The Gingrich Democrats

By DAVID BROOKS

New York Times

January 18, 2005

The Social Security debate has exposed interesting differences within the Democratic Party between those who are inspired by Bill Clinton and those who are inspired by - wait for it - Newt Gingrich.

The Clintonites oppose President Bush's plan to carve out private accounts. But infused with those reconciling "third way" instincts, they are quick to come up with alternative plans they hope will win bipartisan support.

Clintonites like Gene Sperling or Representative Rahm Emanuel still tend to have a governing mentality - even in the minority, they are always proposing things, rarely just opposing.

The Democratic Gingrichians are different. They feel that Social Security is to Bush what health care reform was to Clinton - the big overreach that will allow the opposing party to deliver a devastating blow to the president, and maybe even regain control of Congress.

Their core belief is that Republicans have won of late because they have been ruthless and disciplined while Democrats have been responsible and wimpy. It is time, the neo-Gingrichians say, to scorch the earth. "I believe that the Republican majority has acted in such a dictatorial fashion that a full-scale revolt is the only solution," the Democratic consultant Howard Wolfson told Michael Crowley of The New Republic.

That means waging a Gingrich-style war on the entire Congressional power structure. That means furiously opposing every other Bush initiative. That means giving up any hope of trying to work with Republicans, but staging an all-out effort to crush and delegitimize them.

The problem with the neo-Gingrichians is that they have their history backward. Bill Clinton won the presidency in 1992 with only 43 percent of the vote. When Gingrich began his assault, there already was a potential conservative majority in the country; it's just that many of these conservatives, for historical reasons, tended to vote Democratic in Congressional races.

What the Republicans achieved in the first two years of the Clinton term was simply this: By exploiting issues like health care, gays in the military, midnight basketball and so on, they persuaded conservatives to vote Republican. The 1994 election was the culmination of a long process in which voters' ideology finally got in line with their partisanship. Gingrich, Armey and company only had to appeal to conservatives to win big.

The Democrats today are in a very different position. They already have all the liberals. What they lack is support from middle-class white families in fast-growing suburbs. But by copying the Gingrich tactics - or what they think of as the Gingrich tactics - of hyperpartisanship and ruthless oppositionalism, they will only alienate those voters even more.

They won't turn themselves into the 1990's Republicans. They will turn themselves into the 1930's Republicans or the current British Tory Party. They will become a party caught in a cycle of negativity and oppositionalism. They will score occasional victories against the majority party, which will yield no lasting benefits to themselves. They may delay Social Security reform, but that doesn't mean voters will trust them with power any time soon.

There is an essential asymmetry in American politics today. There are three conservatives in this country for every two liberals. A Republican can be quite conservative - like Ronald Reagan or George W. Bush - and still win the White House. But only one Democratic presidential candidate has won over 50 percent of the vote in the past 40 years (Jimmy Carter got 50.1 percent in 1976).

That means Republicans can rely on their core instincts and still win, while Democrats cannot. If you look at the race for Democratic Party chairman, you get the impression this is a party that understands this and will seek out people who see the world differently.

But if you look at the campaign against Social Security reform in Congress, you see a party still believing the old ideas will work if only they are pursued more ruthlessly.

This is a delusion. Newt Gingrich did help Republicans regain the majority. But that doesn't mean his tactics, even in caricature form, will work for the Democrats, whose problems are deeper. The truth is that Democrats probably need a leader who will make liberals feel uncomfortable, the way Clinton did, not someone who will make them feel righteous and good.