Republican presidential nominee Donald Trump is becoming an albatross around the necks of members of his party. Down-ballot GOP candidates are put in the awkward position of constantly distancing themselves from the “most” recent linguistic pyrotechnics touched off by Trump.
The Real Estate mogul has suggested that Gonzalo Curiel, the Latino judge presiding over a lawsuit involving Trump University, could not be unbiased because he harbors “an inherent conflict of interest.” More recently, Trump has questioned why the mother of a fallen Muslim soldier stood beside her husband at the Democratic National Convention without saying anything. Trump has also excoriated the work of a fire marshall for limiting attendance at a Trump campaign rally.
Political pundits are ruminating about the demise of the Republican Party. Former President George W. Bush reportedly told former aides: “I’m worried that I will be the last Republican president.” Many political observers believe Trump will lose the presidential election in an electoral landslide and take the Republican Party down with him. However, these pundits and GOP soothsayers underestimate how fast the pendulum swings in American politics. The Democratic and Republican Parties have been the two major parties in the U.S. since the 1860s, and have been given a political execution date a litany of times, only to rise up from the ashes like a phoenix and return to prominence.
In 1928, the popular Republican U.S. Commerce Secretary Herbert Hoover was elected president in a landslide. The Republican Party was in the eighth year of holding the presidency. Amid times of economic prosperity, the incumbent president, Calvin Coolidge, was enjoying stratospheric popularity among his countrymen. The Republican Party was hegemonic, controlling both houses of the U.S. Congress since 1919. The only state Hoover lost outside of the then Democratic Solid South was Massachusetts.
In accepting the GOP nomination, Hoover offered the grandiloquent statement: “We in America today are nearer to the final triumph over poverty than ever before in the history of this land... We shall soon, with the help of God, be in sight of the day when poverty will be banished from this land.” Hoover barely needed to campaign, delivering just seven radio addresses.
However, in 1929 the prosperity Americans enjoyed under Republican presidents came to a screeching halt. The stock market crashed, an economic depression ensued, and Americans leveled their collective blame at Hoover. In 1930, the once comatose Democratic Party won control of the House, picking up 52 seats. That Democratic House majority held for 60 of the succeeding 64 years. The Democrats also picked up eight Senate seats.
Two years later, the once popular Hoover lost re-election in an electoral route, winning only six states. In sharp contrast, the Democratic Party rose from dialysis to electoral supremacy, holding the White House for twenty consecutive years.
In 1964, the Republican Party high command was in a state of panic as the nomination of the ultra conservative U.S. Senator Barry Goldwater (R-AZ) was coming to fruition. While the country was apprehensive about the potential of a nuclear war, Goldwater had cavalierly joked about the use of nuclear missiles: “I don’t want to hit the moon. I want to lob one into the men’s room of the Kremlin and make sure I hit it.” At one point, a poll showed Democratic President Lyndon B. Johnson defeating Goldwater 79 to18 percent. His main primary opponent, New York Governor Nelson Rockefeller, unsuccessfully tried to stoke fear in the GOP electorate by sending out a mailer asking: “Who do you want in the room with the H Bomb button?”
Like Trump, Goldwater did not make an effort to mitigate his rhetoric. Instead, he doubled down on it. He offered himself as “a choice not an echo.” At the Republican National Convention, Goldwater exclaimed: “Let me remind you that extremism in the Defense of Liberty is no vice.” And let me also remind you that moderation in the pursuit of justice is no virtue.”
On Election Day, Johnson swamped Goldwater, winning 44 states. Johnson even won traditional Republican citadels like Utah, and Idaho. He became the first Democrat to break the hammerlock the GOP held on Vermont.
Two year later, with the nation mired in the Vietnam War, riots on the city streets, rising inflation, and a feeling that Johnson was overreaching domestically, the party of Goldwater picked up 47 seats in the House, the most the Party had won since 1946.
Two years later, instead of nominating another conservative firebrand like Goldwater, the party nominated a centrist in former Vice President Richard M. Nixon. With Johnson suffering from a job approval rating of less than 50 percent, Nixon was able to tether the Democratic nominee, Vice President Hubert Humphrey, to Johnson. Nixon promised to restore law and order averring: “The most important civil right is the right to be free from violence.”
Nixon’s moderate message was palatable to Middle America, and Nixon ushered in an era when the GOP held the White House for all but four of the next twenty-four years.
In 1972, the Democrats were in the same boat as the Republicans were in 1964. The discontented “new left” became a major force in the Democratic Party. They challenged the old guard, which favored a muscular foreign policy coupled with a munificent social services regime. For the new left, the flagship issue was getting U.S. troops out of Vietnam. Establishment candidates like U.S. Senator Hubert Humphrey (D-MN) and Edmund Muskie (D-ME) were late in opposing the war. They had supported the war early on.
U.S. Senator George McGovern (D-SD) captured the hearts and minds of the new left by highlighting his early opposition to the war. His campaign slogan was “Right From The Start.” Like Trump, McGovern was given little chance of winning at the start of the campaign. In fact, when he entered the race, McGovern’s chances of winning the nomination were 200-1 against him. However, the pundocracy gravely underestimated the power of the new left within the party, and McGovern pocketed the nomination. This was after a failed last-ditch move by moderate Democrats, spearheaded by Georgia Governor Jimmy Carter, who nominated a traditional Democrat, U.S. Senator Henry “Scoop” Jackson (D-WA), at the party’s national convention.
In the General Election, McGovern’s dovish views alienated many traditional Democrats. In addition, his proposal to truncate the U.S. military budget and his plan to bestow every American with a $1,000 income supplement, were seen as too radical for moderate voters.
Consequently, many down-ballot candidates distanced themselves from McGovern. Some supported Republican President Richard M. Nixon. Nixon won the election in a 49-state landslide, garnering 94 percent of Republican voters, 66 percent of Independents, and an astounding 42 percent of Democratic voters.
However, just two years later, Nixon was forced from office due to his role in the Watergate imbroglio. The Democratic Party took advantage of the situation, picking up 49 seats in the House and four in the Senate.
The 1976 presidential contest saw a recrudescence of the moderate bloodline of the Democratic Party, and the moderate Jimmy Carter, who had tried to stop McGovern four years earlier, was awarded the nomination and went on to win the Presidency.
Intellectual graveyards are littered with prognostications of the death of either the Democratic or Republican parties. After a party reaches a low watermark, it does not sink. Instead, it manages to rise up and eventually seize the reigns of power again.
Should Trump suffer an electoral thrashing and take down-ballot candidates with him, Republicans will likely detach themselves from Trump, win seats in the 2018 mid-term elections, and reorient their brand with a less pugnacious standard barer in 2020.
Trump’s legacy may be that he will be regarded as the ideological forefather of a new brand of conservatism, a force to compete with the conservatives of the party establishment. While establishment Republicans will continue to sing from the song sheet of comprehensive immigration reform, foreign interventionism, and free trade, insurrectionists in the Trump mold, without mentioning Trump, will intone from a hymnbook of closed borders, foreign non-intervention, and economic nationalism.
Herbert Hoover and Lyndon B. Johnson teach us that when a political party reaches it’s political ceiling, it can take a dive rather quickly. Contrariwise, Barry Goldwater and George McGovern teach us that when a political party suffers an ignominious shellacking, there is no place to go but up.
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