Haunted by the Reagan era
Past defeats still scare older Democratic leaders — but not the younger generation ...
The answer, in short: the Gipper.
The way the older and younger House members think about and engage with the Republican Party may be the starkest divide between them. Democratic leaders like Pelosi, Joe Biden, Steny Hoyer and Chuck Schumer were shaped by their traumatic political coming-of-age during the breakup of the New Deal coalition and the rise of Ronald Reagan — and the backlash that swept Democrats so thoroughly from power nearly 40 years ago. They’ve spent the rest of their lives flinching at the sight of voters. When these leaders plead for their party to stay in the middle, they’re crouching into the defensive posture they’ve been used to since November 1980, afraid that if they come across as harebrained liberals, voters will turn them out again.
The Ocasio-Cortezes of the world have witnessed the opposite: The way they see it, Democratic attempts to moderate and compromise have led to nothing but ruin. Republicans aren’t the ones to be afraid of. “The greatest threat to mankind is the cowardice of the Democratic Party,” Trent told me.
It’s hard to overstate how traumatizing that 1980 landslide was for Democrats. It came just two years after the rise of the New Right, the Class of ’78 led by firebrands like Newt Gingrich, and it felt like the country was repudiating everything the Democrats stood for. The party that had saved the world from the Nazis, built the modern welfare state, gone to the moon and overseen the longest stretch of economic prosperity in human history was routed by a C-list actor. Reagan won 44 states.
That November saw not just Jimmy Carter defeated but a generation of liberal lions poached from the Senate. A net loss of 12 Democrats flipped the chamber to the Republicans. The Democratic nominee for president in 1972, war hero George McGovern, was ousted. Frank Church, first elected in 1956, had been chairman of the forerunner to the Select Committee on Intelligence. In 1976, he was a credible presidential candidate; in 1980, he was out of a job. Same with Birch Bayh, another presidential hopeful who’d served nearly 20 years in the Senate. Warren Magnuson, first elected in 1944, was chairman of the Appropriations Committee and the senior-most member of the Senate. Even Mike Gravel, a hero of the Pentagon Papers battle and a voice of the antiwar left, was beaten that year in a primary, leading to a fall GOP pickup of his seat. Collectively, the defeated Democrats represented every plank of liberalism — whether it was support for workers or the environment or opposition to militarism or racism. They were the party.
Politicians like Pelosi, Schumer and Hoyer were just coming into their own. The lesson they took was that the party had gotten too liberal in the late ’60s and ’70s, and the Reagan Revolution was payback. They became convinced that the United States was a center-right country and that they had to accede to that unfortunate reality. For that reason, the wing of the party that had backed Ted Kennedy in the primaries against Carter in 1980 could be safely ignored. Reagan won a landslide reelection four years later. Maybe the country just wasn’t into Democrats. In 1988, Massachusetts Gov. Michael Dukakis let a nearly 20-point lead in the polls slip away as he lost to Reagan’s hapless vice president, the tongue-tied patrician George H.W. Bush, despite the Iran-contra scandal and eight years of GOP control. That only further persuaded the Democratic elite that liberalism was on the outs.
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WaPo - Ryan Grim