Why the Democrats Keep Losing National Elections

To Democrats it simply does not make sense. The past eight years, with Republicans in control of the White House, have, they say, been disastrous for America. The military is beleaguered and beaten down after two long and taxing wars. The nation, they go on, has been disgraced in the eyes of the world. The economy has collapsed. The financial system is broken. Eighty percent of voters believe the nation is on the wrong track. Yet, a month and a half before the November election, the Democratic nominee for the presidency only slightly leads the Republican standard bearer in most polls. The GOP, in spite of everything, might somehow be able to hold on to power.

How could this possibly be? Surely, anxious Democrats have told themselves, only a nefarious plot could have gotten us here. The Republicans cannot win this election on the issues, they reason, so they have set out to win it the way they always do—by distraction, division and lies. They will paint Democrats as out-of-touch elitists on the wrong side of the culture war, and a country that doesn't know better will accept their fabrication whole hog. The only way to win this election is to beat the Republicans at their own game. This is the way it works in modern presidential politics: Democrats run on ideas and issues, Republicans run on Karl Rove.

But this paranoid view, that Roveism alone wins campaigns for the GOP, cannot fully explain a simple reality: for 40 years, Republicans have won the presidency more often than not. The GOP has won seven of the past 10 presidential elections. Republican candidates have won more than 400 electoral votes in four separate elections (Richard Nixon's re-election in 1972, Ronald Reagan's wins in 1980 and 1984 and George H.W. Bush's victory in 1988), while the Democrats' best showings came in 1992 and 1996, when Bill Clinton won 370 and 379 electoral votes, respectively. Jimmy Carter is the only Democratic presidential candidate in 44 years to win 50 percent of the popular vote. If this phenomenal Republican record is thanks only to the dirty tricks of Karl Rove (or Lee Atwater, or Richard Nixon before him), then surely our political system is so easily subverted by treachery that a revolution is required.

It is not. History shows that the modern Republican Party has had more going for it than just Karl Rove: for 40 years, it has been the conservative party in an essentially conservative nation. In this era, Democrats have managed to win the White House only when they have presented themselves as centrist stewards of the center-right consensus. They have lost when they let Republicans get under their skin.

Ideas have always done more for the modern Republican Party than critics on the left would care to admit. It is true that Nixon, a paranoid cynic convinced that only ruthlessness could win him the White House, was the first president of this center-right era. But he won the White House in 1968 and again in 1972 because he offered an effective alternative to the New Deal consensus that government could help mankind be its better self—a consensus that had been discredited by the decline of the postwar boom, the failure of Lyndon Johnson's Great Society and an American military defeat. Nixon's ruthlessness, laid bare in Watergate, unmade his presidency, but did not make it. George H.W. Bush won the White House not because of the tawdry Willie Horton ad but because he convinced the country he was the only candidate ready to be president in an unknown post-cold-war world. George W. Bush won the White House not simply by Swift-Boating John Kerry but by convincing voters that only Bush could keep them safe.

Similarly, the Democratic candidates who have managed to win the White House, Carter and Clinton, have surveyed a center-right nation and concluded: "If you can't beat 'em, join 'em." Conservatives today may call Carter a socialist, but he ran for the presidency as a Southern Baptist outsider, intent on reining in a reckless government. Bill Clinton was the most easy-to-slime Democratic candidate in modern history, but also the most naturally centrist. History will remember him for two sentences—"The era of big government is over" and "I did not have sex with that woman, Ms. Lewinsky." The first sentence won him a second term in the White House; the second, despite the efforts of Republican adversaries, did not take that term away.

Barack Obama belongs to a different era than Carter and Clinton, and in many ways he has a more interesting opportunity. The past eight years, after all, have brought the shortcomings and inconsistencies of the center-right consensus to the fore. The benefits of prolonged economic growth have not trickled down to average workers. The federal government's massive Wall Street bailout is, in essence, the surrender of the notion that unbridled capitalism could provide for the general good. For the first time in 40 years, the left has a real chance to sway the center's notion of the proper role of the state. With six weeks left in the campaign, Democrats will find more luck imagining this new consensus than they will in imagining the evils of Karl Rove.