Every four years the political parties describe the impending presidential election as a historic event – and every once in a while it’s true
By Sean Wilentz – – – –
More than 150 years ago, in 1858, as the national crisis over slavery heightened, Abraham Lincoln famously remarked that “a house divided against itself cannot stand,” and that the “crisis” would be “reached and passed” only when the house divided would “become all one thing or all the other.” Now, the long conflict over social equality, political democracy and American government that began during the Progressive era, followed by the New Deal and the Great Society, is reaching its inescapable conclusion. If the Republicans win the presidency in 2016, they will also almost inevitably control both the Senate and the House of Representatives, giving them virtually unfettered command over the entire federal government to go along with their domination of the great majority of the state governments. The Republican president could easily be in a position to appoint new justices to the Supreme Court for an unstoppable right-wing majority that would last for a generation to come. Bush v. Gore, Citizens United and Shelby County v. Holder (the 2013 ruling that greatly weakened the 1965 Voting Rights Act) would be merely the prelude to tilting political and social power. If, however, the Democrats win the presidency in 2016, they will almost certainly take back the Senate and make gains in the House – and the Democratic president will likely be able to appoint new justices to the Supreme Court that will eventually comprise a liberal majority. Between these two stark alternatives, there is no middle ground. In 2016, the country will become either one thing or the other.
How did we arrive at this decisive moment? Two powerful historic developments have driven American politics over the past half century. The Republican Party has been transformed by a conservative movement that has pushed it ever further to the right. The Democratic Party, stunned by the conservative counterrevolution, has struggled to reinvent itself and its politics, while facing the increasingly formidable resources of the right. These shifts are responsible for the polarization and dysfunction that have gripped American government since the 1990s. But they began in 1968.
Amid that year’s turmoil, the assassinations of Martin Luther King Jr. and Robert F. Kennedy crushed liberal hopes and paved the way for the election of Richard M. Nixon. Although at the time Nixon seemed to represent a moderating force inside the Republican Party, his triumph, in retrospect, set in motion what has proved to be the Republicans’ unending radicalization.
It is easy to forget how much Nixon changed American politics. Only four years before 1968, Lyndon B. Johnson won a landslide victory over the hard-right Republican Barry Goldwater and swept a liberal majority into Congress. Goldwater attracted to his cause extremist elements that arose out of pro-business reaction to the New Deal and out of the right-wing anti-communism of the Cold War. After World War II, those elements began uniting traditional conservatives and libertarians, embodied in fringe groups like the John Birch Society. Goldwater also courted and won the white segregationist vote in the South, another major element in the emerging conservative coalition, inflamed by the rise of the civil rights movement and the fallout from the Supreme Court’s landmark ruling in Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka.
Johnson, in routing Goldwater, wanted to outdo the achievements of his idol, Franklin D. Roosevelt, and create nothing less than a Great Society. He would complete the unfinished business of the New Deal on everything from health care reform to environmental conservation while also waging what he called “unconditional war on poverty in America.” LBJ embraced civil rights and joined the fight for economic justice with the one for racial equality – claiming the mantle of Lincoln just as the Republican Party was rejecting its historical legacy and embracing a Southern strategy that would transform it into the party it is today.
Johnson’s continued, forceful pursuit of civil rights policies not only destroyed the Democrats’ age-old political base in the South, it also alienated white urban ethnic voters in the North and contributed to a severe backlash that brought large Republican gains in the 1966 midterm elections. Then, LBJ’s escalating military intervention in the Vietnam War badly split his party and ruined his presidency. For a brief hopeful moment, it seemed as if the Democratic challenger Robert Kennedy might reunite the liberal base that would enable him to succeed Johnson. But Kennedy’s assassination ended that possibility.
Nixon, far from a favorite of the Goldwater wing of the GOP, was deeply suspect on the right, and his administration in several ways followed what had become a post-New Deal consensus on domestic affairs, especially on economic policy. But Nixon also tried to reverse the 1960s, the reforms of John F. Kennedy and Johnson, with his inflammatory coded racial appeals and his efforts to slow the course of desegregation. He launched a right-wing culture war, in which Republicans attacked Democrats as the party of “acid, amnesty and abortion,” and called critics “an effete corps of impudent snobs” – a phrase voiced by the White House’s main spokesman for the morally upstanding “silent majority,” Vice President Spiro Agnew. “This country is going so far to the right you won’t recognize it,” Nixon’s attorney general and political counselor John N. Mitchell bragged.
Nixon’s downfall – his humiliating resignation in the wake of the Watergate scandal – did not, however, bring about a resurgence of the GOP’s once-formidable moderate wing, personified by figures like New York Gov. Nelson A. Rockefeller. The migration of the conservative white South from the Democrats to the Republicans, coupled with Nixon’s appeals to the racial and cultural resentments of “Middle Americans,” had moved the political center of gravity inside the GOP sharply to the right. The chief beneficiaries of Watergate inside the GOP turned out to be the party’s hard-right wing, which had never trusted the wily Nixon – and now rallied behind its new darling, former California Gov. Ronald Reagan.
