“Farewell to the Party of Roosevelt” by Ron K. Unz
Unpublished, November 9, 1992
“But other Democrats…will alas have begun to think Republican. There was a book a few years ago, by a scholar named Nancy Weiss, about how American blacks went from voting Republican to voting Democratic. It was called Farewell to the Party of Lincoln. Someday someone may publish a book about other voters and their Farewell to the Party of Roosevelt.
Martin Peretz, The New Republic, April 25, 1988
Nov. 3, 1992. The near extinction of America’s Democratic Party in this election surely ranks with the Fall of Soviet Communism as one of the most unexpected and momentous events of the end of the 20th Century. Although the Democrats—the world’s oldest continually established political party—had suffered major setbacks during the era of Ronald Reagan, they had maintained nearly complete control of Congress for almost half a century, as well as the majority of governorships, state houses, and local political offices. With the end of the Reagan Era in 1988, Democratic hopes for a return to complete political control had looked strong. Today, the party lies in ruins, with barely a hundred seats in Congress and a handful of States in its control, powerless against the tidal wave of support for the incoming Bennett/Kirkpatrick Administration. The “Strange Death of the Democrats” will surely inspire doctoral dissertations for many years to come.
What follows is a brief chronology of the crucial four years leading to this
state of affairs.
Oct. 1988. Asked at the last Presidential debate how he would respond to the rape and murder of his beloved wife Kitty, Governor Michael Dukakis responded: “I’d feel like committing murder myself, but I wouldn’t, and that’s what seperates men from animals.” The surprising flash of human emotion from a man perceived as a soulless technocrat provided an immediate eight percent lift in the polls. The public had already accepted Dukakis’s claim of being more competent than the bumbling George Bush; they now believed that he also possessed the necessary humanity. Reagan Democrats deserted their Country Club candidate and came home to their party.
Nov. 1988. In a major electoral landslide, Dukakis carried 42 states, and the Democrats made substantial gains in the House and Senate as well, consolidating a strongly liberal and democratic majority. Leading party activists promised a complete repeal of the Reagan Era of greed. Arthur Schlesinger Jr.~hailed the return to a great cycle of liberal social activism. The President-Elect more soberly promised to extend “the Massachusetts Miracle” to forty-nine other states.
Jan.-Mar. 1989. United by landslide victory and supported by the national media, the Democrats enact the greatest flurry of social and economic legislation since the New Deal Era. The Civil Rights Restoration Act, the Wetlands Protection Act, the Clean Air Act, the Americans with Disabilities Act, the Gender Equity Act, and D.C. Statehood are all rapidly pushed through Congress and signed within the first three months. To close the budget deficit, tax rates on the “wealthy beneficiaries of the Era of Greed” are raised from 28% to 36% for families with incomes over $200,000, and an additional 10% surtax for millionaires. Some pundits suggest that the Dukakis legislative record has actually surpassed that of Roosevelt’s 100 days. Hailed by the national media as “the Great Engineer,” Dukakis basks in his 60% peak approval rating, despite vicious attacks from small businessmen and The Wall Street Journal editorial page.
Apr. 1989. The collapse of the Massachusetts economy comes to the public’s attention via a 60 minutes episode. The Dukakis administration suggests that a cyclical downturn is inevitable after a prolonged economic boom. National economists claim that Massachusetts’ heavy reliance upon a declining hi-tech defense budget and a shaken minicomputer industry has minimal implications for the national economy, which remains quite strong. Nonetheless, scenes of long Boston unemployment lines, the collapse of several New England banks, and stories of a bloated and inefficient state government sharply reduces public confidence in Dukakis’s economic expertise. The Republicans have a new slogan: “Dukakis said he’d do for America what he did for Massachusetts. It wasn’t a promise, it was a threat.” Dukakis’s approval dips to 49%.
