We’ve heard the words and music of this song before. The hoariest cliche in American politics, presented as accomplished fact by every wise head in academe and media after every wipe-out election, is that the losing party is finished. Kaput. Destroyed. Done for. Dead, as in the graveyard.
The Republicans were finished in 1932 with the burial of Herbert Hoover, and again in 1940 when Wendell Wilkie turned out to be a burned-out light bulb, and really, really finished in 1964, when the trouncing of Barry Goldwater put the kibosh on quaint conservative ambitions forever, and then some.
The Democrats would never recover after 1972, when the party was taken over by peaceniks and took a flier on the decent but terminally naive George McGovern and lost every state but Massachusetts (naturally). Walter Mondale lost all but Minnesota in 1984 and would have lost that, but Ronald Reagan overruled his managers who told him that one last airport rally in Minneapolis on election eve would give him the perfect game that no one could ever duplicate.
“No,” the Gipper said, “I won’t embarrass a man in his home state.” Mr. Mondale won by fewer than three-tenths of one percent of the million votes cast. When the hapless Michael Dukakis was swamped four years later, the Democrats were pronounced dead and done, again.
But after all these epic triumphs, the dead party escaped from the graveyard, proving once more the famous Pruden Rule, that in life and politics nothing recedes like success.
Some Democrats have taken refuge in disconsolation again, as if the shellacking of the witless Hillary Clinton foretells the doom of the party of Jefferson, Jackson and Roosevelt (two slaveholders and an aristocrat, all elites writ large, if anybody’s counting). The triumph of Donald Trump was not a wipe-out in the mold forged by Franklin D. Roosevelt, Lyndon Johnson or Ronald Reagan, but it has the aroma of a cake baked to a recipe unique this time.
This time only a year ago nearly every pundit in town, and a lot from out of town, busied themselves writing off the Republicans again. Hillary was coasting to her second inevitable presidency and the Democrats, with visions of uncounted waves of illegal immigrants flooding across the Rio Grande, eager to be transformed into American citizens and Democratic voters, imagined they would soon have a permanent majority. Schemes and dreams of a mighty welfare state danced in their heads like sugar plums, and Democratic sovereignty would last as long as the rivers run, the wind blows, and rain falls.
It didn’t turn out quite that way, and to make things worse the Democrats retreated in a permanent sulk to a never-never land to sup on bile, rancor and rage. Now it faces a long and bitter internal fight over whether the party’s wise men can pull themselves together, or whether the Democratic mob forces a retreat to a bad place on the leftmost edge of reality.
“On the surface,” concedes the cover story this week in Time magazine, “the Democratic Party has been united and energized by its shared disgust for [Donald Trump]. But dig an inch deeper and it’s clear that the party is divided, split on issues including free trade, health care, foreign affairs and Wall Street. They even disagree over the political wisdom of doing deals with Trump.”
Neil Sroker, a would-be Democratic strategist, tells the magazine that “there’s no confusion about what we Democrats are against. The only disagreement is what we’re for.”
The depth of the Democratic funk and electoral desolation is measured best in the states, where Democrats hold only 15 of 50 governorships, and only a third of the houses of the state legislatures. The indifferent management of the party’s interests by Barack Obama is only becoming visible now as Obama infatuation fades, and shouts become groans. Over his tenure the party lost 97 seats in the state legislatures. He was not particularly interested in cultivating candidates to come after him, and the clutch of presidential wannabes is old, tired and by any fair reckoning, over the hill and into the deep woods.
The Republicans, by all reckoning, should be riding a vision of their own. Why wouldn’t everything be going their way? But the congressional leadership has all but blown the opportunity the party had been dreaming of for a generation or more, controlling both the White House and Capitol Hill. If it keeps its control of the Hill next year it will only be because voters are terrified by the alternative, a mad creature from the swamp on the left. A second term for Donald Trump would only prove once more that “you can’t beat somebody with nobody.”
• Wesley Pruden is editor in chief emeritus of The Times.