In 1976, Reagan challenged and very nearly defeated Nixon’s White House successor, the traditional center-right Midwesterner Gerald R. Ford, for the Republican presidential nomination. Four years later, with additional help from newly politicized white Southern evangelical Christians, Reagan humiliated his chief party opponent, the transplanted Yankee George H.W. Bush of Texas. Then, after he opened his general-election campaign with an appeal to states’ rights in the heart of racist Mississippi – Neshoba County, where the Ku Klux Klan had murdered three civil rights workers in 1964 – Reagan handily defeated the idealistic but ineffectual Democratic incumbent (and pro-civil rights Southerner) Jimmy Carter.
Reagan’s triumph was a decisive victory for the right wing of the GOP that had seemingly been disgraced in 1964, and it marked a direct repudiation of New Deal and Great Society liberalism. Central to Reagan’s program was the reformulation of old-time laissez-faire dogma as something supposedly shiny and new – “supply-side economics,” which claimed that skewing fiscal policy heavily toward the wealthy, in the form of huge tax cuts, would supposedly trickle down economic growth to the benefit of all. With the help of a new “counter-establishment” of corporate-funded conservative-policy think tanks like the Cato Institute and the Heritage Foundation, this radical regression to the doctrines of the Calvin Coolidge era that helped precipitate the Great Depression quickly became a fundamental Republican article of faith. To this, the Reagan Republicans added a souped-up culture war, reinforced by the militant soldiers of the Christian right led most prominently by the Rev. Jerry Falwell, an old segregationist, and his so-called Moral Majority.
Reagan’s two terms as president deepened the radicalization of the Republican Party. Yet moderate-establishment elements still commanded enough political leverage in 1980 for Reagan to name the defeated Bush as his running mate. As president, Reagan often spoke as an ideologue but occasionally governed as a pragmatist, whether it came to raising taxes (11 times) or to pursuing nuclear-arms agreements with the Soviets (to the outrage of many of his neoconservative cadres). On some issues, notably immigration reform, Reagan’s positions were so liberal that in later years they would come to be regarded as perfidy.
Reaganism, for all of its genuine ideological fervor, contained an element of bad faith. Even as the Reagan White House implemented regressive policies, cutting social spending (especially for the poor), resisting progress in civil rights and rolling back progressive tax rates, it always promised its political base more than it could or even intended to deliver. Under Reagan, the gross federal debt tripled from $900 billion to $2.7 trillion, and the size of government grew by 6.5 percent. Signature programs from the New Deal and the Great Society, such as Social Security and Medicare, were expanded. (Reagan had often criticized Social Security, but in 1983, when he signed legislation to preserve the system, he said it demonstrated “for all time our nation’s ironclad commitment to Social Security.”) Appealing to his battalions from the Christian right, Reagan paid lip service to crusades like overturning Roe v. Wade, but in the words of one right-wing activist, his White House “offered us a bunch of political trinkets.”
Further aggravating conservatives, Vice President Bush ran as Reagan’s successor in 1988. At heart, Bush remained an old-school patrician Republican. His pledge, in his nomination acceptance speech, never to raise taxes won him an ovation – “Read my lips: no new taxes” – but his promise, in that same speech, to seek “a kinder, gentler nation” left conservatives cold. Bush showed his true colors as president in 1990 when, addressing the fiscal mess he inherited from Reagan, he approved a budget deal that broke his “no new taxes” promise. The decision branded Bush, to the hard-liners, as a fraud. Inside Congress, a younger generation of conservatives, led by the firebrand Newt Gingrich from Georgia, engineered a revolt within the party against Bush, the betrayer.
While Gingrich plotted, the job of bloodying Bush’s nose in the 1992 Republican primaries fell to Patrick J. Buchanan, an old Nixon hand and so-called paleo (or Stone Age) conservative. By pressing the wedge issues of the culture war, Buchanan advanced the party’s radicalization. Hoping to appease the insatiable base, Bush’s forces overcompensated by giving Buchanan the prime-time speaking slot on the nominating convention’s opening night, and Buchanan rose to the occasion by delivering a rip-roaring attack on Democrats as the party of radical feminists and militant homosexuals, out to destroy what was left of American decency. “There is a religious war going on in our country for the soul of America,” Buchanan declared. “It is a cultural war, as critical to the kind of nation we will one day be as was the Cold War itself.” The face of the Republican Party seemed to be morphing from Reagan’s genial optimism to Buchanan’s fury; and the culture warriors whom the leaders had been riling up for decades now seemed primed to turn the GOP into “God’s Own Party.”
