As a Democrat and longtime resident of Washington, D.C., I’ve always found the capital more congenial when my party was out of power. Partly that’s because I make my living as a journalist. Republican presidents tend to create a more target-rich environment, not just for liberals but (I think) for everybody. Mostly, though, it’s because Republicans out of power go out of their way to make life unpleasant for the rest of us. When Democrats lose, they’re pathetic. When Republicans lose, they’re bitter and mean.
Former Vice President Dick Cheney’s enthusiastic bashing of the Obama administration—for making the United States vulnerable to terrorist attack (even though the last one happened on his watch); for running up the deficit (even though Cheney once told then-Treasury Secretary Paul O’Neill that “Reagan proved that deficits don’t matter”); for shaking hands with Hugo Chávez (even though Cheney’s mentor, Don Rumsfeld, was once photographed shaking hands with Saddam Hussein); and for extending government bailouts beyond the financial industry (even though, four months earlier, Cheney had chewed out congressional Republicans for refusing to bail out the auto industry)—is a case in point. It’s been noted widely that Al Gore raised some eyebrows when he gave a speech criticizing the Bush administration’s rush to war against Iraq and its doctrine of pre-emption. But this occurred a year and eight months into Bush’s first term. Cheney, by contrast, was out of the gate a mere two weeks after Obama was sworn in.
It’s a familiar pattern. Republicans hounded Bill Clinton for six years over his failed investment years before in the Whitewater Development Corp. until an independent prosecutor concluded, four months before he left office, that he had committed no crime. Somehow this probe turned into an investigation of whether Clinton had lied under oath about being faithful to his wife. He had and was therefore impeached (but not convicted in the Senate). By contrast, Democrats did little more than grumble over evidence that George W. Bush benefited from inside information on a 1990 stock trade and that he effectively went AWOL in 1972 while serving in the Texas Air National Guard. When President Clinton submitted his first major domestic policy initiative to Congress—reform of the health care system—GOP strategist Bill Kristol famously urged congressional Republicans to reject any compromise “sight unseen.” As President Obama and Congress prepare to introduce their own health care reform bill, history is repeating itself: GOP strategist Frank Luntz has already coached congressional Republicans on scare tactics to oppose it. By contrast, when Bush fils submitted his first (and practically his only) major domestic policy initiative to Congress—the No Child Left Behind education reform—liberal Democrats like Rep. George Miller and Sen. Ted Kennedy pitched in to help pass it. During Clinton’s first term, then-House Minority Leader Dick Armey, R-Texas, declared to Democrats on the House floor that “your president is just not important to us.” I don’t recall Democrats ever suggesting that Dubya wasn’t their president either during his first term when he lacked a popular-vote plurality or during his second when his approval ratings sank below 25 percent .
Why the difference? Two reasons, I think.
- When it comes to losing presidential elections, Democrats have more experience. During the past 40 years, the GOP won seven presidential elections. Democrats have won only four, and all of these were under conditions that were unusually favorable (a Watergate hangover in 1976, a sluggish economic recovery in 1992, a booming economy in 1996, and a very deep recession in 2008). Democratic expectations for winning presidential elections sank so low during this period that Horace Busby, a former aide to President Lyndon Johnson, calculated in the 1980s that that the Electoral College made a Democratic win mathematically impossible. His “electoral lock” theory gained wide acceptance until Bill Clinton’s 1992 victory broke a 12-year losing streak. When the Republicans lose a presidential election, it’s a shock to their system. When Democrats lose, it mostly just confirms their tragic view of life.
- Democrats view elections as a means to an end, while Republicans view an election as an end in itself. This arises from their differing views about government. Democrats want to use government as a force for good in society, while Republicans want to diminish government’s capacity to do harm. “In this present crisis,” Ronald Reagan said in his 1981 inaugural address, “government is not the solution to our problem. Government is the problem.” These differing views of government’s value cause Democrats to favor compromise (since they tend to view minimal action as preferable to no action at all) and Republicans to favor deadlock (second-best to active dismantlement of government). For the past 30-odd years, these respective positions have flipped somewhat when it comes to foreign policy—Republicans favor aggressive, unilateral action abroad, whereas Democrats prefer caution and diplomacy—but it’s domestic policy that tends to drive politics and therefore to motivate politicians. With few aspirations to achieve much of anything except cut taxes, Republicans see the apparatus of the federal government mainly as a patronage vehicle, not as something they aspire to manipulate to positive ends while they’re out of power. Why dirty their fingernails?
None of this augurs well for Obama’s promise to heal the nation’s partisan rifts. But with an expected 60-vote Senate majority once the disputed Minnesota race is resolved, maybe he won’t have to.