Question: Will the Democratic Party Go the Way of the Whigs?

By Luntz, Frank; Franzen, John | Insight on the News, July 31, 1995 | Go to article overview

Question: Will the Democratic Party Go the Way of the Whigs?


Luntz, Frank, Franzen, John, Insight on the News


Yes. They lack new ideas to replace old, failed ones.

We have seen this before.

The Whigs of the 1840s and 1850s were, like modern Democrats, hopelessly divided over basic human freedoms and the role of the federal government. One faction, the "Cotton Whigs," obstinately supported slavery. The other group, the "Conscience Whigs," committed itself to ending the practice. William Pennington, one of the last leaders of the Whig Party, was the last speaker to lose reelection. It was no coincidence.

With the defeat of Speaker Tom Foley 134 years later, history repeated itself. An unabashed defender of the failed welfare state, Foley shared a well-intentioned but bankrupt vision with Mario Cuomo, David Dinkins, Jim Sasser, Harris Wofford and dozens of other old-fashioned, big-government liberals. The events of the past year are signals that the Democrat Party likely will go the way of the Cotton Whigs who clung to slavery, while Conscience Whigs took on a new vision, a new purpose and eventually a new governing majority as the Republican Party. The demise of the Democrats will not lead to a new civil war, however. Unlike the Whigs, the Democrats will go out not with a bang, but with a whimper.

The single most important factor in the current and future success of a party is its vision. Temporary peaks and valleys are just that - temporary. In this day of technopolitics, dozens of polls are conducted during each news cycle. Parties can even lose elections and still readjust the details of their message to roll with the punches. But when a party has no message, no vision, no guiding principles, it not only has lost its rudder but its hull as well. Political parties are the physical manifestation of ideas. If the Democratic Party has any ideas it had better articulate them now. Otherwise, it is sunk.

The downfall of the Democrat Party is not due to poor communication; it has the White House as a bully pulpit, the media as a mouthpiece, the bureaucracy as an employment agency and the academy and unions. And it is not President Clinton's fault; he is as much a symptom of Democrat malaise as its cause. The Democrats are going the way of the Whigs because their party is fractured over ideas, values and programs that have failed horribly, and they don't have any idea how to clean up the mess.

Clinton ran and won as a "new Democrat" with only 43 percent of the vote - which is where his ballot support has stayed. One of his first acts as president was to propose that homosexuals be allowed to serve in the military, which illustrated where his allegiance laid - with the old left. He then proposed the largest tax increase in American history. That was followed by an attempt to place the entire U.S. health care delivery system under government control. Democrats cynically believed that a nationalized health care system would secure for generations a broad Democrat constituency as Medicare, Medicaid and Social Security had done before. This effort failed.

Americans paused during the health care and crime-bill debates to consider how the federal government runs other interests: the Postal Service, the IRS, thrift supervision, the House bank and post office, etc. ClintonCare not only hurt the president's credibility, it also knocked the legs from under an entire ideology. Americans overwhelmingly rejected it as a thinly veiled liberal attempt to place one-seventh of the U.S. economy under government management. As the debate grew into a referendum on big government, Americans saw that the party that created big government was the Democrats.

It was in this environment that not a single Senate or House Republican incumbent lost in 1994. If the election was a referendum on anything, it was on the high-minded arrogance with which the Democrat Party for decades has run Congress and a majority of the state houses. For the first time, Americans understood that when they were voting for their locally based "moderate" Democrat they also were voting for liberal politicians such as Paul Wellstone, Ron Dellums, Patricia Schroeder and Ted Kennedy and housing projects, welfare for junkies, Medicaid for illegal aliens, amoral public education and huge deficits. …

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