“The end of the two-party system in the United States?”

“Is this the end” of the losing party, asked a journalist in the aftermath of a decisive election day, “and perhaps even the end of the two-party system in the United States?

“Be of good cheer, ye of little faith,” he advised the losing side. “Things don’t work that way in this remarkable country, with its remarkable political system.”

The writer was Joseph C. Harsch, celebrated foreign correspondent of the Christian Science Monitor, and the date was November 8, 1984.

Walter Mondale and Jimmy Carter, 1979
Walter Mondale and Jimmy Carter in 1979 – U.S. National Archives

Forty-eight hours earlier, Pres. Ronald Reagan had defeated former vice president Walter Mondale in one of the greatest landslides in the history of American presidential elections. Mondale won only the District of Columbia and his home state of Minnesota (a victory that made it possible for Minnesota last Tuesday to become the first state outside of the South to go Democrat in ten consecutive presidential elections), somehow managing to do even worse than he had in the #2 spot in 1980, when he and Jimmy Carter had been held to Minnesota, DC, West Virginia, Maryland, Rhode Island, and Carter’s home state of Georgia. A follow-up poll of voters by the New York Times and CBS News found reason for Republicans to anticipate a long-term realignment, with fully three in five younger voters favoring the GOP candidate and Reagan’s share of the female vote increasing from 47% in 1980 to 57% in 1984.

To be sure, Republicans actually lost a bit of ground in the Senate, and while they picked up seats in the House, that chamber of Congress remained safely in Democratic hands for another decade. But losing the race for the Oval Office by almost 17 million votes (59%-41%, after Carter-Mondale had also garnered only 41% in 1980, partly owing to John Anderson’s independent candidacy), amplified by the Republican gains among women and young people, inspired those on the left to wring their hands almost as fervently as have some conservatives in the wake of Pres. Barack Obama’s reelection last Tuesday. (And Mitt Romney carried only two fewer states than his opponent, and won nearly 48% of the popular vote.)

Ronald Reagan's 2nd Inauguration
The second inauguration of Pres. Ronald Reagan, January 1985 – Reagan Presidential Library

In light of how Republicans have diagnosed the problems facing their party in November 2012 (here’s a nice summary of recurring themes, courtesy of Slate), I thought it might be interesting to recall how the other side went through that process in November 1984. (No links here, I’m afraid, but if you’ve also got access to LexisNexis, the articles are easy enough to find.)

Lamenting that “Excuses are nothing new to Democrats after big defeats,” Mark Shields dedicated his first post-election column in the Washington Post to rebuking one explanation for Mondale’s failure: “Confronted with the bad news that their presidential ticket won only three out of 10 [well, 37%] white male votes Tuesday, [some Democrats] find no fault with their ideas or themselves. Instead, they exhibit a marked preference for blaming the results on terminal macho-ness in the population, or racial polarization.” Shields warned against demonizing 45% of the population, “a rather sizable group to dismiss as cretinous or otherwise unworthy of our attention.” Then in mid-November another column scorned another response from his fellow Democrats: that the presidential election was relatively unimportant, since Republicans remained so weak in the House. (“See, exult the Democrats, our party is in good shape where it counts most — at the local level.”) Shields pointed out that “any political party that remains noncompetitive at the national level for a generation or more finds itself almost inevitably without either philosophical cohesiveness or a farm system of talented, young candidates eager to run for office.”

The Friday after the election, the Christian Science Monitor featured Democrats from western states promoting a mix of fiscal conservatism and social liberalism as their party’s future. They demanded that the Democratic establishment look beyond Washington and embrace pragmatists who could attract independent voters. (The percentage of voters describing themselves as Democrats had dipped below 40% in 1984…) One such dissenter was Arizona governor Bruce Babbitt, who emphasized environmental protection and deficit reduction in an unsuccessful bid for president in 1988, then went on to serve as Secretary of the Interior under a fellow governor, Bill Clinton.

Sen. Gary Hart, 1980
Sen. Gary Hart (D-Colorado) in 1980 – U.S. Department of Defense

Law professor Bruce Ledewitz (a one-time advisor to another westerner, Colorado senator Gary Hart, the leading challenger to Mondale in the primaries) wrote in the New York Times that “Some will say that blame-fixing is destructive. But this is a fine time for finger-pointing. Now that the Democrats have lost four of the last five Presidential elections, fixing blame is a necessary first step in arresting the decline of the party.” More upset with his former boss (for failing to develop a sustained argument for ‘pro-market liberalism’) than either Mondale or his vice presidential nominee, Rep. Geraldine Ferraro, Ledewitz instead castigated “party professionals” for rigging the system to favorite establishment candidates, labor leaders for shackling the party to a “smokestack protectionism” that proved to be hugely unpopular with voters, and feminists for “insisting that being pro-abortion is the major criterion for support” and thereby “[destroying] the Democrats’ opportunity to build a liberal ‘pro-life’ political movement” around Mondale’s positions on education, health care, and the environment.

Then in its post-election editorial, The Nation blamed Mondale for promoting a “neoliberalism” that was “faithful to the fiscal demands of the New York banks, the foreign policy of the national security community and the corporate policy developed in economics departments across the length and breadth of Eastern Massachusetts.” Still, it admitted that “the Democratic coalition cannot be held together by appeals to past practices and traditional loyalties. Mondale lost most of his vaunted special interests because he was not able to offer them anything significantly more than, or sufficiently different from, what his opponent did.” But rather than finding hope in centrism or pragmatism, it (not surprisingly) tacked further left, finding a silver lining in the belief that “Jesse Jackson’s Rainbow Coalition pointed to another way: the fusion of grass-roots demands into a political movement. It was the only real left alternative to the ideological drama of Reaganism, and as such it provided the most excitement in a lackluster Democratic campaign.” (Jackson won nearly 20% of the vote in the pre-nomination campaign in 1984, then finished second to Massachusetts governor Michael Dukakis four years later, garnering almost 30% of votes cast in primaries and caucuses.)

In the end, of course, Democratic woes continued in 1988, as the party nominated yet another Northern liberal who failed to defeat a Republican opponent — this one having little of Ronald Reagan’s charisma or appeal to conservatives. But the Democrats bounced back in 1992 with the victory of Gov. Bill Clinton, a more gifted politician championed by the centrist Democratic Leadership Council — founded by Bruce Babbitt and others in 1985, as a response to Mondale’s loss.


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