Roundabout 2005, a lot of people were working on the idea that Karl Rove and George W. Bush had cemented some kind of permanent Republican lock on the government. Many of the people doing this were rightwingers crowing about their own genius. But many seemed to be envious critics, simultaneously horrified by and admiring of Rove’s brilliance. Ron Brownstein and Democracy had the neat idea of running a “re-review” of several books from this era and looking back at where they went wrong. It’s a very interesting essay and I recommend it, but I think it has two flaws.
One is that I don’t think Tom Schaller’s Whistling Past Dixie: How Democrats Can Win Without the South is appropriately lumped in with some of these other books. The electoral coalition that brought the Democratic Party back to power looks, broadly speaking, exactly how Schaller said it would look. I think Dixe belongs with Judis and Teixeira’s The Emerging Democratic Majority as books that mostly look right in retrospect, but that are worth probing for errors in order to enhance our understanding. Either way, Dixie is very different from the “new Republican hegemony” genre.
The other shortcoming of Brownstein’s analysis is what Ed Kilgore points to here, namely the fact that you can’t really leave the governing out of the story. Political reporters like to be “objective” and don’t like to immerse themselves in public policy debates. Thus, it’s convenient to try to understand American politics as roughly akin to baseball, in which winning and losing is determined by a mixture of skill at the game and raw luck. The evidence, however, suggests that objective events in the world—as opposed to political tactics—have a huge impact on policy outcomes. Which means, in turn, that the actual quality of the policymaking coming from incumbent politicians winds up making a difference. Under the circumstances, one of the main things the Republican triumphalists missed was simply the possibility that Bush’s policies would work out really poorly and help drive a backlash. But that’s exactly what happened, first in Iraq and then with the arrival of a global economic crisis. As I wrote reviewing some other books in March 2007:
A glance at Jacobson’s poll charts reminds us what a fleeting thing political success is. Polarization has been a semi-constant theme of the Bush years, but the president who once enjoyed record-high approval levels is, today, flirting with Nixon territory. The political X-factor, as Harold MacMillan famously remarked, is “events, my dear boy, events.” Had Bush responded effectively to the challenges of 9-11, one could imagine the GOP regaining Reaganesque levels of dominance. Instead, his policies have failed and created a moment of opportunity for Democrats — one whose outcome, boring as it is to observe, will depend in part on the quality of their own efforts and in part on events outside their control. Popular (or unpopular) response to contingencies, if sustained, can create not just the appearance of political dominance but the reality as well.