Put Wings on A Party | The Rise of Neoliberalism in America (Part 1)
It all started on November 7, 1972. The 1972 Presidential Election was between George McGovern (D), Senator from South Dakota, and the incumbent President Richard Nixon (R). The results were historic. Nixon won 520 of the 538 available electoral votes, and got 60% of the popular vote. McGovern didn’t even win South Dakota: the state of his birth and where he was serving as U.S. Senator at the time of the election. A Democrat losing South Dakota is no surprise in 2017, but in 1972 it had only been 8 years since a Lyndon Johnson won South Dakota. Surely, the party could recover from such a devastating loss, but the Democrats would go on to lose 3 of the next four elections in this manner. An argument could be made that Jimmy Carter’s narrow win over Ford in ’76 (Carter: 297| Ford: 240) had more to do with how dirty the White House looked after Watergate. Sure, it didn’t look good that Ford was the last to know that The Soviet Union had expanded into Eastern Europe, and there were even grumblings about inflation and unemployment, but had Ford not pardoned Nixon, he probably would have defeated Carter. Ford’s nomination split the Republican Party momentarily, and he almost lost his Party’s nomination for Actor turned Governor Ronald Reagan.
After all that baggage, you would think Carter would win by a landslide, but the race was a nail biter. Clearly, that was a bad omen because the next election (1980) saw President Carter lose to Ronald Reagan in a landslide (Reagan: 489| Carter: 49). The country didn’t respect Carter’s handling of Iran Hostage situation, and those economic grumblings from the end of the Ford Administration turned into growls. The Democratic Party would endure another landslide in 1984 when Carter’s former VP, Walter Mondale lost to Reagan. Reagan set a record in this election by winning 525 of the available 538 electoral votes (Reagan: 525| Mondale: 13). By 1987, the Reagan Administration was reeling from the Iran-Contra Affair. Reagan’s VP George H.W. Bush, was running to be Reagan’s successor and his opponent was the Governor of Massachusetts, Michael Dukakis.
With Bush being hindered by his association with one of the most criminally investigated and charged Administrations of all time, Dukakis was supposed to achieve a Carter-like win. It looked promising. Dukakis was leading in the polls during the summer, but one goofy ride in a tank and Willie Horton Ad later, Dukakis lay paralyzed as Bush took 426 electoral votes (Bush: 426| Dukakis: 111). So, his candidacy was Carter-like, but instead being the good wholesome trustworthy alternative to the slick-haired shifty Los Angeles Bureaucrat-Carter candidacy of ’76, he looked more like the militarily inept, Barney Fife, weak looking Carter of 1980. Dukakis’s defeat was a turning point for the Democrats. History shows that a party getting hit like the Democrats were between the 70s-80s is seeing its last days. If the Democrats didn’t want to end up like the Whigs or the Federalist, something had to be done.
By late 1991, it was time for Presidential candidates to start announcing themselves. It's also a time when the incumbent president George HW Bush was hovering at about 60% approval. The eventual front-runner Bill Clinton, was not like his Democratic nominee predecessors. His promises of law & order were reminiscent of Nixon and Reagan. To show that he wasn’t all talk, he interrupted his campaign to fly back to Arkansas to ensure the execution of convicted murderer of Ricky Ray Rector. No Willie Horton Ad against Bill Clinton would prosper. He received funds from big corporate donors to his campaign. Just your years earlier, Dukakis made a pledge to not take money from corporate donors. How much of that pledge he honored is uncertain, but what is certain is that Clinton raised 62 million more in campaign funds than Dukakis. Clinton endorsed free-trade agreements like NAFTA and scoffed at the idea of big government. He described himself as a moderate. He was described as a new Democrat, and his political policy stances were described as neoliberalism.
Essentially, Bill Clinton gave the electorate an alternative to Bush, whom had fallen out of favor over a declining economy and a broken promise about new taxes. However, his alternative came without the perceived qualities that turned the people off Carter, Mondale, and Dukakis: the soft on crime, soft on foreign dictators, soft on the lazy poor, gay rights Democrats. He went on to soundly defeat Bush (Clinton: 370| Bush:168). He went on to easily defeat Bob Dole and a reelection campaign (Clinton: 379| Dole: 159). He wasn’t just talking when he described himself as a moderate. He deregulated Wall Street, gutted welfare, signed NAFTA, turned corrections into a booming industry, bombed the Former Yugoslavia, and let’s not forget Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell.
By the time he left office the country was operating on a budget surplus and his approval rating sat at about 65%. And by those numbers, it would be right to consider his presidency successful. Mysteriously, it wasn’t enough for his Vice President, Al Gore, to be voted his successor in 2000 (Bush II: 272| Gore: 266) (I know about Florida, more on that next post). The campaign of 2004 saw John Kerry come close, but his anti-war stance was sandbagged by the fact that he initially voted for the war in Iraq (Bush: 286| 251).
Before they could begin to wonder how a tongue-tied, shuffling, trust-fund baby, failed businessman like George W. Bush and his Darth Vader-like Vice President Dick Cheney beat them twice, they received their savior. He was approved by both most populists AND corporations, he was charismatic, he was young, and he was black: Barack Obama. His past was clean as a whistle, and filled with words like Harvard, Law, Community, and Organizer. He was a key to the mint. While Republicans had long ago balanced the needs of Corporate World with the other part of their base: the part of the middle and working class that fit into the religious right, Obama was the Democrats chance to reconcile the needs of Corporate World and their base: the part of the middle and working class that were social liberals. Obama would demolish McCain in the 2008 General Election (Obama: 365| McCain: 173) and he also defeated Mitt Romney (Obama: 332| Romney: 206) in a Re-Election Bid.
While in office, he repealed Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell, signed the Affordable Care Act, appointed the most female judges to federal courts than any other president, ended the Iraq War, bombed Libya and Syria, and signed Dodd-Frank. By the time he left office this year he had an approval rating of 57%, he had trimmed the deficit to a third of its former size, and 20 million more people had healthcare than before his time in office, along with whole host of other accomplishments.
And yet, the woman for whom he campaigned, Hillary Clinton, lost to another orally limited, trust-fund baby, failed businessman, Donald J. Trump (Trump: 304| Clinton: 227).
My next post will explore the Reflection of this history, and what it means for the Democrats in the future.
Omri Hophra is a contributor to TIP and can be reached via twitter here: @Omri_Hophra