Sooner or later, someone had to mention party realignment. After losing one election, it is premature to talk about realignment, but after two, a party generally begins to make corrections. These corrections will generally go one of two ways: toward the party base (generally the harder left or harder right respectively) or toward the political center.
The last Democratic realignment occurred with Clinton. After embarassing losses in 80, 84, and 88, the Democratic party was ready for a shift, and this time to the center. By taking the stance of being tough on crime (remember Clinton rushing back to Arkansas to preside over the execution of the mentally retarded inmate) and by later triangulating Republican economic policy on balanced budgets and welfare, Clinton was able to deliver the party. It is for this reason that Clinton still remains popular: he is the Moses who took the Democrats out of 12 years in the desert and into the promised land.
But Clinton’s successor did not share his vision. While distancing himself from Clinton’s personal problems, he also distanced himself from the centrist politics which had led to previous Democratic success. Instead, Gore opted for the populism of the Mondale era, and achieved Mondale-like results (in fairness, Mondale did carry his own state in 84).
Following this loss, the Democrats in this election were at sea without a rudder. They wanted to run a campaign in opposition, but they realized the opposition positions were losers. Thus, they criticized the President’s economic plan, but refused to say that they would reverse it and raise taxes. They questioned his foreign policy, but recoiled from criticizing him on Iraq after Kirk’s precipitous 6-point drop in the polls for doing just that.
In the wake of this debacle, the party has been forced to decide what went wrong, and which way the correction should be: toward the center, or toward the left. With the ascendancy of Nancy Pelosi, the party’s answer seems clear: toward the left.
Now I could go on at this point about how this will lead to future losses, but the more interesting feature is how this impacts the next two Presidential elections. The Democratic nominee will likely be liberal in 2004 based on the shift in the party. Senator Kerry from Massachusetts seems to have anticipated this, and therefore made it clear over the weekend that he will soon officially begin his candidacy. But there is a clearer candidate: Hillary. Remember, the only Democrats who faired well in the recent elections were Bill and Hillary, who were received like rock stars at Democratic events. They were the ones who excited the crowds and got donors to part with their money.
Conventional wisdom had suggested that Hillary would run in 08. But the realignment may change that. If another liberal runs and loses in 04, then her chance may be gone for 08, given the probability that the party’s pendulum would again swing back toward the center. Still more important, given recent losses, is the fact that the Democratic party is going to look for a clear winner in 04: someone who can win in the primaries and weed out the gang of 20 candidates who seem destined to run. Gore is no longer able to scare off competition--it now seems unlikely that he will be able to keep his own running mate from running against him--but Hillary could.
Thus it now seems clear that the party has charted its leftward course, and that course may well place Hillary in the position to be a presidential contender sooner than most think.