2020 Has Echoes of 1996 for the Opposition Party

The Democrats have assembled a field of candidates for 2020 as large as it is unimpressive. From the slick Robert “Beto” O’Rourke and the media creation Kamala Harris to the Woodie Guthrie wannabe Bernie Sanders, to the fake folksy chameleon Joe Biden, it’s amazing such a large group of candidates is collectively so devoid of charisma, intellect, or interesting ideas.

I’ve loathed the Democratic Party since junior high school, but even I could recognize the common touch of Bill Clinton and the cool, disciplined demeanor of Barack Obama. Hell, even Hillary Clinton was obviously bright, though so haughty and mechanical that she lost an election she was supposed to win.

It is telling that the best the Democrats of 2020 can come up with is the slippery retread Biden, whose 1987 run for the presidency ended in disgrace when news broke of his plagiarism. He and the rest of the bunch are not exactly the stuff dreams are made of, even with the demographic tail winds that spell disaster for the Republican Party and the republic before long.

In spite of the changes to the country’s population, the electorate is a lagging indicator. While the country has been rearranged with a mass influx of foreigners, their ability to vote takes some time, as mere presence and even legal residence does not equate to citizenship.

Indeed, misunderstanding the persistence and importance of legacy America had much to do with the Democrats’ failures in 2016. They thought the coalition of the ascendant would take them over the finish line. They learned instead that lots of Americans were sick of being force-fed nonsense about transgenderism and being bullied about “white privilege,” as they struggled to maintain a middle-class existence.

Most elections since 1988 or so have the same basic feel. The South is mostly solidly Republican. California, Illinois, and the Northeast are solidly Democratic. The Midwest is what typically swings between elections, along with the mercurial bellwether of Florida, whose people are an amalgamation of the rest of the country.

Clinton won in 1992 by being a popular, moderate Southern governor. The addition of Ross Perot and a modest recession combined to keep the prize from the incumbent, George H.W. Bush. The elder Bush also had the demerit of being seen as a fair weather friend to “movement conservatives,” who dominated the Republican Party after Reagan. Even so, Republicans were angry at this turn of events, which seemed irrationally to repudiate the Reagan economic miracle and Bush’s Cold War victory.

Clinton, Like Trump, Was Hated for His Style
From 1992 to 1996, the white hot passion with which Republicans loathed Clinton cannot be overstated. His style, his support for abortion and gun control, his uneasy approach to the military, and his push for national health care made him very unpopular with ideological conservatives and Republicans.

With the demise of the Soviet threat—a common enemy for conservatives of all stripes—Clinton became the substitute bogeyman. He was cast as an extreme liberal, which appears exaggerated in retrospect. He was merely a moderate, hated as much for who he was and his style as for any of his policies.

The Republican Party of the 1990s, like the Democrats of today, had a problem. Although the party was united in opposition to Clinton, it was divided internally between the “establishment” and its own far Right, exemplified by Pat Buchanan.

George H.W. Bush was no Ronald Reagan, and Buchanan challenged Bush in the 1992 Republican primary and pioneered a nationalist vision for the post-Cold-War GOP. Buchanan was critical of Israel, free trade, mass immigration, interventionism, and addressed other issues that make up the “national question.” He was, however, ahead of his time. Most of the effects of mass immigration and globalization would only be felt more fully in the future, and small government, pro-business, and low-tax views remained the consensus view among Republican voters.

In 1996, Buchanan at first represented a formidable force. He won the New Hampshire primary and, in doing so, scared the hell out of the Republican establishment. The establishment had several possible candidates to choose from, including Lamar Alexander, Steve Forbes, and Richard Lugar. But Bob Dole, a longtime U.S. senator from Kansas and previous presidential contender in 1988, had everything the establishment wanted: experience, predictability, and, it was thought, electability.

Dole was not a fire-breathing conservative, but a mainstream Republican with a distinguished war record, a long career in the Senate, and many friends and allies. He eventually became the nominee and lost miserably to Bill Clinton.

Clinton won for a variety of reasons. The main reason, despite histrionic Republican condemnation, is that he did not do such a bad job his first term. After 1992, the economy emerged from the recession and shifted into high gear during the “dot-com” boom. Clinton ended the pointless Somalia intervention and dragged his feet on getting involved in the Bosnian quagmire. While the military shrunk with the reduction of our Cold War commitments, the modest tax hikes of Clinton’s first term led to balanced budgets and eventually a government surplus. Employment went up, and many of the concerns of the era—tax rates, Monica Lewinsky, and welfare reform—seem picayune compared to today’s threats of Islamic terrorism, the hollowing out of American industry, or the illegal immigrant hordes pouring over our Mexican border.

Clinton carried more Southern states than is typical for a Democrat—Arkansas, Tennessee, Louisiana, and Florida—but also won the Midwestern battlegrounds of Wisconsin, Michigan, Ohio, and Iowa. These Midwestern states are moderate and practical, defined as much by their largely German-American population and concern for order and efficient government than the more libertarian tendencies of the Deep South and the Mountain West. These practical, middle-of-the-road folks are not especially ideological or consistent in their voting patterns. They are the quintessential swing districts.

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