After their loss to Ronald Reagan in 1980 the Democrats were stuck. Even Clinton’s 1992 victory was less about the Democrats than anger at the economy. He was only re-elected in 1996 after shifting right and relying on his political popularity. Utnil 2006, the Democrats remained on the defensive.
To many, it looked like they were still protesting the Vietnam war. They were caught by surprise when the Berlin Wall came down, and their pro-labor rhetoric seemed out of place in an era where unions were seen as overly large and corrupt. The building of coalitions across interest groups was less effective as America became less defined by coalitional politics, and it appeared to many that the Democrats simply wanted to promise more government goodies to special interests, almost as if they were buying votes. Americans started to rebel against increasing regulations on every day life, and the Republicans appealled to the desire for freedom.
Moreover, the Republicans were able to bring together the economic libertarians, foreign policy hawks, and Christian conservatives with a multifaceted message that allowed these groups to feel a part of the new Republican vision. They had intense internal differences, but each thought their perspective benefited from Republicans being in power. The Democrats were dismissed as tax and spend socialists, their policies connected to an ideology that was failing.
The Democrats in the 80s and 90s, despite some successes, were all too often caught in a time warp. They were fighting the battles of Vietnam and the Great Society in an era where those things no longer inspired voters, and were not part of the consciousness of younger voters. The Democrats started to look like a party of special interests, could be accused by the Republicans of lacking ideas and having no core principles. They were caught up in an obsolete discourse.
That was then. This is now.
One sees the change with the RNC effort to brand the Democrats as “Democratic Socialists,” and the way the “socialist” label gets thrown around. Just as Reagan’s foreign policy seemed self-evidently aggressive and misguided to the generation that opposed the war in Vietnam, Obama’s approach to the economy appears self-evidently wrong to the Reagan generation. He is expanding governmental control, with the government and big labor actually running part of the auto industryy. The government is micromanaging some big banks, putting restrictions on the credit card industry, tightening environmental rules and automobile mileage requirements, and pushing for a major overhaul of the health care system.
To the eyes of Republicans aged forty and upward, this is clearly socialism, and that attack should stick and be damning. But like the Democrats of the 80s, the Republicans of today are caught in a time warp, making arguments that would have been devastating twenty years ago, but are meant with a shrug today.
Rush Limbaugh is for older folk. Talk radio is passe, even blogs are starting to fade as people turn to social networking sites and twitter. Blogs that are relevant are short and pithy (meaning, of course, this blog with its 1100 word posts is out of touch). People, especially younger folk, tend to be more pragmatic, concerned with problem solving, and focused on the real fact that there are severe problems facing not only the country, but their own future. What jobs will be out there? Will they be able to afford health care? What careers are viable?
In answering those questions, ideology isn’t relevant. Ideology is the stuff of the Cold War, that weird and dangerous nuclear arms race that frightened people back in the 20th century. That ended a full two decades ago. Getting upset about government control of the car companies is legitimate in that it may not be a smart thing to do — but it’s clear it’s being done because the companies are in collapse, not as part of some grand socialist conspiracy.
So the GOP continues to hurl 20th century insults at the Democrats. But since the demographic for which such language is relevant is older, and probably already set in their political ways, the opportunity to gain support with these tactics is limited. Without a true Republican alternative people are left with a Democratic set of ideas that the GOP says will fail vs. the GOP whose ideas are widely seen to have already failed.
The only hope for the GOP is to leave this time warp and actually confront the issues a new. Focus not on “ism” labels or wild claims that ‘tyranny is coming.’ Even if they believe that to be the case, it’s a loser in terms of political persuasion. Instead they need a vision of the future, combined with practical (not ideological) critiques of Obama’s policies.
Time warps are hard to break out of. Republicans are loathe to give up the identity they’ve gotten used to for a generation, and they can recall all too clearly how well it worked in the past. They’ll have to, to regain traction. That doesn’t mean they need to give up theiir principles though. The right is quick to point out that while the rhetoric of Obama is centrist and pragmatic, many of his principles and actions are very liberal. The right is frustrated that even though they point this out, the public doesn’t have the same reaction to “liberalism” that it used to. Obama has used the current crisis and his own political charisma to shift the discourse. The economic failures and the difficulties in Iraq and Afghanistan have undermined the ‘politics of fear’ still promulgated by people like former Vice President Cheney. GOP rhetoric is anachronistic.
The Republicans need to first disconnect their principles from their rhetoric. Rhetoric is not the principles themselves. Rhetoric is simply a device used to persuade. Then Republicans have to think long and hard about whether or not the rhetoric they use has at times undermined their core principles and they need to make sure that rhetorical habit isn’t creating extra baggage. And finally, they have to make their principles relevant to the 21st century — not just regurgitate old rhetorical devices but retool their message to take into account the economic crisis, the real failures of recent years, and the changes in American culture, and the issues we face. They need to update their application of principles to fit new realities, and then describe and promote them in a way that fits the times.
So far, they are off to a bad start. But that’s to be expected — discursive and rhetorical habits are hard to break, especially when they worked in the past. But until the Republicans break out of their time warp, the playing field will be dominated by the Democrats and President Obama.