After the debacle of 1968, the national Democratic Party fragmented, leaving anti-war liberals, old-style New Dealers and even surviving elements of the old Jim Crow Southern wing of the party to jockey for internal power. In the aftermath of Robert Kennedy’s assassination, Kennedy’s Senate friend George McGovern became, briefly, a rallying point for RFK’s traumatized followers. Four years later, McGovern won the Democratic nomination on a forthright anti-Vietnam War platform and ran a disastrous campaign, only to be crushed by the incumbent Nixon in one of the greatest electoral landslides in U.S. history. The Watergate scandal led to an uptick in Democratic fortunes in the 1974 midterm elections, and in 1976, the Georgia Democrat Jimmy Carter narrowly won the presidency. As a so-called New Southerner, Carter benefited from Nixon’s resignation but succeeded in large measure by winning the votes of Southern blacks newly enfranchised by the civil rights legislation of the mid-1960s.
For the moment, Democrats convinced themselves that the Nixon presidency had been an aberration, and that Carter’s election, no matter his slight margin of victory, marked a resumption of the forward march of liberalism that had become bogged down under Johnson. “The hands that picked cotton,” the civil rights leader Andrew Young later remarked, “finally picked the president.” And as president, Carter, building on the lessons he took from the Vietnam disaster, appealed to principles of human rights and sought to redirect the conduct of foreign policy away from reflexive and sometimes morally compromising Cold War realpolitik.
Caught between the president’s ideals and the harsh realities of international affairs, and buffeted by recurring oil and energy crises at home, the Carter White House seemed overwhelmed. Some of the party’s liberals supported the surviving Kennedy brother, Sen. Edward M. Kennedy, in his challenge to Carter’s renomination in 1980, resulting in a primary battle that proved divisive, destructive and demoralizing. Other Democrats, like Carter’s vice president, Walter Mondale (the party’s presidential nominee in 1984), stayed true to the old New Deal and Great Society verities, which were deflected by the conservative charmer Reagan.
Progressives outside of electoral politics also faced enormous obstacles. Although the cultural fallout of the civil rights, women’s and gay-rights movements was quietly and steadily transforming the ways many Americans lived, the conservative ascendancy put those movements on the defensive, from chagrin about the failed effort to ratify an Equal Rights Amendment in the 1970s to outrage at Reagan’s indifference to the devastating HIV/AIDS epidemic in the 1980s.
Finally, Bill Clinton broke through in 1992 when, with a lingering recession crowding out the culture wars in the general election, he defeated the damaged Bush, who seemed befuddled in dealing with the economy. Having risen through Arkansas politics during the post-civil rights years, Clinton championed the egalitarianism of the 1960s but also understood the recent history that had hurt the party so badly. It was not simply that the cultural distempers of race and religion had pushed many voters over to the Republicans. On the issues of economic equality and opportunity, many erstwhile white Democrats believed the party had abandoned them. Clinton would try to reconstruct liberal politics (albeit without using the by-now-demonized word “liberal”) by directing his reformism to the middle class and aspiring middle class. He campaigned on a detailed platform of economic and social policies under the slogan “Putting People First.”
As with Carter before him, Clinton’s Southern background looked to some party professionals like an antidote to the image of Democrats as decadent, Northern, tax-and-spend do-gooders. But Clinton’s thinking ran much deeper than that. In a major speech in 1991, Clinton assailed what he called the glorification of “the pursuit of greed and self-interest” during the Reagan years, even as poverty rates grew for women “and their little children.” He had it in mind to enact major social legislation, including passing comprehensive health care reform, a goal that had eluded Democratic presidents since Harry Truman. Yet Clinton also endorsed reducing the size of the federal bureaucracy as well as an overhaul of the welfare system geared toward job training.
Clinton’s efforts to update liberalism predictably upset some entrenched constituencies inside the Democratic Party. But if some on the left had reservations about Clinton, Republicans understood just how threatening his revised liberalism was to their political prospects. Some on the right, astonished that any Democrat could win the White House in the wake of Reagan, denounced Clinton as illegitimate. Others mobilized furiously to defeat Clinton’s health care reform plan. “Any Republican urge to negotiate a ‘least bad’ compromise with the Democrats, and thereby gain momentary public credit for helping the president ‘do something’ about health care, should be resisted,” the conservative operative William Kristol wrote in a memo to Republican leaders. Destroying Clinton’s proposal root-and-branch had become the imperative. The right-wing mobilization included, among other things, an effective insurance-industry lobbying campaign of misleading television ads, the notorious “Harry and Louise” spots, which demonized “government bureaucrats” and distorted public debate.
White House blunders in presenting its health care plan plagued its efforts – and when the proposal was abandoned before even coming to a congressional vote, Republicans made the most of the situation. Advancing his strategy to destroy the existing order, House Minority Whip Gingrich nationalized the 1994 midterms, recruiting a crop of reliably right-wing candidates for the House and rallying them behind what he called the Contract With America, a set of proposals crafted by the pollster Frank Luntz. Republicans were also schooled with a Luntz-written memo that encouraged them to “speak like Newt” and trash liberal Democrats with defamatory words like “radical,” “sick,” “pathetic,” “decay” and “traitors.”
