The Republicans will blow it

Jim Fain

March 27, 1991|By Jim Fain

WASHINGTON — THE DEMOCRATIC National Committee encamped here over the weekend with all the exuberance of an Iraqi air force reunion.

Beneath the graveyard whistling, the mood was funereal. The only enthusiasm erupted when House Speaker Tom Foley chided the party's paid consultants for making gallows jokes about its plight.

In the instant certitude of this memory-less era, that means the party's dead, right? At least for presidential elections. Since Lyndon Johnson, Democrats have managed only one president -- and him by an eyelash in the wake of Watergate.

To those cursed with pre-TV memory, the world is a less simple place. I became aware of politics at the tag end of a Republican dynasty of three generations -- from Civil War to Great Depression.

I remember Calvin Coolidge vaguely; Herbert Hoover, vividly, and had the privilege of knowing, in his late years, publisher James M. Cox, who was my boss and had been defeated in 1920 by Warren Harding in one of democracy's more bizarre mistakes.

The Democrats, now jeered as sissies, suffered then as "war party," an onus later reinforced by World War II and Korea. Republicans were the isolationists. Woodrow Wilson, one of two Democrats elected in the 70-year span, was intent on a new world order, the League of Nations.

Cox knew the electorate had soured on the League but endorsed it nonetheless. Subsequent candidates -- Adlai Stevenson, especially -- were fascinated by this example of knowingly accepting defeat for principle. They made quadrennial pilgrimages to sit at Cox's feet. Contrast that with Bush's Willie Horton and Pledge of Allegiance.

Cox wasn't thrilled by all his 1920 running mate FDR's New Deal, but, as a pro, respected the way it transformed the political landscape.

The parties since have traded sides on most issues -- tariffs, support for blacks, executive vs. legislative, internationalism, whatever.

Now, in the war hysteria, the GOP is at a crest. Secretary of State Jim Baker quipped at the Gridiron dinner that not even he approves of his old tennis partner by 91 percent.

One of the few sure bets in this random life is that ultimately Republicans will blow it. Success breeds hubris and complacency. New problems arise which an entrenched hierarchy is loath to touch. So off with their heads. The King is dead. Long live the King.

Whether the new king is called a Democrat or some new name depends on whether Democrats muster enough energy to cope with the future. So far, the signs are dismal but new people and ideas come along.

Republicans basically believe governments ought to fight wars and otherwise leave rich people alone to make more money. The Democrats got burned on Vietnam and dread any fire. They overextended on welfare and reaped a backlash.

There are crucial needs that can only be met by government, however, including such new ones as environment. When these have been dammed up long enough, somebody comes along with new ideas, and the pendulum swings.

The fact that television makes the presidency appear to be the only instrument of government is helpful to incumbents at the moment but will make their fall more abrupt in the end. Whether by then the alternative is called "Democrat" or some other name could scarcely matter less.

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