Don’t get cocky, Democrats: The post-Romney GOP looks just like you did two decades ago

You’re looking at a political party that has lost the popular vote in five of the past six elections; whose one winning presidential candidate achieved the White House thanks to a fluke; and whose prospects for the future seem doomed by demography and geography.

No, it’s not today’s Republican Party you’re looking at—it’s the Democratic Party after the 1988 elections. And the past (nearly) quarter-century is an object lesson in the peril of long-term assumptions about the nature and direction of our political path.

Consider where the Democrats found themselves that November. They had just lost their third straight presidential election, and not to the formidable Ronald Reagan, but to George Herbert Walker Bush, a WASP aristocrat prone to sitting down at a diner and asking for “a splash of coffee.” They’d lost by more than seven points in the popular vote, and by 416-111 in the Electoral College, winning only 10 states.

The most enduring element of their geographic base had vanished. The once-solid Democratic South was now solidly Republican and, for the second straight election, their candidate had not won a single state in the region.

But that was only the start of the wretched geographic picture. Four of the six New England states had gone Republican, and the Plains and the Mountain West were all in the GOP camp. Most daunting, three big states—New Jersey, Illinois and California, with 87 combined electoral votes—had gone Republican for the sixth consecutive election. The weakness of Democratic nominee Michael Dukakis could not explain away a recent political fact: The Republican Party appeared to have “an electoral lock” on the White House.

What had happened to the Democrats? What changed? And why is this relevant to Republican woes today?

First, crucial segments of the Democratic base—the white working-class and small-town rural voters, driven away by fierce internal rifts over race, war, crime and culture—had fled.  What Republicans appear to have lost now is a more amorphous group of voters: the middle. It must have shocked GOP veterans to see from the exit polls that among self-described “moderates,” Barack Obama—the “collectivist-socialist-big-government” candidate—won by some 15 points.  (The Republican dilemma here is magnified by the much-analyzed fact that the party has managed to ignore the increasing presence of voting groups from Hispanics to the young to single women to the religiously unaffiliated.)

So how did Democrats work themselves out of their trough and pick that electoral lock? One big answer was Bill Clinton, who in his 1992 campaign staged a frontal challenge to Democratic orthodoxies. The American people, he said, trust us with neither their safety nor their money. He took on issues from welfare to free trade to the hot-button question of crime, often appearing in front of a “wall of blue” of police officers. He embraced the death penalty, and said of abortion that it should be “safe, legal and rare.” It was not always attractive—he went back to Arkansas to preside over the execution of a mentally challenged convict—but he did manage to alter voters’ ideas of what Democrats stood for.

In this sense, Mitt Romney campaigned as the “anti-Clinton.” Not once did he say to the base of his party, "You’re wrong about this issue; here’s why." No doubt he and his campaign concluded that he could not win the nomination with a direct challenge. My strong hunch is that a GOP candidate in 2016 will have to do just that if he or she is to have a chance in November.

A second answer is that Republicans, like Democrats before them, are bleeding from self-inflicted wounds. Just as Democrats in the ’70s and ’80s competed with each other in primaries in staking out positions to gratify the party’s liberal-left base, Republican candidates in the primaries lunged for positions—from immigration to social issues—guaranteed to alienate them from the middle.

And here is a crucial parallel to what Democrats had to learn in the late 1980s: If voters believe you do not respect their values, they will not care much about your programs. Back then, the problem for Democrats was a sense that they had contempt for traditional values. Today, the problem for Republicans is that when people hear Rush Limbaugh call a young woman a “slut” or watch Sheriff Joe Arpaio wage a campaign against Hispanics, they think they’re hearing the voice of the Republican rank and file.

There’s one more lesson to be learned from this tale of two wounded political parties: Do not assume that the current state of the Republican Party is any guide to the future.

Few in 1988 would have suggested that Democrats would come to a commanding position in the Electoral College. And some of the more sweeping conclusions about the terminal stage of the Republicans seem overwrought. For one thing, President Obama is about to embark on a second term, which, as my colleague Walter Shapiro has noted, is often perilous. (Though, I would not have guessed that peril, in the form of the Petraeus story, would have come quite so soon.)

Second, the GOP may demonstrate that it has learned its lessons, either through the people it nominates or in the policies it follows on Capitol Hill. (Immigration reform is now an odds-on favorite to actually happen, and Sen. Marco Rubio is more than likely to be the party’s point man on the issue.)

Third, sooner or later some leading figure in the Republican Party will have to begin talking back to the Rush Limbaugh-Sean Hannity-Dick Morris-Grover Norquist Axis of Drivel that has made the GOP so unattractive to so many who might well embrace its policy agenda. In this past campaign, the people who might have taken on that job—Jeb Bush, Mitch Daniels among others—chose to stay on the sidelines. They will do so again at great cost to their party, and the country.