In November, the rapidly rightward-trending Republicans picked up 54 House seats, which gave them majority control for the first time in 40 years. Gingrich was now speaker. President Clinton, stunned, was reduced to reminding the nation of the presidency’s continued relevance. Yet the Republican triumph, by accelerating the party’s radicalization, also carried the elements of Gingrich’s downfall four years later.
The press quickly pronounced Gingrich the guru master of Washington, and the new speaker relished it. “I think I am a transformational figure,” he boasted to one reporter on the eve of the 1994 elections. “I’m a much tougher partisan than they’ve seen … much more willing to take risks to get it done.” Yet for all of his verbal bravado and tactical skills, Gingrich would soon be overmatched in his battles with Clinton.
Clinton responded to the trouncing strategically, by practicing “triangulation,” which many critics denigrated but was ordinarily known as politics. Following the defeat of many conservative and moderate Democrats in the 1994 debacle, the congressional Democrats were now, as a group in the minority, more liberal than they had been. Clinton saw room to move in the middle. In June 1995, he laid out a budget proposal that seized the mantle of fiscal responsibility, which the GOP had claimed for its own. Many liberals reacted with horror and reflexively denounced the president as a defector, a “me-too” Democrat, and worse. They failed to notice that Clinton’s supposedly defeatist budget held the line on education investments and Medicare, which the Republicans wanted to throttle, while aiming tax cuts at the middle class and not the wealthy.
While Clinton bobbed and weaved, the Republicans began to look disturbingly extreme. Swirling around the new majority were freshly emboldened, virulent, even apocalyptic strains of extremist right-wing politics, reminiscent of the fiercest fringe elements that had backed the Goldwater campaign 30 years earlier. Push came to shove in Washington in late 1995, when Clinton twice refused to approve a devastating Republican budget that, among other things, would have eviscerated Medicare and granted the wealthy large capital-gains tax cuts, and the Republicans twice shut down the federal government. In standing his ground, Clinton was making two gambles: that no matter how much the public griped about “big government,” people still favored the numerous federal services they received every day; and that blame for the standstill would fall on the bombastic, anti-government Republicans in Congress. Clinton won both wagers when, as the second shutdown was headed into its fourth week, the humbled Republicans backed down.
Republicans were dismayed following Clinton’s trouncing of the establishment candidate Sen. Robert Dole in the 1996 election. Their frustration would grow as it became clear that the nation had recovered from the sluggish economic times of 1990-92 and entered a sustained and roaring boom period – one that, in time, would surpass the prosperity of the Reagan years. But in light of Clinton’s success, the congressional GOP radicals, their numbers swelled by the newcomers elected in 1994, concluded not that they had overreached with their shutdown and other obstructionist tactics but that their leaders had betrayed them. Speaker Gingrich became the chief target, especially when, chastened by the shutdown and Clinton’s re-election, he and Trent Lott, the Senate majority leader, reached an amicable accord with the White House over the 1997 budget.
In July 1997, a plot involving fed-up, high-ranking House Republicans, masterminded by party whip Tom DeLay (a former exterminator who called the Environmental Protection Agency “the Gestapo”) and which included Majority Leader Dick Armey (who called First Lady Hillary Clinton “a Marxist”) and conference chairman John Boehner (who passed out checks from the tobacco lobby to congressmen on the floor of the House), plotted Gingrich’s ouster.
While Gingrich floundered, anti-Clinton forces on the right seized on a long-standing special-prosecutor investigation that had produced nothing but insinuations and false but damaging headlines about a failed real estate investment in Arkansas in the 1970s called Whitewater. Then, early in 1998, a tightknit group of right-wing lawyers and operatives got wind of Clinton’s sexual encounters with a White House intern, Monica Lewinsky, and worked hand-in-glove with special prosecutor Kenneth Starr to try to shift the focus of his investigation to bring Clinton down. Riding the media frenzy, and hoping to shore up support on his right, Gingrich excoriated the president and made the scandal the central issue in the midterm elections. (Left unreported by the press, but well known to Washington insiders, was the inconvenient fact that Gingrich was himself conducting an illicit affair with a woman who was young enough to be his daughter and who was on the congressional payroll.)
In October, the month after Starr presented an impeachment referral to the House, Gingrich assured the Republican caucus that their party would pick up, at a minimum, six to 30 seats. Evidently, neither Gingrich nor virtually anyone else in Washington had noticed that the public, although disapproving of Clinton’s private behavior, approved of his presidency: Throughout the months of turmoil, Clinton’s favorability rating in the opinion polls had never fallen below 60 percent.
