It must be said that these cycles are not natural, unavoidable phenomena. The worm does not turn on its own, although externalities like the economy, some wars, and natural events may have a great impact. It is not inevitable that dominance will be quickly followed by decay, if consolidation is carried out well and responsibly; and it is surely not inevitable that disempowerment will be followed by regeneration.
The move from disempowerment to friction and regeneration is marked by partisanship. Republicans were devastated in 1992 at the victory of Bill Clinton, and they controlled neither house of Congress. They were animated by the leadership of Newt Gingrich and Bob Dole (aided by the ascendant Rush Limbaugh), who took every opportunity to stick a finger in Bill Clinton’s eye, whether on gays in the military, North Korea, or health care. In a single-party era, a minority acting in a bipartisan way means conceding defeat. Gingrich and Dole recognized that, and realized that passing universal health care (for instance) would consolidate the Democratic majority. So they didn’t let it happen, even though health care (if not the Clinton plan itself) was a very popular issue at the time. The Republicans believed — probably correctly — that they would end up with half a baby.
One of the curious things about the current Republican majority is how it has not consolidated its power. Tom DeLay left office with a paean to partisanship— nearly 12 years after the “Revolution” that made him Majority Leader. But in spite of the continuing (gerrymandered) Republican majority, Congress’s approval numbers are in the toilet, and Republicans continue to resort to wedge issues (gays, flags) to push through things that people largely don’t want (subsidies for oil); they have not pursued consensus issues that would make a large majority comfortable with their governance.
Far from being an unchecked mandate, consolidation actually requires compromise — albeit with a hand on the scale. The Democratic congressional majority kept its power for 40 years not by running roughshod over Republicans (although the era of the 60’s and 70’s was in many ways more liberal than now), but by creating a spirit of cozy “comity” and bipartisanship. Ted Kennedy and Orrin Hatch played tennis. Former Republican House Minority Leader Bob Michel was no firebrand; Tip O’Neill and Ronald Reagan were pals. When political rhetoric became heated, it was as likely to be within a party — as in the 1968 Democratic convention, the benchmark for the decay part of the cycle — as between them.
In some ways the 1992 campaign was one of consolidation for the Democrats. It was the Clinton-led DLC that realized that moderation in certain economic areas (controlling the deficit thereby bringing down interest rates, eg.) — along with Republican discontent, to be sure — could be a winner for the Democrats. And indeed, it’s easy to forget how liberal George H.W. Bush sounded, perhaps realizing that Reagan fatigue had set in a bit: Remember the “kinder, gentler nation”; the “enviromental President”; or the Boston Harbor ads against Dukakis?
Now, it must be said that Clinton and the Democrats never did consolidate their power once they got it — see above. The DLC smugly takes credit for Clinton’s two victories; do they also take credit for the last twelve years of Tom DeLay?
Now that I’ve posited this life-cycle of political parties … what do we make of MA?
In some ways the MA Democratic Party is a marvel of consolidation: A genuine big-tent attitude and structure has led to utter dominance at the legislative level. This is helped by the state’s Catholic culture, which allows coalitions with “orthodox” cultural liberals on many social issues. It is a decidedly shaky and fractious coalition, but given strong leadership, legislatures are given to discipline and log-rolling, which has kept the Dems in power.
Jay Fitzgerald likes to talk about the current “Progressive-Hack alliance”; and indeed at the institutional level it’s hard to say who are the insiders and who are the outsiders these days. The Deval Patrick people decided to show up for the caucuses, and they seem to be beating the bushes pretty aggressively for votes — but this guy’s a first-time candidate, and many of his supporters are relatively new to politics; Are they hacks? You could ask similar questions about Tom Reilly; sure, he’s got his friends and a lot of institutional support, but people say that as a result of his starched-sock performance as AG (and I mean that as a compliment), his support on Beacon Hill is soft. And what has Chris Gabrieli done for the Incumbent Party on Beacon Hill? He wouldn’t seem to be One Of Them.
So the consolidation seems to have been in arrested development for sixteen years. The idea has been floated here that in fact, the Incumbent Party Dems on Beacon Hill don’t particularly want a Democratic governor, since it would move the agenda-setting role away from the legislature. Make no mistake: The lege was putting health care on the table before Mitt Romney jumped out in front of the cameras. Certainly Tom Finneran was not eager to have a Democratic “partner”.
In 2006, the Dems have an interesting challenge: Since the consolidation has led to defeat after defeat, can they move backward in the life-cycle to friction and regeneration? Can a Democratic candidate credibly claim agenda-setting power away from the legislature, while simultaneously discrediting and defeating a stubborn 16-year Republican incumbency in the executive? All three Democratic candidates have the potential; the question is who makes himself most credible.