May-Jun. 1989. Massive pro-democracy demonstrations by students occur in Beijing and other Chinese cities, and are finally brutally suppressed with military force. Dukakis appears lost in his first major foreign policy crisis, refusing to fully support the students or condemn the regime. Pundits point out the difference between being a governor and being the President. The public longs for the strength of a Reagan or even the foreign policy expertise of a George Bush, whose close links the the Chinese leaders would surely have averted the bloody massacre in Tien Anmen. Neo-conservatives begin to recall the Carter years. Approval ratings dip to 45%.
Jul.-Oct. 1989. Foreign policy begins to turn in Dukakis’s as Communism collapses in Eastern Europe and the Berlin Wall falls. The media connects freedom for Eastern Europe with America’s turn away from Reaganite ideological confrontation to peaceful coexistence under Dukakis. The Union of Concerned Scientists announces that the nuclear doomsday clock has been set back two full hours. Major new disarmament talks are initiated at a Gorbachev-Dukakis summit. Although much of the public stubbornly connects the Fall of Communism more with eight years of Reagan than with eight months of Dukakis, approval ratings edge up to 55%. Still, Dukakis’s stiff and wooden response to the world-shattering events squanders a once-in-a-century political windfall.
Oct. 1989. The mammoth dimensions of the Savings and Loan Scandal become apparent. Although both Democrats and Republicans are implicated, the heavy involvment of the senior Democratic leadership including Jim Wright (who had easily survived a minor book scandal earlier in the year), Tony Coelho, Fernand St. Germain, and Alan Cranston firmly identified it as the “Democratic Watergate” in the popular mind. The successful efforts by the humorless but incorruptible Dukakis to remove much of the leadership of his congressional party protected him from any taint of scandal, but hardly improved his relationship with the remaining congressional barons. Relations between President and Congress turned chilly, especially as financial indicators began to turn downward. Dukakis’s approval falls to 48%. Congressional Democrats are thankful that elections are still over a year away.
Nov. 1989. In a surprising upset, Democrat Jim Florio is elected Governor of New Jersey. Democrats point to his campaign of economic populism as their best approach to the 1990 elections. Florio immediately pushes a mini-Dukakis basket of legislation through the heavily Democratic New Jersey legislature, including a major tax rise and redistribution of
revenue from wealthier to poorer school districts.
Jan. 1990. Economic statistics indicate that the nation entered a mild recession in the fall of 1990. Despite the Dukakis tax rise, the budget deficit widens alarmingly. The imperturbable Dukakis claims the lack of economic growth is merely a necessary pause after eight years of a Reagan credit card economy, and not a true downturn. Republicans point to the current and projected impact on American business of the massive expansion of government taxation and regulation under Dukakis, projected by some to be costing companies nearly two hundred billion dollars a year in lost profits. The continuing collapse of the Massachusetts economy leaves “the Massachusetts Miracle” the best-remembered phrase from the 1988 campaign, and a staple of comedy routines. Despite generally favorable media coverage, Dukakis falls below 40% in the polls. Democrats hope that Dukakis has bottomed out and that the economy will be growing again by the fall elections.
Apr.15, 1990. The 1989 Dukakis tax rise hits home, especially since the declining economy has widened the projected deficit to nearly $300 billion. The media begins to emphasize the tens of thousands of high-paid loggers losing their jobs to protect spotted owls in Washington State, and the cases of kleptomanics suing under the Americans with Disabilities Act for the right to work in banks. Although Dukakis finally admits that the nation has now been in recession for half a year, his wooden speech and lack of human empathy grate on unemployed workers and their communities. His approval falls to a new low of 35%. A surprising poll by Newsweek finds that Reagan’s popularity has soared in the fifteen months since he left office, and that he is viewed as the greatest American president of the century by 60% of the public.
Jun. 1990. Unemployment approaches 8%, and a mammoth Washington D.C. jobs march led by D.C. Senator Jesse Jackson leads to scattered violence throughout the Capital. The Democrats, worried by the approaching November elections, press Dukakis to support a massive and immediate stimulus package built around an Education and Training jobs program. Despite the strong opposition of Vice-President Lloyd Bentsen and many conservative Democrats, the package narrowly passes, immediately injecting tens of billions of government spending into the economy.
