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A Reality Check on Matt Yglesias’ “Reality Check”


Over at ThinkProgress, Matt Yglesias has a “Reality Check” for progressives who believe that Democrats are “‘bad’ at electoral politics.” To the contrary, Yglesias argues, Democrats have won the popular vote for president 4 times since 1980 (the same as the Republicans), have “controlled the House for 18 out of those 30 years, and controlled the Senate for 14 out of 30 years.”  According to Yglesias, “None of that sounds to me like a political party that’s having trouble persuading people to vote for it.”

In short, according to Matt Yglesias, Democrats are basically doing fine, the implication being that there’s little (if any) need to fix their “problems” (since they don’t really have any), to strengthen their messaging/narrative skills (which Yglesias seems to argue are perfectly adequate), etc. Well, sorry, but I don’t buy it.  Instead, here’s my own “reality check” on Matt Yglesias’ “Reality Check.”

First off, as one of Matt Yglesias’ readers (correctly) points out:

Republicans have managed to achieve partisan parity with the Democrats at the same time that they’ve moved astonishingly far to the right. Democrats have held pretty tight to the socio-cultural mainstream and yet half the time they still get their clocks cleaned by a ragtag collection of various cranks and radicals.

That point can’t be emphasized enough. Today’s Republicans are most definitely not your father’s – and certainly not your grandfather’s – GOP. Imagine Dwight Eisenhower (highest tax rate was 92%, strongly pro-organized-labor, expanded government role in health care, was against foreign policy unilateralism, warned against the military-industrial complex, sided with Nasser against Israel), Richard Nixon (wage and price controls, EPA, Clean Air Act, Earth Day, went to Communist China), Gerald Ford (outspoken supporter of Equal Rights Amendment, called Roe v. Wade a “great, great decision”, ran a budget deficit, signed Education for All Handicapped Children Act), or even the great Ronald Reagan (raised taxes – on gasoline, corporations, etc. – numerous times, negotiated with the “evil empire,” offered to give up our nuclear weapons, ran up enormous deficits, expanded Social Security, grew the government). There’s also the 1993 Republican Party, which proposed health care reform that is very similar to what was enacted into law earlier this year by the “socialists” Pelosi, Reid and Obama.  And then there’s the evilevilevil “cap and trade,” which started in part as a Reagan conservative idea to harness the power of the market in order to solve environmental problems.  

The point is, today’s Republican Party is so far right wing that few, if any, of its previous leaders would be considered “conservative” enough. Today, many former Republican presidents (including Reagan, most likely) would be primaried from the right, by the Tea Party or whoever, and many would be attacked (and probably defeated) as “RINOs.”  Meanwhile, Democrats have, if anything, moved to the center-right, adopting Republican ideas of 20 years ago and “triangulating” with a vengeance. Yet Democrats are somehow not kicking Republicans’ butts up and down the ballot, from state legislatures to Congress? How can this be? According to Matt Yglesias, it’s not a messaging failure or an indication of any “problem.” Well, sorry, but I respectfully – but completely – disagree. That’s reality check #1.

As for the fact that Democrats have about broken even with Republicans since 1980 at the federal level, I just don’t buy that.  The 1980s were the golden (for Republicans) “Reagan Era,” although Democrats mostly controlled Congress. In the 1990s, we had a two-term Clinton presidency, but from 1994 on (Gingrich’s “Contract ON America”), it was the Dick Morris “triangulation” – ending welfare as we know it, school uniforms, no major progressive initiatives of any kind – Clinton presidency. Then, we have the 2000s, with Bush/Cheney for 2 terms (despite Al Gore winning the popular vote in 2000) and a hard-right Republican Congress for much of the decade. Why is this picture not looking so rosy? Anyway, that’s reality check #2.

Finally, I’d just reiterate the fact that Democrats have moved significantly to the right over the past 30 years, as the Republicans have lurched into lunatic-fringe la la land. The result is that, today, we have no serious progressive movement and certainly no serious progressive political party in this country. Yet Matt Yglesias argues that Democrats don’t really have a “problem” and that they are not “‘bad’ at electoral politics?”  Perhaps I set the bar a lot higher than Yglesias does for what constitutes Democratic success, but personally, I find it hard to think of the 1980-2010 period as a great era of Democratic and progressive success stories. That’s reality check #3.

So, how about you, what do you think?


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