When the Democrats actually gained five seats in the House and held their own in the Senate, Gingrich was finished. Days after the election, amid acrid recriminations, he resigned not simply the speakership but also his seat in Congress. Actual power in the Republican caucus immediately shifted to Gingrich’s right-wing rival DeLay, who declared that Clinton was unfit for his office because he lacked the correct “biblical worldview.” With DeLay as the driving force, the House Republicans ignored the judgment of the electorate and went ahead with Clinton’s impeachment, only to result in the Senate, as expected, acquitting the president.
The rise and fall of Gingrich extended and strengthened what had become a spiraling, radicalizing pattern inside the Republican Party since 1980. First, a new conservative Republican leadership would promise to crush big government and the enemies of traditional morality and culture. Then, those leaders would prove, at best, inadequate to the task or, worse, would wind up being (like President George H.W. Bush) turncoats. Even more dogmatic and confrontational Republicans would take the disgraced leaders’ place, further purging the dwindling ranks of GOP moderates and inflaming the angry Republican base – and when they could not deliver on their promises, the new leaders would fall disgraced, opening the way for yet another cycle of radicalization.
Clinton had not just outlasted Gingrich and the Republicans – he had triumphed. He would leave office with an exceptional approval rating of 66 percent. Yet during the presidential campaign in 2000, Clinton’s anointed successor, Vice President Al Gore, wary about Clinton’s reputation after the Lewinsky scandal, distanced himself from the administration and its achievements. The consumer-rights advocate and gadfly Ralph Nader’s third-party effort played upon all the misgivings on the left by claiming that there was no real difference between the Republicans and the Democrats, and drained a small but vital portion of the Democratic vote.
Yet uncertain as the Democrats’ coalition was, they lost the presidential election of 2000 only when the conservative-dominated Supreme Court elevated George W. Bush to the White House by a single vote, five to four – an event that, in its audacity, affirmed the radicalizing pattern on the right. (Gore, who won the popular vote by a half-million, might well have won the vote of the contested state of Florida if the court had permitted it to be fully counted.)
Bush undertook the presidency on intensely partisan terms congenial to the party’s base, and by early September 2001, his approval ratings had slipped to a bare majority, 51 percent. Suddenly, though, the terrorist attacks of September 11th revived Bush’s White House. Bush’s image as a warrior president, especially after the U.S. invasion of Iraq in March 2003, sustained him through his re-election in 2004. A chorus of Republicans conducted by Karl Rove, Bush’s chief political operative, crowed about a permanent GOP electoral majority, in what Rove called a “rolling realignment.” In the neoconservative Weekly Standard, the pundit Fred Barnes expressed as a matter of irrefutable conventional wisdom that “Republican hegemony in America is now expected to last for years, maybe decades.”
All along, the administration found willing allies in the Republican Congress and among right-wing advocacy groups, not simply in pursuing a hard-right agenda on fiscal policy but also in subordinating the domestic agenda to political considerations. Even before the September 11th attacks, the Bush team was closely working with a lobbyist political machine known as the K Street Project, which was run by House Majority Whip DeLay and bent on a partisan politicization of the federal government. “There is no precedent in any modern White House for what is going on in this one,” one appalled senior appointee told a reporter after leaving his job in August 2001.
In 2004, the Democratic nomination went to Massachusetts Sen. John Kerry – a hero of the Vietnam War who became a leader of the anti-war movement. Kerry, though, failed to respond quickly to underhanded attacks on his war record and his character. Then, Rove stage-managed referendums in 11 key states to ban gay marriage, which whipped up the right-wing base. Bush squeaked by to win re-election, and the GOP increased its majorities in the House and the Senate.
In its second term, though, the Bush presidency unraveled quickly. The war in Iraq went poorly, despite the premature announcement of mission accomplished. And in the wake of its bungled response to Hurricane Katrina in New Orleans, the administration and the Republican Congress reeled from one disaster to another. These included the exposure of a web of scandals involving a GOP lobbyist, Jack Abramoff, which soon tainted top Republicans, including DeLay, who was now the House majority leader. The midterm elections in 2006 handed the Democrats a 31-vote majority in the House and a one-vote majority in the Senate.
In 2006, a growing number of economists began warning that the nation’s prosperity had become much too dependent on an irrationally inflated real estate market. The bubble soon burst, and by August 2007, the markets were facing a crisis point: So-called subprime mortgages were dragging down the credit markets, and hedge funds along with them. In January 2008, after a week of heavy losses on Wall Street, President Bush announced an economic stimulus package consisting of tax incentives and rebates – and stock prices continued to fall. The Federal Reserve Board made emergency cuts in interest rates, but the crisis deepened over the summer.
Suddenly, in mid-September, the Lehman Brothers investment bank, one of the most prestigious firms on Wall Street, filed for bankruptcy, and Merrill Lynch and the huge AIG insurance firm announced that they, too, were about to go under. On October 3rd, after weeks of contentious debate, Congress, with a strong push from the White House, approved a $700 billion bill to bail out the nation’s financial system and prevent a catastrophic economic collapse.
