined his candidacy in opposition to the Washington establishment of Bush, even while defending many of his policies.
Opposition mobilized: Though historians once focused on the unrest on college campuses among longhaired hippies, the real story, we now know, was that during the 1960s and 1970s, conservative activists built organizational strength. Evangelical leaders in the Sun Belt developed institutions capable of raising money and bringing out the vote. Conservatives established new think tanks, as well as new media outlets like talk radio, to spread their ideas. When a candidate emerged in 1980 to tap into the strength of this movement, they were ready to go.
While liberals have not quite achieved the strength of the conservative mobilization, we have evidence that something new is underway. In response to the Bush administration and decades of feeling excluded, Democrats have created a strong grass-roots infrastructure, which was pivotal to Barack Obama's defeat of Hillary Clinton. During the summer, the Obamaites devoted extensive resources to making sure this apparatus was ready for November. Liberals have also developed an extensive Netroots presence and established new think tanks and media outlets. Posts on Talking Points Memo have influenced nightly network-news coverage.
Disunity: Liberals were a mess by 1980. The tensions among Democrats were evident when Ted Kennedy challenged Carter in the 1980 primaries and did quite well. The rift between them was never healed. The struggle between Carter and Kennedy reflected a fractious party composed of Western suburbanites, big-city machine politicians, Southern rural voters and more. Without any unifying themes in foreign or domestic policy, disorder reigned.
Bush will find common ground reading about Carter's experience. The divisions in the Republican Party are now front and center. Fiscal conservatives rail against big-government spending. Neoconservatives and realists are at loggerheads about nation building and military intervention. Social conservatives believe that their party is ignoring them.
Discredited policies: The fourth devastating challenge to liberals in the 1970s was that their major policy ideas had been discredited. The failure in Vietnam persuaded many Americans to question the strategy of containment in the cold war. The combination of stagnation and inflation raised doubts about Keynesian economics, which argued that these two conditions could not coexist and that the government, by manipulating taxing and spending, could restore growth.
In 2008, conservatives find themselves in the same position. Although the surge has helped calm conditions in Iraq, the lack of an exit strategy and continued threats in states such as Afghanistan and Pakistan have created doubts about whether the Bush doctrine is an adequate response to the threat of terrorism. The huge downturn in the financial and housing markets has also undermined the longstanding conservative promise that tax cuts and deregulation are sufficient to creating stable economic conditions. Recent polls showing that, as a result of the financial crisis, Obama could win a large majority in the Electoral College and Democrats might obtain a filibuster-proof Senate make this election feel more and more like 1980—this time with liberals on the winning end.