Friday, March 15, 2013

Does the GOP need a DLC?

Will Marshall is arguing that the Republican Party needs a version of the Democratic Leadership Council to encourage the nomination of more moderate candidates and basically make the party more competitive again. I addressed some of this in a Pacific Standard piece a while back, but some quick points on this:

First, the DLC narrative is almost certainly overstated. The idea there was that the Democratic Party was suffering in the 1980s after three consecutive losses in presidential elections, which is pretty unusual historically. A group of moderate Democrats came together as the DLC and made the argument that the problem was that its nominees were too liberal: Walter Mondale was tied to a big-government, union-backed 1960s ideology, and Michael Dukakis was somewhat more moderate but still beholden to liberal interests and unwilling to support, say, school prayer or the death penalty. The DLC championed the nomination of a more moderate southern governor, Bill Clinton, who helped trim some of the more liberal excesses from the Democratic platform and made the party more electable in the process.

Here's the thing: you can basically explain those election results without reference to ideology. Mondale was running against a popular incumbent during one of the strongest periods of economic growth in modern U.S. history. Dukakis didn't have quite the same handicap (and did considerably better than Mondale), but was still challenging the incumbent party during a period of decent economic growth. Clinton, conversely, was challenging a deeply unpopular incumbent at the tail end of a recession. (See David Karol's post for more on this topic.)

Could ideology make a difference? Sure. While there's no reason to think more moderate versions of Barry Goldwater or George McGovern would have won in 1964 or 1972, respectively, they probably would have done better. Overly extreme presidential candidates do suffer at the polls, just as members of Congress who vote too ideologically or too often with their party tend to suffer. But this is probably not the story of the elections between 1984 and 1992. Indeed, there weren't enormous ideological differences between Dukakis and Clinton.

Would it help for the Republicans to have such an effort today? Well, maybe, but there's not overwhelming evidence that they're suffering for being ideologically extreme just yet. Yes, the Republicans lost the popular vote in five of the past six elections, but that can largely (with the possible exception of 2000) be explained by economic growth trends. Barack Obama did almost exactly as well as we should have expected last year given the economy's record of slow but steady growth. Had there been a recession last year, it would be President Mitt Romney writing congratulatory messages to Pope Francis this year, regardless of his (Romney's) ideological stances. It's possible that Tea Party insurgencies have led to a few Republican Senate losses in the last two cycles, but that's about it.

Parties do tend to moderate the longer they're out of power, so it's not surprising to see them having conversations along these lines. But we don't have much reason to think they've made themselves unelectable just yet. History suggests that, knowing nothing about the candidates or the conditions of the economy three years from now, they've got about a 50-50 shot at winning the next presidential election. Chances are that some sort of GOP-DLC won't really change that coin toss.

(h/t Thad Hall)

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