The political fallout from the bailout was immediate. Once again, Republican leaders had failed their base miserably. The Democrats would elect Barack Obama to the White House, with an ambitious liberal agenda, and they also substantially enlarged their majorities in the House and Senate. President Bush was departing office deeply unpopular, even on the right. Some pundits wondered whether a new progressive liberal majority had sent the Republican Party into a long-term decline. Those predictions, though, proved misguided. A new and powerful Republican shift even further to the right, and with it a resurgence at the polls, was just over the horizon.
The election of the first African-American to the White House heralded a major landmark in the civil rights revolution and, some imagined, a cessation of the culture wars that had raged since the 1960s. Obama appeared to affirm the dawn of a new liberal political era. The enlarged Democratic majority in the House was nearly identical to the one that greeted Clinton, and the Democratic majority in the Senate was substantial.
As it happened, though, Obama was unprepared for what lay in store. A relative newcomer to Washington, he had campaigned as something of an outsider, promising to end partisan gridlock by finding common ground across party lines. He thought he would be a post-partisan president, convinced that, as he had declared at the 2004 Democratic convention, there is “not a liberal America and a conservative America – there’s the United States of America.” Yet on the very night of his swearing in, as if mocking Obama’s naiveté, a band of Republican congressional leaders of the post-Gingrich cohort met for several hours at a D.C. steakhouse, joined by the original revolutionary Newt Gingrich, to plot Obama’s downfall. The first step would be to stop cold the new president’s agenda in Congress. “We’ve gotta challenge them on every single bill and challenge them on every single campaign,” said Congressman Kevin McCarthy, as reported by the journalist Robert Draper. Uncompromising as they were, though, even these latest GOP hotspurs did not foresee just how fiercely doctrinaire the right-wing resistance to Obama would become.
One month after Obama’s inauguration, a business reporter’s calculated tirade on the CNBC network against a newly announced financial-aid program for bankrupt homeowners climaxed with a call for a “tea party” protest – and the rant touched off, via social media and with a boost from Fox News Channel, a wildfire of right-wing organizing. In fact, various reports indicate that, early on, the Tea Party phenomenon was, if not wholly contrived, then strongly guided and funded by some longtime major bankrollers of right-wing activities, including Americans for Prosperity, backed by the multibillionaires Charles and David H. Koch, and FreedomWorks, headed by Tom DeLay’s erstwhile ally, former House Majority Leader Dick Armey. Congresswoman Michele Bachmann of Minnesota organized what she called a Tea Party caucus in the House and established a political action committee that in time would raise $2.5 million and aid, among others, the Senate candidacies of Rand Paul in Kentucky and Marco Rubio in Florida.
Predominately white, male and over 40, the Tea Party movement was, and is, wrongly perceived as simply an outburst of old-fashioned anti-government fervor. Surveys of Tea Party adherents have shown that a nebulous swirl of resentments pervades the movement, to some degree generational (with common complaints about entitled young people), and to some degree tinged with racial antipathy (although not usually explicitly racist). There is a general anxiety inside the movement about precisely the kind of “change” that Obama promised during the 2008 campaign, which the Tea Party faithful take to mean nothing less than eradicating the American way of life. Politicians of almost every stripe are despised: Democrats in general, but also mainstream Republicans, whom the Tea Party rebels deem spineless fakes who have proved incapable of defending decent Americans from parasitic big government. And then there was the first African-American president, who many on the right thought was not an American at all, had forged his birth certificate and was a Muslim.
Over the next four years, a fierce, three-sided struggle involving the White House, the Republican congressional leadership and the aroused Tea Party base sharpened the polarizing pattern of the previous three decades. Less than a month after his inauguration, over nearly unanimous Republican opposition, Obama enacted a large if insufficient economic stimulus package. In 2010, he signed the Dodd-Frank Act, the most sweeping legislation on financial regulation since the reforms of the New Deal era. And in that same year, after a prolonged battle with Congress, Obama signed the Affordable Care Act, the boldest piece of social legislation since LBJ’s Great Society.
When the Republicans affixed the label “Obamacare” to the ACA, support for the Tea Party spiked. In the 2010 congressional primaries, Tea Party-backed insurgencies toppled establishment-GOP candidates, and in an electoral surge reminiscent of the Gingrich-led Contract With America campaign, Republicans picked up, along with six seats in the Senate, an astounding 63 seats in the House, regaining the majority they had lost in 2006. “Our top political priority over the next two years,” Sen. Mitch McConnell said two days after the election, “should be to deny President Obama a second term in office.”
