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Is this a Reagan moment or a Goldwater moment?


David Plouffe was on “Meet the Press” this weekend, and his analysis of the mess in New York's 23rd District was pretty spot-on:

DAVID GREGORY: [Sarah Palin] endorsed the -- the independent, more conservative candidate. And now we've got the Republican candidate who stepped aside.

PLOUFFE: So, a centrist Republican has been ridden out of that race. And I think what you're gonna see in the coming months -- if not years is -- Sarah Palin -- you know, by the way, she's kind of playing the role of Pied Piper in the Republican Party, which is something I'm quite comfortable with. So, Sarah Palin, the other Republican candidates -- who are likely to run. The Limbaughs and Becks of the world are basically hanging a "Moderates need not apply" sign outside the Republican National Committee headquarters.

Nancy Scozzafava's decision to drop out of the race isn't so important in terms of New York's 23rd. It's important in terms of the composition of future candidates in the Republican Party. Bill Kristol has a wan effort to look on the bright side -- people thought Ronald Reagan represented a schism, too! -- but this is happening in context of a popular Democratic president, an electorate where the young are trending monolithically Democrat, a country where Latino immigrants are becoming an ever more important political force, and a Republican Party that's staggeringly unpopular.

Radical convulsions in a political party can represent one of two things. Either reformers are pushing the party towards the center of the electorate -- and that can mean a rightward push, as with Reagan, or a centrist push, as with Clinton -- or they are capturing it and taking it further away. This looks like the latter, to me. It's not so much that Republicans are mistaking the enthusiasm of a rump faction for the preferences of the electorate -- the Republican Party tried to back Scozzafava, after all -- as they're powerless to resist.

All of which suggests that the right historical analogue may not be Ronald Reagan but Barry Goldwater. And though Goldwater's campaign led to Reagan's later rise, it also led to a historic pickup for the Democrats and the creation of Medicare, Medicaid, Head Start, PBS, food stamps, welfare ...

Photo credit: By Frank Johnston/The Washington Post. Michael Jackson may not have a role in this post, but that was too good a photo to pass up.

By Ezra Klein  |  November 2, 2009; 6:14 PM ET
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Dems shouldn't gloat too much as they are about to become known as the party of the mandate.

Posted by: bmull | November 2, 2009 6:38 PM | Report abuse

Can't read too much into NY-23. Scozzafava supported card check. That puts her on the extreme left of the party.

Posted by: MrDo64 | November 2, 2009 6:45 PM | Report abuse

Deidre (Dede) Scozzafava, not Nancy.

Posted by: spiffymcbang | November 2, 2009 7:03 PM | Report abuse

Ultimately, your ability to win politically is tied to your ability to govern. There's noise in the system that sometimes dislodges good government or prolongs bad government, but, over the course of time, voters ultimately respond to results.

Republicans would be wise to select candidates who can govern well. They think they're doing so by picking nutjobs. They're wrong, but, if their beliefs about the world were actually accurate, their philosophy would be wise.

Fortunately for the rest of us, Republicans aren't in power, and don't look like they will be for a little while.

Posted by: davestickler | November 2, 2009 7:06 PM | Report abuse

Is this why you came to the Washington Post? So that you could use their entire catalog of photos royalty-free on your blog?

Because if so, that is awesome and I commend you.

Posted by: shanehuang | November 2, 2009 8:46 PM | Report abuse

I admire your blue-skies prognostication, Ezra, on the eve of a potentially bloody Election Day for the Dems, but I don't think you're reading the mood of the country any better than, say, Joe Lieberman's motivations and threats. Nate Silver's take differs, alas. And Obama's polling average has dipped below 50%, according to Pollster -- not sure POTUS qualifies as "popular" any more.

Posted by: scarlota | November 2, 2009 8:56 PM | Report abuse

This is hardly an original sentiment, but as a Democrat, I would rather lose more often to a sane opposing party than lose occasionally to a dangerous and extreme one. I'd trade a rump party of Palin for a larger party of Eisenhower any day. The story of NY-23 does not bode well.

