From FDR's Soup Lines to Reagan's GOP Landslides

The Democratic Party today is a paradox. It commands a majority of seats in Congress, state legislatures, and governors' mansions, but cannot win the White House. Damaged 24 years ago by Vietnam, inflation, and racial politics, now its biggest problem may be itself.

WASHINGTON has entered its third decade of "the Republican era." So is the nation now richer? Happier? Safer? Better educated?

"No!" you say? Then will Republicans, who gave us four of our last five presidents - Richard Nixon, Gerald Ford, Ronald Reagan, George Bush - be run out of town? Will Democrats finally make their long-awaited return to the Oval Office?

"Not likely," say the experts.

Even though the economy is limping, the nation's schools are lagging, and more Americans are driving Toyotas while Ford workers collect jobless pay, the outlook remains reasonably good for Mr. Bush and the GOP.

Tom Cronin, author of a best-selling textbook on American politics, says everything points in the Republicans' favor, not only in 1992, but into the late 1990s.

Looking at the broad trends that have dominated elections since Republicans took power, Dr. Cronin says the public mood still fits the GOP's point of view:

"I think people are still very skeptical about government," he says. "I see term limits. I see tax caps and tax limits. You see a [Republican-style] conservatism there that is still strong in the country."

History indicates Cronin may be right. With few exceptions, presidential elections have moved in broad cycles, first Democratic, then Republican, since the 1930s. Only extraordinary circumstances have interrupted this historical ebb and flow.

Democrats, who marched triumphantly into Washington at the depths of the Great Depression, ran things here for most of the next 36 years, until 1968. Franklin Roosevelt, who won the hearts of the nation's poor and unemployed during those soup-kitchen days, was elected to an unprecedented four terms.

Democratic control of Washington during the Rooseveltian era was nearly complete. Republicans were so shattered in the 1936 election that their presidential candidate, Alf Landon, got only eight electoral votes, the smallest number since John Quincy Adams got one vote in 1820. The entire Democratic era was interrupted only once, by war-hero Dwight D. Eisenhower, and even he could not hold a Republican majority in Congress.

Then the tide changed. It began with Richard Nixon in 1968, gained momentum in 1972, and probably crested in the mid-1980s. Ronald Reagan's popular vote in 1984 against Walter Mondale was the highest in history - more than 54 million. During the past 24 years, only Jimmy Carter, capitalizing on Mr. Nixon's Watergate debacle, carried the day for Democrats, and many experts, like Cronin, regard his election as a fluke.

The Electoral College tells the story of these party cycles most dramatically. From 1932 to 1964, the Democratic era, the Democrats collected 3,130 electoral votes to just 1,607 for the Republicans. Without Eisenhower, the Democratic margin would have been 2,968 to 708.

But from 1968 to the present, the Republican era, the GOP has gained 2,501 electoral votes to just 679 for the Democrats. Over half of those Democratic votes were won by one man, Jimmy Carter.

The '70s and '80s were painful for Democrats hoping to run the country. They got few White House jobs, or Cabinet posts, or high-level executive positions, or ambassadorships. The courts also steadily became conservative and Republican. Some analysts wondered if the Democratic Party were dying.

What went wrong with the party of Roosevelt?

Interviews with 35 political scientists, historians, politicians, pollsters, and other experts find no single answer.

The roof simply fell in on Democrats, collapsing under the weight of the Vietnam war, runaway inflation, racial politics, anti-communism, and other forces. The party's base of presidential support eroded in every region. In some cases, wounds were self-inflicted; others were the result of the party's successes.

Among the factors:

* The Vietnam war. Nine thousand miles away, the war radicalized elements of the Democratic Party and led to a split at the 1968 national convention in Chicago, and later to the 1972 nomination of an antiwar senator, George McGovern of South Dakota.

L. Douglas Wilder, the Democratic governor of Virginia, says that 1968 was "a watershed year" for the party because of the war. Before that, "a lot of people took for granted that [Democratic domination] would always be."

After that, Southern whites and Northern hard-hats began fleeing the party, and have never returned. Ever since, Democrats have suffered from the charge that they were "soft on defense."

* Supreme Court decisions. Integration, forced busing of white school children in the South, and mandated hiring programs for minorities all began to alienate some Democratic voters, particularly in the South.

* Democratic social policies. Led by President Lyndon Johnson, Democrats pushed civil rights legislation, including the Voting Rights Act, through Congress.

Those victories may have planted the seeds of later Democratic defeat, however, as a middle-class backlash developed.

The new laws paved the way, first, for Mr. Nixon's "Southern strategy," which peeled off white Democratic voters.

Eventually it led to Republican campaigns like that of 1988, in which convict Willie Horton became a symbol of Democratic liberalism on crime, race, and other social issues.

* Democratic rules. As left-wing elements gained power within the party, the party's rules were rewritten to give broader representation to special-interest groups and racial minorities.

The goal was idealistic. But the impact was destructive in the view of many political scientists, such as Nelson Polsby of the University of California at Berkeley, and political insiders such as Susan Estrich, campaign manager for Mr. Dukakis in 1988.

Dr. Polsby says that the current system pits one faction against another, leading to so much infighting among Southerners and Northerners, blacks and whites, liberals and conservatives that the Democrats virtually destroy their chances before the fall campaign even begins. (See accompanying story.)

Yet Democrats remain hopeful. Reagan beat Mondale by over 16 million votes in 1984. But four years later, Bush was able to defeat Dukakis by only 7 million votes. Dukakis won back New York, lost by only a whisker in Illinois, and ran well in California.

With a stronger candidate, could '92 be a Democratic year after all?

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