Jul. 1990. The growing domestic problems in America and in the Soviet Union lead Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein to risk a lightening conquest of oil-rich Kuwait. The feeble, legalistic response by Secretary of State Warren Christopher further emboldens Hussein, whose armies march onward to occupy the Gulf states and Saudi Arabia as well, giving him direct control over nearly half the world’s oil supply and reserves. Any hope of a U.S. economic recovery is choked off as Hussein doubles prices to pay for his debts from the Iranian war and his further military expansion. America appears the pitiful, helpless giant of the mid-1970s. Although an unlikely alliance between Israel, Egypt, and Iran soon blocks Hussein’s military expansion (and leads to his assassination in 1991), the oil price rise and the threat of additional war in the Middle East, together with the Dukakis stimulus package and the massive deficit, ignites American inflation, which rises to 7%, despite employment remaining stuck at 8%. Deserted by most foreign policy hawks and large blocks of Jewish voters, Dukakis’s approval falls to 29%, among the lowest for any incumbent president. The media begins to turn hostile. “Jimmy Dukakis” becomes a favorite Republican bumper sticker. Optimistic about their chances in November, Republicans field an exceptionally strong array of candidates and vow to provide a adequately funded challenger against nearly every incumbent Democrat.
Aug. 1990. The sudden arrest of D.C. Governor Marion Barry on drug charges leads to a harsh confrontation with black leaders. Claiming to have been “set up” by the racist Dukakis administration, Barry enlists the support of D.C. Senators Jesse Jackson and Eleanor Holmes Norton. Dukakis’s extreme legalism—he tells a black reporter that although Barry “is clearly guilty, he should be found innocent if there is any evidence of entrapment”—enrages all sides.
Oct. 1990. With inflation now over 10% and unemployment still over 8%, terrified congressional Democrats begin running away from their incumbent president. Only the Iron Duke himself remains unperturbed, confident that the American people will soon recognize their mistake in blaming him rather than Reagan for the country’s economic mess. He promises to “stay the course” despite a “rock bottom” approval rating of 22%.
Nov. 1990. A Republican landslide, as the Democrats lose 53 House seats, ten Senators, and eight Governorships. Black turnout for white Democrats is especially low, leading to the loss of many marginal seats, especially in the South and the North-Eastern cities. Democrats from moderate to conservative districts suffer especially heavy losses, tilting the remaining Congressional party in a strong leftward direction. Control of many state legislatures is also lost, notably New Jersey, where Governor Florio now faces a veto-proof Republican majority in both houses. In a shocking upset, an ex-Nazi and Ku Klux Klansmen named David Duke is elected as a Republican Senator from Louisiana, with the crude, but effective slogan”Even Whites have Rights;” he is immediately ostracized by his own Republican Senate majority.
Jan. 1991. The loss of the Democratic Senate, and the massive losses of moderate and conservative Democrats in the House, tilts the Democratic leadership firmly in the leftward direction, with Jesse Jackson, Barbara Mikulski, and Ron Dellums appearing to gain in influence and stature in the caucus of remaining members. This, in turn, leads dozens of re-elected Democratic members of congress to abandon their failing party, and switch to the Republicans, following the lead of many prominent Democratic conservatives in the mid-80s. Several early defectors such as Sam Nunn and David McCurdy are given prominent positions by the Republicans in order to encourage further defections. Within weeks of the new term, a paper-thin Democratic majority in the house had become a small, but solid Republican majority, leading to Republican control of both houses of Congress for the first time in half a century. Similar Democratic defections eventually give the Republicans control of most governorships and state houses by the end of 1991.
Feb. 1991. The exodus of neoconservative and neoliberal Democrats reaches a turning point as the influential New Republic takes the step from fierce criticism of the Dukakis Adminstration to actual support for the Republican opposition. In a signed editorial, publisher Martin Peretz states that “when I find myself in closer agreement on many fundamental issues with a neo-nazi crackpot from Louisiana [David Duke] than with the elected President of my own party, I believe that it has become time to leave that party. It is truly Farewell to the Party of Roosevelt.”
