Democrats think in the moment. Republicans think in decades
In 2006, Howard Dean, chair of the Democratic National Committee, and Rahm Emanuel, chair of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, had an expletive-laden shouting match on the steps of the Democratic National Committee.
Emanuel was pleading for more money from Dean to pour into competitive congressional races. That year, Democrats had a unique opportunity to seize control of the House for the first time since 1994. President George W. Bush was unpopular, and the Iraq and Afghanistan wars were descending into their respective quagmires.
But Dean had a different idea. Elected on a promise of revitalizing and rebuilding the 50 state Democratic parties, Dean invested funds into state legislative and local races in hard-to-reach red states to the delight of those state party chairs.
On Election Day, Emanuel got his wish of a Democratic-controlled House led by its first woman speaker, Rep. Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.). As for Dean, Barack Obama exercised his presidential prerogative and ousted him from his party chairmanship in 2009.
That long-ago shouting match, together with the release of a draft opinion by Justice Samuel Alito overturning Roe v. Wade, highlights an important difference between how Democrats and Republicans think. The Alito draft, if it stands, represents the culmination of a decades-long charge by Republicans to overturn Roe.
Beginning in 1980, the Republican Party adopted a pro-life plank in its platform. This was the beginning of a decades-long quest. In 1982, the Federalist Society was established. Its purpose was to return to an “originalist” interpretation of the U.S. Constitution, a view that had no room for rights, including abortion, not specifically enumerated in the document. Replacing the American Bar Association’s gold standard endorsement by which prospective judges once were measured, the Federalist Society became an essential seal of approval that Republican presidents needed when it came to nominating federal judges. Lists of prospective candidates were drawn up by the society, and the organization achieved its goal by not only supporting the current Supreme Court justices nominated by Republican presidents but adding hundreds of its approved judges to the federal courts.
During his term as president, President Trump slavishly adhered to the lists submitted by the Federalist Society’s president, Leonard Leo. Leo told others it was easy to come up with names for Trump because there were decades of conservative lawyers in the pipeline. Of the six names that Leo submitted to Trump, Neil Gorsuch, Brett Kavanaugh and Amy Coney Barrett made the cut. Taking pride in his ability to confirm these judges, Sen. Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) says, “If you prefer America right of center, which I do, and you’re looking around at what you can do to have the longest possible impact on the kind of America you want, it seems to me you look at the courts.” While McConnell boasts about his judicial confirmation record, he would be the first to acknowledge that he had plenty of help.
Democrats think very differently. Instead of planning for the long term, Democrats think in the moment. Once the Alito decision was leaked, the outrage was palpable. Outside the Supreme Court, Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) shouted, “I am angry because we have reached the culmination of what Republicans have been fighting for, angling for, for decades now!” Her colleague Sen. Tina Smith (D-Minn.) said she was “pissed.”
Demonstrations erupted outside the homes of Supreme Court justices, and spontaneous marches were held in cities around the nation. Standing in front of a Planned Parenthood office, Gov. Gavin Newsom (D-Calif.) captured the anger of his fellow Democrats: “Where’s the Democratic Party? Why aren’t we standing up more firmly, more resolutely? Why aren’t we calling this out? This is a coordinated, concerted effort. And yes, they’re winning. They are. They have been. Let’s acknowledge that. We need to stand up. Where’s the counteroffensive?”
That counteroffensive is lacking because Democrats, unlike Republicans, have not built the organizations needed for long-term victories. The Federalist Society is only one example of how Republicans have constructed apparatuses designed to reshape American life in the long term, even if the immediate results were not apparent. Besides the Federalist Society, in 1992 the Susan B. Anthony List was formed. Following the victories of several female Democratic senators and Bill Clinton that year, this organization was established with the purpose of electing more pro-life Republican women into office.
Another example of long-term Republican thinking is the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC). Formed in 1973, ALEC describes itself as “dedicated to the principles of limited government, free markets, and federalism.” ALEC writes proposed bills and encourages conservative state legislators to copy their formulaic texts and push for their enactment. Should the issue of abortion be referred to the state legislatures for adjudication, expect ALEC to write bills strictly limiting abortion with the goal of having it adopted in as many states as possible.
Until Democrats start thinking long-term, they will be reduced to being a party prone to primal screams and symbolic votes, while Republicans accomplish goals they have spent decades working assiduously to achieve.
John Kenneth White is a professor of politics at the Catholic University of America. His latest book is titled “What Happened to the Republican Party?”
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