Democrats are down and out. How can they recover? History provides models for political-party comebacks with one thing in common: serious schisms on the other side.
Over the past half century, major U.S. parties have been in comparable positions three times. Republicans were dispirited following Barry Goldwater’s debacle in 1964 and again after the 1974 Watergate scandal and loss of the presidency two years later. Democrats were floundering after two Ronald Reagan sweeps and then George H.W. Bush’s win in the 1988 presidential contest.
Each time, the party in exile recovered and won the White House aided by divisions leading to primary challenges to incumbent presidents.
This doesn’t mean Democrats can sit back and count on a breakup between President Donald Trump and other Republicans. That’s never a good strategy. They need to develop more ideas and policies that appeal to working-class voters, rebuild a political infrastructure that has frayed over the past four years and, especially, bolster their standing at the state level, where Republicans dominate even more than in Washington.
The out-of-power party did this at these other moments. After 1964, House Republican leaders Gerald Ford and Melvin Laird mobilized the party around domestic issues like revenue sharing and welfare to soften the anti-government edges honed by Goldwater’s faction. This helped reshape the GOP’s image and build a platform for Richard Nixon’s victory in 1968. Likewise, in the late 1970s, U.S. Rep. Jack Kemp and others fashioned anti-tax and deregulatory proposals that helped pave the way for Reagan in 1980.
And after losing three straight presidential elections, the centrist Democratic Leadership Council pushed Democrats to support anti-crime measures, balanced budgets, free trade and welfare reform. The council’s leading spokesman, Arkansas Gov. Bill Clinton, captured the presidency in 1992.
Ferocious battles in the governing party also played a role. After 1964, Democrats bitterly split over Vietnam, forcing President Lyndon Johnson to bow out of a divisive nomination battle. In 1980, President Jimmy Carter was challenged by Sen. Edward M. Kennedy. And in 1992, Bush, who alienated conservatives with a budget deal that included tax increases (it helped pave the way for the 1990s economic boom) was challenged by a declaration of “cultural war” by the right-wing activist Patrick Buchanan.
Each time, the divisions led to a victory by a more united opposition party whose very future had been in question only a few years earlier.
If Trump and congressional Republicans find common ground and policy success, a recovery by Democrats will be challenging even against a divisive and unpopular president. But if they break into factions, the comeback door will fly open.
Albert R. Hunt is a columnist for Bloomberg View.