Two days after the 1988 Democratic National Convention, President Reagan tagged the GOP’s opponents with the “L-word” — the unutterable, to the Democrats, name “liberal” — and more or less ended Michael Dukakis’s race for the presidency as it began. This year the Democrats are on their way to attaching to themselves a new fatal letter label: the D-word, dysfunctional.
Their biggest problem, of course, is what they’ve done to their nominating process. While both parties have tinkered with procedures over the years, the Republicans have never violated a simple fundamental rule: Process must produce a decision — and do so, if possible, in a way that encourages coalescing behind the victor. This year, their state and congressional district winner-take-all primaries produced clear winners and losers and encouraged coalition building in a party highly inclined to splinter.
The Democrats have walked a different path. With shades of the Florida 2000 recount, their process has been swallowed up in . . . process. Whose idea was it to exclude all delegates from two of the largest states in the nation just because their legislatures defied the party apparatchiks over primary dates? Only someone who had totally lost sight of the process’ actual purpose.
More damaging, the 60s-style participatory-democracy model imbedded in their system of proportional representation ensures that in as close a primary as this year’s, they’ll face building rancor and have their decision ultimately fall to the party bosses, er, sorry, super-delegates.
But dysfunction goes well beyond the way in which Democrats select their delegates. They have talked a great deal this year about their need to win so-called working-class whites, particularly Catholics, those once referred to as Reagan Democrats. These are highly patriotic people with a long and disproportionate record of military service. Yet both Senators Clinton and Obama have made clear their determination to walk away from the sacrifices in Iraq of these people’s sons and daughters, no matter what the consequences, with the absoluteness of their position becoming clearer with each debate. They talk as if they can buy off this group with veterans’ benefits. It may be more than bitterness over party infighting that has an apparently growing number of Democratic voters telling pollsters that they may cast their ballots for McCain in November.
Even more dysfunctional has been the Obama-Clinton approach to the economy. In 1969, in his landmark book, The Fiscal Revolution in America, Herbert Stein wrote that the example of Herbert Hoover raising taxes in a downturn had proven so disastrous that it would never be repeated. Never say never again. Both Democrats want to raise taxes and trade barriers and address the mortgage crisis with interventions that would almost certainly shrink even more drastically the volume of lending, and hence the money supply. This is exactly the witch’s stew of policies that produced the Great Depression of the 1930s. And why would they do this? To address the fallout of a housing bubble that is global, not national, in scope. The politically amazing thing is that both candidates hope to draw from the higher income, higher education groups that are most likely to understand how poisonous this policy package would be.
Walter Mondale’s 1984 campaign manager, Bob Beckel, has said that in 2008 all the stars are aligning for a Democratic White House. But in seven months, after the voting, we may well conclude that the stars gathered over a different place. Increasingly the D-word describes everything about the Democrats — their nominating rules, their surprisingly misstepping candidates, their excessive positions. So if “dysfunctional” is today’s D-word, after November’s elections we may have a new D-word, “divided,” as in divided government, with new President McCain saying hello to reelected Speaker Pelosi.