Disappointment comes from events failing to meet your expectations, so I understand why many here are disappointed, angry, disheartened, and depressed. Plenty of folks hoped and expected that Tuesday night would end You-Know-Who. But I am not disappointed in the slightest with the results because I’d been expecting them for months. This is not to say I rejoice in them, am satisfied with them, or relish them in any way; merely, that I was prepared for them. And really, everyone else should have been prepared, too. We are seeing echoes of 1988.
Amidst all of the crushed optimism and the pronouncements that “this is the strongest field we’ve had in years,” our side has consistently overlooked something very important: That the people of the United States of America freely elected Barack Obama in 2008 and then — despite the ruinous havoc he and his party wreaked upon our economy, culture, freedoms, and the very rule of law — re-elected him four years later. The American people chose Obama twice. Moreover, they saw what we were selling and decided to pass, also twice. And if I am reading things correctly, they are prepared to do it a third time.
I imagine this is how the Democrats felt in 1988. They were utterly convinced that — with eight years of that horrible, demonic, senile demagogue Reagan behind them — their message would at last be heard. After all, they had controlled the House for all of Reagan’s term, and the Senate for six of those years. Surely the nation was tired of Reagan and would embrace their enlightened message, especially if it came packaged with a young, heart-throbish, charismatic candidate named Gary Hart. Yes, the field was crowded, but it was the strongest they’d had in years. Optimism ran high that the party and nation would come together in a referendum to repudiate the prior eight years.
Nothing went as planned.
For starters, there were too many candidates (nicknamed, for a time, “Snow White and Seven Dwarfs”) and they were all of the sort we would find familiar today: a mix of ideologues, hacks, in-it-for-vanity types, and improbable long shots. Hart, the hope of many, was embarrassed out of the race before the primaries even began (though he later tried to jump back in). Of the strongest at the start of the primaries, we had a matchup of Al Gore, Dick Gephardt, Jesse Jackson, Paul Simon, and, of course, Michael Dukakis. Jackson and Gore would take most of the southern states in a manner reminiscent of Huckabee decades later. Gephardt squeezed a few wins in, and even Paul Simon got a state. Dukakis — probably the worst imaginable representative for the party due to his utter lack of charisma and doctrinaire liberalism — won just enough states at just the right times to win the nomination with a plurality of votes. He was the purest liberal, at a time when the party demanded ideological purity (thinking this was what the electorate wanted).
As you may recall, he won a mere seven states in the general election that November.
You see, the Democrats had convinced themselves that — because everyone else must hate Reagan as much as they did — all they needed to do was make their case and the electorate would call on them to rescue the nation and save its soul. They utterly failed to consider that the American people hadn’t been bamboozled and actually chose Reagan three times (once via proxy) because they honestly wanted to.
But, of course, George H. W. Bush was no Reagan. He lacked the old man’s charm, convictions, and ability to troll the Democrats. With the help of Perot’s wildcard candidacy in 1992, the Democrats finally came back into power.
We are now experiencing our own version of 1988. We have had a crowded field, ideologically pure candidates (Rubio and Cruz), and a hotly-contested primary with the leading candidate someone winning by pluralities. Moreover, we are failing to grasp — and forgive me the repetition — that the electorate freely chose Obama twice, and seems to be looking for his successor, either to cement his ideological legacy (Hillary Clinton) or someone to rule, like Obama, with pen, phone, and bluster.
We should also grasp that, like Bush 41, this successor is inheriting a whirlwind of events and may not last beyond a single term. The debt crisis ever looms. The world order of the last 20 years is crumbling. The economy is in poor shape. The electorate is more fractured than perhaps any time since the 1850s. Obama’s coalition will not hold together in the hands of anyone less capable, and the Trump coalition has its own deep fault lines and capacity for self sabotage.
A lot can happen between now and the convention, of course, and Cruz or Rubio may indeed prevail over Trump and win the nomination. But looking ahead, we need to learn what the Democrats failed to learn in 1988: Our party, despite holding Congress, is ideologically out of step with the nation. The electorate is not buying what we are selling. No matter how disastrous we think the last eight years have been, the American people chose it, re-affirmed that choice, and seem poised to do it again.
But, as with Bush 41, either Clinton or Trump will have to reap events they are not prepared to face and — in another four years — our party may learn what it needs to win.