June 24, 2011 Republican sun, Democratic planet
When I was young, I read somewhere that the American polity is like a solar system. The dominant party (then the Democrats) is like the sun, typically sets the national agenda; the minority party (then the Republicans) is like a kind of planet revolving around the sun, existing primarily to check the majority from getting too crazy.
It seems to me that since about 1994 (f not earlier), the parties’ roles have been reversed. The Republicans seem to be the sun; the Democrats merely revolve around the Republican sun. For the entire post-1994 period (except maybe President Obama’s first year and a half in office) the Republicans set the agenda: fiscal austerity during the late Clinton years, tax cuts and wars under Bush, spending cuts today. When the Republicans controlled the Presidency but not the Congress (2006-08) Bush used the veto power to keep control of the agenda. Today, the Republicans control just one House of Congress; nevertheless they set the agenda. As long as the Republicans control either a House of Congress or the Presidency, they have the dominant role, partially due to sheer aggressiveness; the Democrats seem to me to reflexively give in so that the government can keep functioning.
Moreover, the interesting arguments tend to be within the Republican Party; just as in 1964 the difference between LBJ and George Wallace was greater than the difference between Republicans, in 2008 the difference between John McCain and Ron Paul was far greater than the difference between any Democrat and any other Democrat. Certainly, the differences between Obama and Hillary Clinton were pretty microscopic; their battle was about personality and not about policy. And that’s one reason why, despite my disagreements with the dominant faction of the Republican Party, I still vote in Republican primaries: that’s where the action is.
How do the Democrats get out of their current slump? I’m not sure. The basic problem the Democrats seem to have is that “liberal” is a dirty word in most of this nation and “conservative” is not. So the Democrats have more difficulty setting out a coherent agenda.