Lincoln would weep, Washington Post columnist E.J. Dionne tells us, if the former president could look today at the state of his Republican Party, talking of states’ rights, downsizing government, riddled with birthers and nuts. But times change, and crises change with them. Abraham Lincoln never dealt with trillions in deficits, unpopular health care bills and an exploding bureaucracy.
And while Lincoln wept, what would the Democrats’ icons say to the current state of their party?
What would Franklin Roosevelt and Harry Truman say to Harry Reid and Nancy Pelosi? Probably nothing good.
Liberals tend to assume Republicans veered rightward at some point for no logical reason, whereas Democrats have remained their sweet, moderate selves for decades. Not true. Back in the days when Republicans were more diverse and more moderate, Democrats were diverse and more moderate, too.
There were anti-abortion Democrats, pro-defense Democrats, Democrats who knew how to fight and win wars. When Howard Baker defined the Republican mainstream, Joe Lieberman would have passed as your typical Democrat, not as an outcast despised by his party. Before 1980, little divided the parties. Foreign policy was largely bipartisan, and social issues barely existed.
The Truman Doctrine and Marshall Plan belonged to the president, but Gen. Dwight Eisenhower and then-Rep. John Kennedy both backed them from their inception. The only differences were on the size of government, and those were not large.
Ike didn’t cut the size of the government; JFK didn’t expand it. Ike created the interstate highway system; JFK reduced taxes. The differences between Eisenhower and Adlai Stevenson, and Kennedy and Richard Nixon, were largely stylistic — as president, Nixon governed to Kennedy’s left.
Both were anti-communist and ambivalent about Joseph McCarthy. Before announcing for president, Kennedy told friends that if he weren’t nominated, he might vote for Nixon himself.
What ended this era? The Democrats’ lurched in the late 1960s to the social and pacifist left. Radical feminists created the social conservatives. Pacifists made Scoop Jackson Democrats into neoconservatives. Identity politics turned civil rights backers into opponents of quotas. Liberal indulgence of social pathologies led to demands for crackdowns on welfare and crime.
This dynamic has led to denial by two sizable factions: There are the liberals, who won’t admit they enable conservatives’ power, and there are the conservatives, who won’t admit their dependence upon liberals.
Liberal overreach is what movement conservatives need to gain power. Without it, they might not exist. Liberal overreach mobilizes conservatives, energizes them, gives them targets to aim at, and it drives centrists into their company.
In 2010, the old kind of conservative returned from the dead, given new life by Democrats’ ambitious stimulus and health care plans.
Examiner columnist Noemie Emery is a contributing editor to The Weekly Standard and the author of “Great Expectations: The Troubled Lives of Political Families.”