Posted by: HerooftheBeach | November 2, 2009 9:00 PM | Report abuse

There's nothing the least bit mysterious about the imminent setback for the Democrats: they inherited a terrible economy, and that hurts incumbents. People forget Reagan lost 27 House seats in 1982, because that election coincided with the unemployment high from that brutal recession. Unfortunately for today's GOP, a repeat of this effect is not in the cards, as there's no way to speed up the midterms and have them a year early (in other words have them tomorrow). Next year's midterms will take place fully eighteen months or so after the onset of recovery -- hence limiting Democratic losses to the run-of-the-mill variety we can usually count on. Ain't timing a bit*h, Republicans?

Posted by: Jasper99 | November 2, 2009 9:30 PM | Report abuse

****admire your blue-skies prognostication, Ezra, on the eve of a potentially bloody Election Day for the Dems****

There's nothing "potentially bloody" about tomorrow, because there are only four contests worthy of note (I'm counting the Maine referendum). If 1/3rd of the Senate and 435 House seats were up for grabs, you'd have a point. And, expectations for the GOP have been set so high, that failure to win all four contests will be seen as an underwhelming performance.

Posted by: Jasper99 | November 2, 2009 9:38 PM | Report abuse

"it also led ... the creation of ...medicare,... welfare ..."

Not true. AFDC already existed.

Aid to Families with Dependent Children (AFDC) was a federal assistance program in effect from 1935 to 1997,[1] which was administered by the United States Department of Health and Human Services. This program provided financial assistance to children whose families had low or no income.

Ask the Widipedia

"The program was created under the name Aid to Dependent Children (ADC) by the Social Security Act of 1935 as part of the New Deal; the words "families with" were added to the name in 1960, partly due to concern that the program's rules discouraged marriage.[2]"

Posted by: rjw88 | November 2, 2009 9:53 PM | Report abuse

"And though Goldwater's campaign led to Reagan's later rise, it also led to a historic pickup for the Democrats and the creation of Medicare, Medicaid, Head Start, PBS, food stamps, welfare ..."

And, perhaps most significantly, the final achievement of civil racial equality and massive immigration reform that gave rise to Barack Obama's multiracial electorate in the first place.

Posted by: NS12345 | November 3, 2009 1:24 AM | Report abuse

On one level, I have to agree with this anlysis (And I have to point out to the commenter above, that Obama's average only dips below 50% when you factor in the consistently-outlying Rasmummsen poll; everyone else pegs him in the mid-50s).

But on another level, I have to remember that this is the exact thing the pundits said about the Democrats when we primaried Joe Lieberman.

Posted by: colby1983 | November 3, 2009 7:21 AM | Report abuse

NIXON and his anti-elitist rhetoric paved the way for Ronald Reagan. Goldwater was a case study in how to run as an elitist and lose. Reagan ran as a populist who managed to tar the Dems as the elitists.

Posted by: bakho | November 3, 2009 8:18 AM | Report abuse

you reading way to much into NY-23. The issue there was there was no primary held, the GOP candidate was chosen by some local party leaders. That got the locals upset, particularly when they found out she was pro-choice and supported card-check. I doubt she would have carried a primary in this very conservative district, and none of this Palin crap would be an issue.

We'll find out in the 2010 primaries how much impact she can have nationwide. Lets not jump to conclusions, Dems will have some tough sledding next year.

Posted by: truth5 | November 3, 2009 9:56 AM | Report abuse

"But on another level, I have to remember that this is the exact thing the pundits said about the Democrats when we primaried Joe Lieberman."

The difference is that Democrats didn't use Lamont's successful primary challenge as justification for purging "nonbelievers" from the caucus.

The real impact of Hoffman's candidacy will not be seen in tonight's results, but in the months ahead as 2010 primaries become more defined. Charlie Crist will likely face a stronger challenge in his primary against Marco Rubio, but how many other Republicans will Palin, Beck, et al deem to be not sufficiently conservative and how much money and time will they invest in these primaries?

If conservatives limit these purges to the point where they are largely symbolic, they will not do too much damage to themselves. However, earlier today I read about conservatives in Utah contemplating a primary challenge to Robert Bennett. If it becomes that widespread, the Republican Party could be in serious trouble over the next few cycles.

Posted by: ashimm | November 3, 2009 7:46 PM | Report abuse

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