Back in the days when the Democrats were the perpetual losers of presidential elections, they developed a formidable ability to psyche themselves into believing that the fault lay elsewhere. When Jimmy Carter went down in 1980, it was economic forces beyond his control and rotten luck in Iran. In 1984 and 1988, it was a serendipitously healthy economy that favored Republicans. Democrats always complained of a charismatically challenged nominee, or Reagan’s magic dust, or Lee Atwater’s slime-ball tactics. As manifested by voters’ continuing refusal to give Republicans control of Congress, they reasoned, the people obviously liked what Democrats stood for. The people just had a funny way of expressing it. For some dogmatic Democrats, it seemed, any explanation would do except the obvious one–that the party wasn’t speaking for a majority of voters at the national level.
As with so much else in politics, the traditional roles are now reversed. Today, it is the Republicans who are on a quest to rationalize political failure. A few go so far as to argue that the GOP is winning even as it appears to be losing. Grover Norquist, who is the president of an anti-tax organization and an adviser to Newt Gingrich, compares the 1996 election to the Battle of the Bulge, in which Germany inflicted losses on the Allies, but weakened itself to a point where it could soon be defeated. The Democrat-Nazi analogy is an added bonus.
Denial is, according to psychocliché, one of the stages of dealing with death. But what of the stations of denial? Conservatives are now ignoring reality with the help of four principal excuses.
1 It was all Dole’s fault.
Charles Krauthammer makes this case in the post-election issue of the Weekly Standard. (“No Excuses, No Alibis,” declares the editors’ self-congratulatory headline, as if pinning the entire blame on one scapegoat deserves a medal for intellectual valor.) “The reason for the Republican defeat is to be found not in the economy, not in the opponent, not in the stars, but in the candidates,” Krauthammer writes. “The most important fact about the 1996 presidential campaign for Republicans is that but for Dole (and Kemp), it was winnable.” Dole, according to Krauthammer, failed to make Clinton administration corruption seem like a valid issue, and missed his chance to exploit affirmative action. Tony Snow, a former speechwriter to George Bush, also makes this argument in his column. “Bob Dole, stranded in the thickets of his ineloquence, settled on the theme of: Whatever,” Snow complains.
Certainly Dole was a weak candidate, as was Mondale, as was Dukakis, and as was Bush, both when he won in 1988 and when he lost in 1992 (his speechwriter, one Tony Snow, failing to extricate him from his own verbal briar patch). But to put all the blame on Dole presumes that there was some other Republican candidate who might have presented a more formidable challenge to Clinton. Would that be Phil Gramm? Steve Forbes? In the early phase of conservative lament over Dole’s hopelessness, most Republican pundits were pining for … Jack Kemp. But even the great white hope Lamar Alexander would have faced the same situation Dole had to deal with: a damaging but untouchable GOP abortion plank and guilt by association with the Gingrich Congress.
2 It was due to circumstances beyond our control.
Republicans suddenly sound like a bunch of Marxist economic determinists. “Tuesday’s presidential election was won back in January, when the economy, which seemed headed for zero or even negative growth, suddenly turned around,” writes James K. Glassman, the conservative Washington Post columnist. “Economy is destiny.” Others make an even broader structural argument. “It was Clinton’s good fortune to run for re-election in a generally satisfied country,” write Ramesh Ponnuru, Rich Lowry, and Kate O’Beirne in the National Review. In the words of Fred Barnes, offering an alternative explanation to Krauthammer’s in the Standard: “In a period of peace and prosperity–such as now–an incumbent president is all but certain to be reelected. It’s that simple.”
That simple? Peace and prosperity? As recently as four years ago, pundits were explaining George Bush’s defeat after winning the Gulf (and arguably the Cold) War–delivering not just “peace” but victory–by likening it to Churchill’s defeat by British voters after World War II: Peace gave people the security to try someone new. As for “prosperity,” Republicans certainly didn’t attribute their victories of 1984 and 1988 to a fortuitously good economy. In those ancient days, they thought the president deserved some credit for the state of the economy. They also insisted that larger ideological tides were at work.
3 If you squint, it looks like we won.
In one of several exculpatory post-election editorials, the Wall Street Journal notes that votes were much more evenly split among married women than among divorced, widowed, or unmarried ones. “Seen in this context, what was seen as an issue of male vs. female actually emerges as the nuclear family vs. something else,” the Journal editors write. The editorial goes on to note that between one-third and one-half of all divorced women spend some time on welfare: “As for the famous gender gap, it appears to be merely part of the basic political tensions that now exist between defenders of the country’s post-War system of government guarantees and Republicans who argue for an updating of the ways we ensure personal and financial security.”
The theory gets a bit murky here. If the “basic political tensions” in America today are between pro-big-government and anti-big-government factions, and the pro-big-government faction just won, how are the Journal’s editorial sympathizers supposed to find comfort in that analysis? If women are disproportionately pro big government, for whatever reason, how does that disqualify the big-government philosophy, or explain away its apparent triumph? Are the Journal editors trying to say that Dole would have won the election if not for people who are–or might go–on welfare? Or, perhaps, that Dole is actually the president of married America? In any case, the response is: so what? It’s true: If you don’t count the people who voted for Clinton, most people voted for Dole. Back on Planet Earth, Clinton won, by a bigger margin than he did last time around, and with the help of a gender gap that Republicans have no idea how to close.
4 We actually did win.
In an interview with the electronic magazine Intellectual Capital, Grover Norquist said, “President Clinton ran as a false conservative but he ran as a conservative, the Republicans ran as conservative, and they both won.” This matches the argument of that publication’s sponsor, Pete du Pont, who adds in his column: “As the election smoke clears we can now see the political landscape clearly. What stretches out behind us is twenty years of an increasingly conservative America.” In the opinion of the editors of the Standard, Republican retention of congressional control “is a tribute to the inexorable tidal pattern of partisan realignment.”
The premise here is that the only authentic Democrat is a McGovern Democrat. If the Democrats win while claiming to stand for anything to the right of the 1972 platform, it counts as a victory for Republicans. This is silly. Clinton ran on a platform that, while certainly less liberal than those of his recent predecessors, is best characterized as reform liberal, not conservative. His politics owe far more to Roosevelt, Truman, and Kennedy than they do to Goldwater or Reagan. If his move toward the center means that the inexorable Republican tide continues to rise, then, by the same token, it counts as a Democratic victory that Republicans retained control of the House only by disavowing their 1994 vintage radicalism. If Clinton has been Gingriched, Gingrich has been Foleyated.
And even by their own theory, how do these Republicans explain the voters’ preference for an ersatz Republican over the genuine article? Wherever you place Bill Clinton on the ideological spectrum, his defeat of Bob Dole cannot rationally be interpreted as a victory for conservatism.
Of course, the above reasons all contributed to Clinton’s victory. Dole was a lousy candidate, Clinton a brilliant one. Peace and prosperity, which were only partly the president’s doing, handed him an enormous advantage. Clinton shifted to the center for tactical as well as philosophical reasons. But Dole also lost because of deep Republican problems. Voters rejected, and will probably continue to reject, giving total power to a party that remains a hostage to the Christian right on abortion and that threatens to scale back government in a radical way.
Conservatives can start facing up to these problems. Or, they can keep blaming it all on bum luck, and keep on losing.