May 1991. With Congress in Republican hands, Dukakis exercises his first veto, on a bill banning Affirmative Action, which the House narrowly sustains. During the remainder of his term, Dukakis will cast fifty-four vetoes, all but three of which will be sustained. The entire country enters political gridlock.
Jun. 1991. Sparked by a traffic accident, violent riots break out in the black areas of Los Angeles, soon spreading to most other American cities. As usual, Dukakis’s confusing response—denouncing the rioters but emphasizing that their legal rights and civil liberties must be fully respected by the police—pleases no one. The national guard is sent in, but only after several days of delay, during which over 3000 Asian and Hispanic shops are looted by black rioters. Dukakis’s approval falls to 17%, and calls for his impeachment begin to be heard. Senator Jesse Jackson blames the riots on the attempt by the Republican Right to repeal Civil Rights, and announces his plans to challenge Dukakis for the renomination. As blacks now represent over 35% of remaining Democrat voters, his effort is taken seriously.
Aug. 1991. A sudden attempted coup against Mikhail Gorbachev by Communist hardliners in the Soviet Union reminds the American people of the outside world after almost a year of mostly domestic concerns. Dukakis’s weakness is viewed as an important contributing cause for the boldness of the hardliners, especially his notorious “Chicken Kiev” speech, opposing those supporting the break-up of the Soviet Union. Although a successful counter-coup led by Boris Yeltsin saves the day, Yeltsin’s ringing praise for the great role played by the Reagan Administration and the Republican Congress in “helping us to destroy the Communist Evil Empire” does little for Dukakis’s popularity, now below 15%. Several leading Cabinent members now begin defecting, to be replaced by left-liberal Democrats from Congress.
Mar-Aug. 1992. Despite hard economic times, William Bennett’s campaign for “Social Reaganism” propels him to a narrow victory over Phil Gramm’s emphasis on “Economic Reaganism,” and he balances his domestic credentials with the foreign policy expertise of Jeane Kirkpatrick, selected for the Vice-Presidency. The vicious three way Democratic race between Michael Dukakis, Lloyd Bentsen, and Jesse Jackson ends with Jackson’s nomination, his selection of Pat Schroder (Dukakis’s last Defense Secretary) as Vice President, and the mass exodus of the remaining Bentsenites from the convention.
Nov. 1992. Although a Republic victory seemed a foregone conclusion from the start of the campaign, its magnitude surpised most observers, with Bennett receiving 72% of the vote and carrying fifty states, to 20% for Jackson and 6% for Bentsen. Lower down the ticket, the Republicans ended with over 370 house seats, 80 Senators, and nearly every governorship. The Democratic Party had essentially disappeared, going the way of the Whigs or the Federalists.
Prognosis: Despite the Democratic collapse, many ex-Democrats have shed few tears over the end of their party. They quietly point out that most of the top Republican leadership, especially its hard, Reaganite core, is made up of persons who grew up and lived almost their entire adult lives as Democrats. Reagan himself, Bennett, Gramm, Kirkpatrick, Chavez, Nunn, and McCurdy fall into that category, as well as leading party intellectuals such as Kristol, Podhoretz, Peretz, and Kaus. As Reagan said, “We didn’t leave the Democratic Party, it left us,” or in the words of Martin Peretz, “It was Farewell to the Party of Roosevelt.”
Although America has temporarily become a one-party state, even the momentary aura of victory cannot hide the signs of eventual fracture in the Grand New Republican Party, with moderate Republicans expressing their distaste over their complete loss of control to hardline ideological conservatives such as Bennett, Kirkpatrick, and Peretz. Social tensions between these “Country Club” Republicans and the New Republicans (mostly ex-Democrats) are also said to be severe, and a Republican split leading to a new two-party system seems likely by 1996. Although in the long run, a return to a two party system is desirable, the immediate chances for success of such a break-away party of moderate Country-Club Republicans are not good. As an unsigned lead editorial in The New Republican (nee New Republic) acidly observed, “moderate Republicans are called that because they are of moderate intelligence.” It is expected that George Bush, the 1988 Republican Nominee, and past National Chairman and Vice President, will be named head of this new party.