The Democrats' Dilemma


For most of 1991, one prominent Democrat after another announced he would not run for president or refused to admit he would, leaving former Sen. Paul Tsongas as the only candidate. The tenor of the commentary was that the trouble with the Democratic Party was that it has no candidates of presidential stature.

Other Democrats are at last joining the race. Virginia Gov. Douglas Wilder announced his candidacy Friday. Sen. Tom Harkin of Iowa is announcing his today. Arkansas Gov. Bill Clinton, Nebraska Sen. Bob Kerrey and former California Gov. Edmund G. Brown Jr. have indicated they will follow soon.

All of them to one degree or another embrace the basic tenets that their party has been identified with for the past 20 years and in some cases longer. So now that candidates are in place, the Democrats can confront the awful truth. The problem with their party isn't its candidates; the problem with its candidates is their party.

At the presidential, national leadership level of politics, the Democrats are bankrupt, perhaps moribund, perhaps worse. Former Vice President Walter Mondale said in an interview last week, "We've almost got a one-party system at the presidential level." Almost?

As he looks forward to the 1992 election -- as most people look forward to it -- it appears that a Republican landslide is certain. But this is no isolated thing, related to the lack of stature of men like Messrs. Tsongas, Harkin, Wilder, Clinton, Kerrey and Brown. Nor is it directly related to George Bush. The Democrats have suffered a cumulative landslide loss for more than a generation in presidential elections, through good candidates and bad.

In the last 10 elections, the Republican candidates have won seven (the last three straight by landslides), with a running total electoral college advantage of 3,671 to 1,669. In the last five elections, the Grand Old Party's popular vote margin was 49 million and its share of the two-party vote almost 56 percent.

To realize how total, how across-the-board the Democrats' collapse has been over that period, consider that in those 10 elections, they have carried the men's vote only three times, the women's vote only twice, the white vote only once. They have carried the Protestant vote only once. The only significant-sized blocs the Democrats have done well with are Catholics, whose votes have gone Democratic seven times, union households, which went Democratic nine times, and blacks, all 10 times.

As for regions, the Democrats have lost the West nine times, the Midwest nine times and the South six times (four of the last five). Only in the East (whose population and electoral votes are declining) have Democrats done well, breaking even by winning it five times.

All this is a judgment on the party, not its presidential candidates. This futility has in fact occurred despite some very good candidates. Mr. Mondale, for example, was a popular, respected senator before becoming in many non-partisan eyes the best vice president in modern times. He ran as the presidential nominee in 1984 and lost to Ronald Reagan by a margin of 59-41 percent. He carried just one state, his own Minnesota.

His colleague and mentor, Hubert Humphrey, was also a respected senator and, to a lesser degree, a respected vice president. He was one of the best campaigners of his day, certainly. But when he ran for president in 1968, he got only 43 percent of the popular vote and carried only 14 states. (Third party candidate George Wallace took 14 percent of the popular vote and five states out of Republican Richard Nixon's columns.)

Mr. Nixon almost -- may have, in fact -- out-polled the man many still consider the best Democratic presidential candidate of the post-World War II era. That was John F. Kennedy. The final official vote totals in 1960 showed Democrat Kennedy beating Republican Nixon by 114,273 votes, but the Kennedy total includes 318,303 Alabama votes cast for 11 Democratic electors of whom 6 were for a third party candidate. Take away 6/11ths of the Alabama Democratic votes and Nixon out-polled Kennedy. Either way you look at it, it was a dead heat nationally even with an outstanding Democratic candidate.

In 1952 and 1956, the Democrats nominated one of the real giants of the modern party, Gov. Adlai Stevenson of Illinois. Even today, three decades after his last hurrah, he is remembered, respected, even revered by Democrats. He lost in two landslides, winning only nine and seven states respectively, and 44 and 42 percent of the popular vote.

So the Democratic malaise has not been caused by bad candidates, and it is not a recent development.

What is the problem? I can think of three. One is that Republicans have been more national-defense oriented. Poll after poll shows the American people trust Republicans and Republican philosophy when it comes to defense and foreign policy issues.

