Sunday, May 27, 2007

It's a year before the presidential election. The president, a backslapping Texan doggedly pursuing a costly and unpopular war, will not be running again. His party's activist base is rumbling with dissatisfaction at the collection of establishment centrists who are contending to replace him, and itching for a more ideologically pure candidate to enter the fray. The opposing party, meanwhile, is haunted by its own candidate from the presidential election seven years before, a sitting vice-president who lost in a controversial photo finish. He has since rejuvenated his tarnished reputation by reinventing himself completely and winning over his party's angry grassroots. And so we must ask the year's burning political question: is Nixon the one?

No, I don't predict a repeat of 1968, with Al Gore storming to victory, only to resign in disgrace six years later. Nor, however, do I consider the parallels merely superficial. Like the Democrats in '68, the Republican party of 2008 has created enough of a moderate, responsible establishment to alienate its purist ideologues, the latter egged on by a full range of newly-mature, ideologically conservative institutions: think tanks such as AEI, Heritage, Cato, Hudson, Hoover and Manhattan, as well as media outlets such as Fox, and even a large portion of the Supreme Court. The party is thus ripe for the kind of radical takeover that eventually decimated the New Deal Democratic coalition and opened the door for the conservative resurgence of the 1980s.

Meanwhile, today's Democrats are in a position similar to that of the 1968 Republicans: their establishment core is moribund, focused on declining institutions and long-outdated ideology. Its young guard is blessed with (environmentalist) religious fervor and unburdened by the old (race-and-class) political orthodoxies, but has yet to form a coherent coalition based on what it's for, not just what it's angrily against.

History doesn't always repeat itself, of course. The Republicans could avoid a radical takeover, or the Gore and "netroots" Democratic factions could fail to coalesce into a coherent reformist movement. (Or both.) But I would be surprised if the institutional right wing of the conservative movement didn't at least try to flex its muscles over perhaps the next decade or so, seeking to consolidate and even extend the right's recent political gains. And to the extent that it succeeds, it will certainly provide a useful focus for a re-invigorated left, as it evolves from a ragtag coterie of angry outsiders into the next mass political movement.

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