There’s a fierce battle being waged in Washington over deficits, entitlements, and military spending priorities. But it isn’t between the Democrats and the Republicans, it’s between the optimistic and pessimistic wings of the Republican Party. You see, the Democrats don’t matter much anymore. The Republicans control the White House, have sizable majorities in both chambers of Congress, and are well on their way to reshaping the federal judiciary. So as long as they maintain a modicum of party discipline, they don’t need the Democrats for much.
The extent of Democratic Party decline over the last generation is breathtaking. Thirty years ago, as the republic approached its bicentennial, Democrats held 291 seats in the House of Representatives and Republicans held 144. Today, Republicans have a majority of 232 seats in the House. Thirty years ago, Democrats held 60 seats in the Senate and Republicans 38. Today, Republicans have a majority of 55 seats in the Senate. The Democrats have not managed to re-elect a single President with a majority of the popular vote in over half a century; the Republicans have re-elected four.
You could argue that Democrats are simply reverting to their pre-Depression minority status now that the memory of that national trauma is fading. Only two Democrats — Cleveland and Wilson — won the White House between the outbreak of the Civil War and the Great Depression, and Wilson was the first Democrat re-elected in office since Andrew Jackson. Perhaps the Depression gave an unnatural boost to the Democrats that has dissipated over time.
But why has it dissipated? Is the electorate drawn to the towering intellect and eloquence of leaders like Reagan and Bush? Probably not. Is it impressed by Republican efforts to repeal Social Security? I don’t think so. Perhaps the explanation for the decline of the Democrats lies not so much in Republican appeal as Democratic repulsiveness. No, I don’t mean James Carville. I mean the two issue clusters where Republicans most decisively outpoll Democrats — defense and family values.
On defense, the public has recent evidence of Republican resolve: Ronald Reagan, who ended the Cold War; Bush 41, who won Desert Storm; and Bush 43, who is determined to bring democracy to Arabia. Contrast those records with Carter’s weak response to Ayatollah Khomeini, or Clinton’s equally weak response to Osama (not to mention his retreat from Somalia). There are plenty of patriots among the ranks of congressional Democrats, but what the electorate remembers is the drumbeat of defeatism from people like Ted Kennedy — whose latest stupidity, a handy Iraq timetable for insurgent planning, was on display last week. How can you trust a party harboring such people with national security in a crisis?
On family values, the public figured out a long time ago that there probably isn’t a single gangster rapper in America who is a registered Republican. Probably not a lot of pornographers, either. How obtuse do you need to be to not see the connection between Democratic welfare policies and a rise in out-of-wedlock childbirths since 1960 from one-in-twenty to one-in-four? Democrats don’t endorse such behavior, but the public correctly sees them as more likely to look the other way. Which along with defense is why most voters now cast their ballots the other way — for Republicans.
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