The new Congress brought to the fore the fresh crop of Republican leaders who had begun plotting against Obama on Inauguration Day 2009, including Majority Leader Eric Cantor, Majority Whip Kevin McCarthy and the chairman of the House Budget Committee, Paul Ryan. Having dubbed themselves the Young Guns, they were palpably uncomfortable with the new speaker of the House, John Boehner. A mediocre politician with a gift for longevity, Boehner was the last man standing from the Gingrich revolution. First Gingrich had been beheaded; then Bob Livingston resigned in a phone-sex-tapes scandal; then Dennis Hastert was installed as the puppet of DeLay; then DeLay was undone; then the GOP lost the House partly as the result of a sex scandal involving House pages. (Hastert’s history as a sexually predatory high school wrestling coach still remained hidden.) Boehner, the underling, became the face of an embattled and dwindling GOP establishment, challenged by a younger generation of radical rightists.
From the start, the Young Guns made it clear that they would try to force the administration’s hand by manufacturing a controversy over the federal debt limit. Dating back to World War I, the limit is an artificial cap, determined by Congress, on the amount that Congress can borrow in order to honor obligations already made. For decades, Congress had raised the cap as a matter of course. By misrepresenting the limit (sometimes called a “debt ceiling”) as a virtuous restriction on federal spending, Republicans cast themselves to the party’s base as fighting a battle for fiscal righteousness, rather than partisan cynicism. But the threat made to the White House was undisguised blackmail: Unless the administration agreed to gut Obamacare, Congress would send the nation’s finances careening over the cliff.
Early in 2011, the emboldened Republican House threatened to shut down the government as Gingrich had done in 1995, and forced a last-minute deal in which Obama received $79 billion less in discretionary spending than he had wanted. Over the next few months, Boehner and Obama would enter into negotiations for what the president called a “grand bargain” on the budget, only to see talks repeatedly fall apart when the speaker would balk at a compromise, having grown so fearful of a backlash from Tea Party members in the House.
Amid the 2011 debt-ceiling crisis, Obama apparently abandoned any illusions about post-partisanship and instead defended positive government while lambasting theories of trickle-down economics. And Republicans were dumbfounded when he won re-election by 5 million votes and a landslide in the Electoral College, while Democrats dominated the overall vote total of both the House and Senate elections. As a result of gerrymandering by GOP-controlled state legislatures, the Republicans retained control of the House.
Mitt Romney, the Republican nominee, struggled mightily with his party’s inner conflicts. Another scion of the establishment, the son of George Romney, a pro-civil rights governor of Michigan, Romney had been a moderate governor of Massachusetts, and he entered the race for the nomination as the well-funded front-runner. By the time he secured the nomination, Romney had been compelled to adopt extreme positions popular in Tea Party circles but fatal in the general election, including selecting as his running mate Paul Ryan, a proud acolyte of the right-wing cult heroine Ayn Rand.
Neither Boehner nor Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell could break the GOP’s absolutists, who repeatedly threatened shutting down the government or forcing a fiscal default if their demands were not met. During the weeks after Obama’s re-election, dogmatic hard-liners brought the nation back to the brink of the fiscal cliff. Ten months later, after almost continuous skirmishing with the White House – and with another fiscal crisis looming – House Republicans called for the defunding of Obamacare and forced a two-week government shutdown. Voters blamed congressional Republicans for the latest shutdown fiasco – but the conservative base blamed Boehner, McConnell and the rest of the party leadership for backing down once more.
Persistent right-wing pressure inside the House Republican caucus opened an additional political front with the ginned-up Benghazi investigations. Right-wing commentators, led by Fox News, imputed that the White House and former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton had lied about the murders of four Americans in Libya. By the end of April 2014, two Senate committees and four Republican-led House committees had investigated the Benghazi attacks and found no evidence of wrongdoing by senior officials, including Obama and Clinton. (A fifth House committee would come to the same conclusion.)
Still, Tea Party radicals in the House compelled Speaker Boehner to appoint a select House committee on Benghazi. Boehner named as chair Trey Gowdy of South Carolina, who had won his seat in 2010 after defeating a Republican who had made the fatal mistake of publicly stating that he believed in the scientific reality of climate change. In the end, the resulting Benghazi hearing proved to be a repeat of the Whitewater investigations. In a long-scheduled showdown with 11 hours of testimony before a choleric committee – a grilling unprecedented in the history of American presidential politics – Clinton seemed to dispel the cloud of suspicion around her and expose the entire affair as an overtly partisan witch hunt.
Meanwhile, Speaker Boehner was losing his grip. Over the summer, congressional conservatives, led by Sen. Ted Cruz of Texas, delivered their latest threat to shut down the government, this time over defunding Planned Parenthood. In late September, Boehner, weary of the intramural savaging, resigned from the speakership and his House seat, reprising Gingrich’s departure more than 15 years earlier. The speakership fell to Rep. Paul Ryan. With his Randian view of the world and past efforts to slash social spending, Ryan is the most committed ideologue to sit in the speaker’s chair in living memory, standing well to the right of the Gingrichite holdover Boehner. Yet the conservative media figures playing to the new breed of Republican radicals regard Ryan warily as not nearly conservative enough. And Ryan had to work hard to win endorsement from the far-right Freedom Caucus in the House.