Another is the question of taxes. It may be irresponsible to keep LTC harping on the theme of no-new-taxes, cut-the-budget-instead, but -- read my lips -- it sure pays off at the polls. More than anything else, pledging to raise taxes doomed Walter Mondale.

Then there is race, which I believe to be the central explanation for what has happened in presidential politics.

In 1964 President Lyndon Johnson was elected in an enormous landslide, in large part because he had skillfully pushed through the omnibus civil rights act of that year. He won 61 percent of the popular vote and carried 44 states. Outside the Deep South, he carried every state but one and got 63 percent of the popular vote. Blacks shifted massively into the Democratic column, from 64 percent in 1960 to 94 percent in 1964, and whites shifted, too, from 49 to 59 percent.

The black vote has stayed loyal, averaging around 90 percent in the presidential elections beginning in 1968. But the white vote for Democrats plummeted. On average, the Democrats got 48 percent of the white vote from 1952 through 1964. From 1968 through 1988, only 38 percent of white voters went for the Democratic presidential candidates. That's a drop of slightly over a fifth, which is a lot.

Some of the shift is no doubt explained by plain old American white racism. Republicans have skillfully exploited this in presidential campaigns, from the rhetoric of Spiro Agnew (as Mr. Nixon's designated hitter) in 1968 through Ronald Reagan's race-tinged welfare anecdotes to Willie Horton.

But in addition to that, I think Democrats have given white voters legitimate reason to turn their backs at the presidential level. Democratic presidential candidates and platform writers, by proclaiming their intention to favor blacks when there is a white-black competition for jobs, educational assistance and so forth, invite whites to dismiss them.

I believe affirmative action -- which Lyndon Johnson made a highly visible Democratic Party tenet after the 1964 election -- is wise and fair, except politically. It is needed to right ancient wrongs. But to many voters, it's like raising their taxes and not others'. It has to hurt short term to help long term. Most of us vote on the basis of selfish interest and short term fulfillment.

Take the complicating and painful dimension of race out of it and look at it this way. Suppose I was running for governor of Maryland. Suppose I said that since residents of the Eastern Shore had been shut out of the economic mainstream for all those years before the Bay Bridge was built, I would see to it that residents of the Shore would get preference over all other applicants for state jobs, university slots, scholarships and other rewards the state has at its proposal.

Now suppose you're from Towson or Hagerstown, with a son who wants to go to med school and a daughter who wants a job as a state trooper. You gonna vote for me? Oh sure.

If a look back at the voting statistics is grim for Democrats, a look ahead is even worse. This year, for the first time in 60 years, almost as many Americans identify themselves as Republicans as Democrats. Gallup combined surveys for the period 1989-1991 and concluded that Americans described themselves this way: 33 percent Republican, 34 percent Democrat. In 1952, just before Republican Dwight Eisenhower defeated Adlai Stevenson, Gallup reported a 41-34 percent Democratic advantage.

Now the interesting thing -- the frightening thing to the Democrats -- is that back then, a majority of polled persons in every age group except those born before 1890 considered themselves Democrats, but today, according to studies of Gallup polling data by the Roper Center, a majority of voters in every age subgroup born since 1957 identifies as Republican. Taking just those who turned 18 years old since Ronald Reagan was elected, the party breakdown is about 37-27 percent Republican.

Considering that Republican presidential candidates have been able to win with ease over the past 40 years even when there were comfortably more Democrats than Republicans (because of the Republicans' ability to attract independents and maverick Democrats), the Democratic presidential prospects for the future, when the party will apparently be at an increasingly partisan disadvantage, is pretty bleak.

I believe we have in effect a one-party system at the presidential level now -- no almost about it -- and that it has nothing to do with the caliber of candidates the two parties have to offer. It has to do with the cluster of issues that defines a party, especially the cluster of the three mentioned above, and especially with the unpopular Democratic positions on those issues that have become ingrained in the party in the past 20 years.

Theo Lippman is an editorial writer and columnist for The Sun.

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