Day By Day

Saturday, February 19, 2005

A Coming Republican Crack-up?

As I have argued many times, the Democratic Party is just not normally competitive in presidential contests. Since WWII only two Democrat candidates have attracted a majority of the popular vote, and in both cases they benefited from unique distortions of the electoral process. In 1964 LBJ was bouyed by popular sentiment attendant on JFK's assassination and in 1976 Jimmy Carter was elected in a wave of popular revulsion against Watergate. With the exception of those two extraordinary years no Democrat candidate for president in more than a half century has been able to attract a majority of the voters. By contrast, during the same period, seven Republican candidates have topped 50%. In other words -- in a normal election years, when the two parties go head to head the Republicans have a lock on the presidency. The Democrats just aren't competitive at that level and haven't been for a long time. Seen from this perspective the recent performances of Gore and Kerry aren't that bad. They simply performed as Democrats normally do, or perhaps even slightly better.

How then do the Democrats win from time to time? The answer is that every once in a while a third party candidate emerges who drains off enough votes to hold the Republicans under 50%. One need only look back at the 1990's when Ross Perot's insurgency split the Republican vote and allowed Bill Clinton to win twice without ever reaching 50% of the popular vote.

In today's NYT David Brooks considers the possibility of just such a split emerging over the issue of fiscal responsibility. He writes:

There's going to be another Ross Perot, and this time he's going to be younger. There's going to be a millionaire rising out of the country somewhere and he (or she) is going to lead a movement of people who are worried about federal deficits, who are offended by the horrendous burden seniors are placing on the young and who are disgusted by a legislative process that sometimes suggests that the government has lost all capacity for self-control.

He's going to be set off by some event like what is happening right now with the Medicare prescription drug benefit. He's going to look at an event like that one, and he's not only going to be worried about the country's economic future - he's also going to be morally offended. He's going to sense that something fundamentally decadent is going on.

Brooks may well be right. In conversations this past year with well-connected Republicans I have often heard expressions of disgust at the fiscal irresponsibility of the current administration. It is very possible, indeed likely, that the Republicans will go into the next round of presidential elections as divided as they were in 1992. If they do, the Democrats, regardless of whom they run, will have an excellent opportunity to retake the White House.

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