The current contest for the Republican nomination has only accelerated the party’s fitful lurch even further toward extremism. After decades of ever-intensifying radicalization, the Republican voting base – of which three-quarters now define themselves as Tea Party supporters, evangelicals or religiously observant – was ill-disposed to accept an establishment figure of any kind, resulting in a bizarre primary season where “anti-politician” candidates like Donald Trump and Ben Carson have dominated in the polls. No matter the identity of the victor, he will be the leader of a party transformed since Nixon’s nomination 48 years before the 2016 contest – a party now irrevocably bound by a series of inflamed reactionary impulses expressed not only as hatred for the American government and a desire to paralyze it but also in fear and loathing for the new, modern and diverse American society.
At one level, history’s tide may finally have turned against that reaction. By the eve of 2016, evidence of a profound social and cultural revolution begun decades ago became too strong to ignore. The rise of the Internet, changing patterns in immigration, racial and ethnic diversity, family organization and gender roles, as well as declining religious piety, have created an America unimaginable when Clinton and Gingrich squared off 20 years ago.
According to data reported by the respected Democratic pollster Stanley B. Greenberg, a majority of U.S. households are now headed by unmarried people; non-religious seculars outnumber Protestants; and two-thirds of women are either the breadwinners or co-breadwinners of their households. Racial minorities now constitute nearly 40 percent of the nation’s population. According to one Gallup Poll, 60 percent to 70 percent of Americans consider homosexual relations, out-of-wedlock births and divorce as “morally acceptable.”
Even more striking, according to Greenberg, the electorate has changed as well. In 2012, the combined numbers of minorities, single women, millennials and seculars formed 51 percent of the nation’s voters. In 2016, Greenberg’s analysis shows, these same groups will form 63 percent of the electorate. As each of these groups supports Hillary Clinton for president by margins of two to one, Greenberg writes, “It is fair to say that the United States has reached an electoral tipping point.”
Despite these apparent social and cultural trends, though, the Republicans might well win. They understand the stakes, and their resources are astounding. The Koch brothers’ political network alone has vowed to spend $250 million on the 2016 campaign, out of a two-year political budget reaching toward $1 billion. Fox News is a powerful force in shaping public perceptions. Over the past 30 years, Republicans have proven masterful at manufacturing pseudo-scandals that, with the aid of a cowed, careerist mainstream press corps, have smeared reputations and distorted public debate. No matter what happens in the national elections, meanwhile, the radicalized Republicans will continue their power grabs in the states, having gained control during Obama’s presidency of the majority of governorships and legislatures. This control has already altered national politics through gerrymandering that virtually ensures a GOP stranglehold on the House of Representatives through 2023. It will allow the Republicans to expand their campaigns to restrict voting rights, gut firearm legislation and deprive poor women of reproductive health care; and in Washington, Republicans will invent more select committees to propagandize their political hoaxes.
A Republican victory would bring a comprehensive, regressive offensive unlike any yet seen in modern American politics over the entire gamut of issues from taxes and climate change to immigration and women’s rights. More broadly, it would signal a full-scale assault on basic democratic principles, not just on the programs that have guided the nation since the Great Society, the New Deal, the Progressive era, or even the Civil War, but on the living egalitarian idea from which American progress has flowed.
Not since the 1850s has an entrenched minority managed to shift one of the major political parties to such extremes while also holding so much leverage over the nation’s politics. Then, it was the Democratic Party that became the vehicle of reaction, as Southern slaveholders brooking no interference with the expansion of slavery effectively rid their party of anyone who would not truckle to their demands. When Congress passed laws not to their liking, the Southerners threatened secession, and when they had so alienated the rest of the country that they lost the White House to Abraham Lincoln in 1860, they made good on their threats to secede, which drove the nation into civil war.
The crisis facing the United States today is not the same as it was then. But there are similarities, and the stakes of the coming election, if not those of 1860, are high enough. Over the past 50 years, the Republican Party has by fits and starts eliminated all traces of moderation and moved further and further to the right, well beyond where Goldwater, let alone Nixon, once stood. By the 2016 campaign for the Republican nomination, that radicalization has intensified to the point where, week by week, leading presidential contenders seem to be trying to outdo one another in the shock value of their right-wing extremism. And the more radical the Republicans have become, the more apparent it is how profound a gulf separates the two political parties. “A Choice, Not an Echo” went the title of a pro-Goldwater tract in the polarizing election of 1964. The 2016 election presents the starkest choice since then, indeed, in living memory, but now with literally everything at stake. The country will, as Lincoln said, become either all one thing or all the other.