Since the Nixon years, the GOP has enjoyed a marked advantage over the Democrats at the presidential level. Cultural issues — race, religion, abortion, patriotism — have worked to the Republicans’ advantage. Until Barack Obama’s election in 2008, no Democrat has won the presidency without aggressively adapting to that fact.
Jimmy Carter, a Southern evangelical, defeated a very moderate Vice President Gerald Ford at a moment when the GOP was still reeling from the Watergate scandal and Ford’s pardon of Nixon. Still, it’s easy to forget that Carter was the choice of what would come to be known as the “Christian Right” (historian Steven Hayward reminds me that Carter got a lavishly generous reception on the fledgling “700 Club”).
At the beginning of the general election campaign, Ford was behind 33 points and by the end had very nearly caught up with Carter. Had Carter not cast himself as a pious Southern veteran, small business owner and conservative-leaning Democrat (opposed to busing, muddled on abortion), or if the GOP had not nominated such a liberal candidate so closely tied to the Nixon presidency, it’s quite possible the Republicans would have won in 1976.
Since then, any Democrat who tried to run as an unapologetic liberal, particularly on cultural issues, lost. In 1992, the Democrats seemed to have figured that out. They nominated Bill Clinton, a pro-death penalty Southerner who wanted abortion to be “safe, legal and rare” and who campaigned against the “something for nothing” welfare state politics of his own party. He picked fights — often symbolic, occasionally substantive — with the left to prove he was a centrist.
Thanks to a host of complex reasons, many of them having to do with George W. Bush’s mixed political legacy, the Democrats no longer feel the need to play Clintonian games. They yanked the “rare” language out of the abortion plank of the platform, supporting instead abortion on demand. Indeed, a layman watching the speeches from abortion activists, and more importantly the reactions of the delegates, would conclude that the ancestral party of the Free Silver movement had morphed into the free abortion movement. It’s a remarkable shift given that the electorate is more pro-life today than it was when Bill Clinton ran in 1992.
On the symbolism front, in what even leading Democrats admit was a spectacular display of self-inflicted stupidity, they managed to scrub any mention of God from the Democratic platform. They also removed support for Jerusalem as the capital of Israel. When they realized how grievously idiotic these unforced errors were, they tried to fix them by amending the document. The result was an ugly moment where the delegates voted three times against, in effect, God and Jerusalem, until the chairman of the convention, L.A. Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa simply steamrolled his own party like some Politburo bully.
It’s an unspoken rule of politics that you’re in a bad place when you’re renouncing God on TV — three times! Even Peter stayed away from the cameras when he renounced Jesus.
Meanwhile, the Republicans seem to have become Dukakified. It was Michael Dukakis, the 1988 Democratic presidential nominee, who insisted that the election should be entirely about “competence, not ideology.” Romney has avoided saying that in so many words, but it’s certainly how he’s campaigning. After running to the right in the primaries and boldly picking Rep. Paul Ryan as his running mate, Romney bizarrely seems to have retreated to an ideological and even intellectual crouch.
Though he doesn’t say it explicitly, the tone and tenor of Romney’s convention speech suggested that Obama failed because he didn’t have the right resume, not because he has the wrong ideas. Stuart Stevens, Romney’s top strategist, has dismayed many on the right by operating according to the theory that Romney mustn’t do anything to offend the delicate sensibilities of some statistical abstraction of a female voter in the Ohio suburbs. Listening to the Romney speech, you’d have no idea he picked a principled, fearless and brilliant conservative lightning rod as a running mate.
If Stevens’ theory of the election is right, then the GOP convention was brilliantly executed. But that is a huge gamble — as huge as Obama’s bet that Americans have moved left. Right now, however, it looks too much like a contest between people with the wrong ideas against people without any.
Jonah Goldberg is the author of the new book “The Tyranny of Clichés.”