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.

The Electorate Is Similar to Past Elections
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.

Trump Benefits From a Strong Economy and Relative Peace in 2020
The objective facts favor Donald Trump’s reelection for many of the same reasons Clinton was a favorite in 1996. The economy is doing quite well, and his tax cuts and regulatory reforms appear to be at least part of the reason.

Of course, he has not delivered on his main campaign promises, but he appears to his supporters at least to be trying, even in the face of bipartisan resistance. His deviations from promises appear aligned with rather than opposing public opinion.

Also, Trump rather decisively defeated ISIS’s caliphate in Syria, but has so far avoided calls for getting involved in another Middle Eastern war. Even Obama could not avoid this temptation, in spite of running as the “peace candidate” in 2008.

In short, we were warned that Trump would destroy the economy, the norms of good governance, and possibly act recklessly with his “finger on the button” in the event he became president. Instead, everything feels quite normal, prosperous, and predictable.

The gap between the Democratic Party’s hatred of Trump and his results mirrors the chasm between Republican Party’s Clinton hatred and the relatively modest evils of Clinton’s first term as president. Then, as now, there is some “outrage fatigue” among ordinary Americans, who are not nearly as partisan or engaged as the political press, volunteers, and donors who follow politics like a sport in both parties.

More important, by combining this background of ideological fervor and a “ho hum” candidate, Dole failed to excite the base, even as Republican rhetoric alienated those in the middle and within the Democratic Party.

The Democrats seem to be undertaking a similar strategy, coalescing around the well-known Joe Biden. Biden, Obama’s vice president, is avuncular and superficially moderate, having slowly followed his party as it moved further leftward while maintaining a connection to the Democratic Party’s past. He comes from working-class roots and makes much of his connection to middle America.

Of course, Biden is odd and, having been around a long time, he has said things directly contradicting his views today. Today’s Democratic Party, after all, is radically different from that of yesteryear. It underwent a shift to more identity politics, reflecting both the leadership of Obama and the party’s increasingly diverse voter base. But Biden’s status as a frontrunner demonstrates a combination of realism by Democratic primary voters arising from their desire to defeat Trump at all costs, as well as his exploitation of the divisions among the others.

The alternatives have significant obstacles and each only capture a portion of the party’s primary electorate. Sanders gets the alienated anti-corporate Left, Harris presumably garners a strong swath of the diversity voters, and someone like Beto appeals to the romantic spirit of Obama’s 2008 “hope and change” campaign.

Elizabeth Warren has already been flummoxed by her “stolen valor” with regard to her Indian heritage, even though she otherwise would have been a compelling voice for economic populism. So, if Biden wins the nomination—which appears likely right now—he will do it for reasons similar to the ones that led Republicans to unify around Dole. Biden, like Dole, would be a familiar, older, predictable figure in a party unified in its hatred of the Republican president, but strongly disunified on ideology and much else.

Biden’s Hurdles
Biden in 2020, like Dole in 1996, would face an objectively similar presidential legacy. The economy is doing well, and no new wars are underway. Clinton himself won by saying, bluntly, “It’s the economy, stupid.” Everyone knows the economy matters and its fortunes are attributed to the president, as irrational as this may be.

Biden’s attack on Trump will focus chiefly on his character and demeanor, his style, and scandals familiar to partisans, just as Republicans obsessed over “Slick Willie” and his Whitewater and travel office imbroglios. Republicans deemed Clinton the apotheosis of Baby Boomer self-absorption, but his record was not bad by any objective measure.

Biden also has to fashion a positive policy message, now that the failing Iraq War or the media-generated romanticism about Obama can no longer can be the centerpiece of Democratic campaigns. This will be a problem, as the Democrats’ redistributionist message thrives on economic anxiety.

But Trump’s hybrid policies—standard Republican approaches to taxes and regulations coupled with aggressive negotiating with trading partners—appear to be working. We were told his election would tank the stock market, instead the market as well as the broader economy have continued to improve, despite Trump inheriting the mature recovery of Obama’s second term.

Criticism by Biden of Trump’s immigration and border policies would also alienate middle-of-the-road voters in both parties uneasy with mass immigration. Even Trump’s tariffs would prove a wedge issue, as they are pro-worker and were once a popular Democratic issue, particularly among the party’s working-class voters in the industrial swing states of the Midwest. Tariffs also have garnered respect among Republicans, who are increasingly aware of the national defense aspects of our trade conflict with China.

Further, no Democratic policy agenda can easily unify the various identity and economic factions of the Democrats, while simultaneously appealing to the “woke capitalism” of Silicon Valley and Wall Street, while also appealing to moderate swing voters in the swing states of Ohio, Missouri, Iowa, Wisconsin, Michigan, Pennsylvania, and Florida. The Democratic coalition is full of ideological die-hards who easily may opt to stay at home when too much is done to appeal to opposing factions within that coalition. In other words, there is a lot of inherent tension between urban career women, destitute welfare cases, “woke” ethnic chauvinists, and cozy government workers, and whatever unites them may prove too much for the fringes and also swing voters to bear.

Clinton touted his economic achievements and the absence of foreign policy failures in his 1996 reelection campaign. In so doing, he could appeal to objective facts. Dole and other Republicans could only invoke highly abstract ideological arguments against him or appeal to some risk of a future economic or national security disaster.

Dole, like Biden today, had the benefit of being familiar and well liked within his party. But like Dole, Biden also has the demerit of not appearing to stand for anything in particular and failing to inspire his party’s ideological fringes. Biden’s message, like Dole’s in 1996, seems to be that it’s his time and that he can win.

A safe candidate appears to make a certain amount of sense, logically speaking. But, for the same reasons, it also makes sense for voters to retain an incumbent when the country objectively is better off than ever before.

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Photo Credit: Joe Sohm/Visions of America/Universal Images Group via Getty Images

About Christopher Roach

Christopher Roach is an adjunct fellow of the Center for American Greatness and an attorney in private practice based in Florida. He is a double graduate of the University of Chicago and has previously been published by The Federalist, Takimag, Chronicles, the Washington Legal Foundation, the Marine Corps Gazette, and the Orlando Sentinel. The views presented are solely his own.

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