The Armageddon elections to come

In 1964, Barry Goldwater was fond of saying he gave voters “A choice, not an echo.” Goldwater’s campaign theme was a reference to those “me-too” Republicans who accepted the New Deal and even expanded it. A decade before, Dwight Eisenhower undertook a massive enlargement of the federal government by creating a Department of Health, Education, and Welfare; founding the modern interstate highway system (an infrastructure investment unmatched until the Biden administration); expanding Social Security; increasing the minimum wage; and making a significant federal investment in education after the Soviet Union’s successful 1957 launch of Sputnik. Goldwater derided Eisenhower’s domestic agenda as a “dime store New Deal.” His contrast to Lyndon Johnson’s Great Society was stark, and he lost in a landslide. 

But Johnson’s overreach created a backlash. Two years after his overwhelming victory, Ronald Reagan was elected governor of California, and he began a revival of the conservative movement that resulted in three presidential landslides. Democrats recalibrated by offering their own version of “me-tooism” that included promises to cut spending and balance the budget.

In 1996, President Clinton began his reelection campaign by declaring, “The era of big government is over,” and he decisively defeated Sen. Bob Dole (R-Kan.). Four years later, Al Gore and George W. Bush fought almost to a draw, with Gore presenting himself as a “New Democrat” in the Clinton mold. 

The Democrats’ “me-tooism” coincided with a decline in voter turnout, falling in 1996 to 49 percent, the lowest since 1924. In 2000, turnout rose only slightly to 51.3 percent, with the real drama occurring after the election. But in 2004, turnout spiked to 64 percent, as Democrats recoiled from George W. Bush and the Iraq War, and the polarization of the country intensified. In 2008, turnout remained at 64 percent, as Barack Obama became the first African American president, declaring in his victory speech, “Change has come to America.”

In 2016, fewer voters, disenchanted with their choices of Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton, went to the polls. But unlike his predecessors, Trump never sought to unify a polarized country, and by 2020 turnout spiked to a record 67 percent.  

In 2020, Democrats believed that Trump represented an existential threat to their personal health and the country’s democratic institutions. For them, his removal from office was a top priority. Trump voters saw a cultural revolution underway led by young, college educated voters and immigrants who were leaving the romanticized 1950s and 1960s far behind. Economic upheavals were bending the future toward an information society and away from traditional manufacturing jobs — trends that only accentuated their feeling of loss.

For both parties, 2020 was an Armageddon election in which many on each side believed a defeat represented the end of America as they knew it. For angry and disillusioned Trump voters, Jan. 6 was the result.

During the first year of his administration, Joe Biden operated as “Mr. Inside,” trying to calm the waters, negotiate with recalcitrant Democrats and cut deals with Republicans wherever possible. This approach led to both significant accomplishments and setbacks. On the plus side, the American Rescue Plan was approved on the strength of a unified Democratic Party. A bipartisan infrastructure bill likewise found its way to Biden’s desk. The Senate confirmed record numbers of federal judges for a freshman president. But Biden’s Build Back Better plan was stymied by the strident opposition of Sens. Joe Manchin (D-W.Va.) and Kyrsten Sinema (D-Ariz.), and voting rights bills were defeated.

Biden is fond of saying, “Don’t compare me to the Almighty, compare me to the alternative.” In his marathon press conference, Biden signaled a shift in strategy: “The public doesn’t want me to be the ‘President Senator.’ They want me to be the President and let senators be senators.” For Biden, being president means a change in tactics: “I have to make clear to the American people what we are for.  . . . So, I tell my Republican friends: Here I come. This is going to be about ‘what are you for’. . .and lay out what we’re for.” “Mr. Inside” is about to morph into “Mr. Outside.”

The Republicans’ strategy is clear: oppose Biden on everything and highlight their cultural differences with the Democrats. In his meeting with reporters, Biden quoted New Hampshire Gov. Chris Sununu who, when Republicans pleaded with him to run for the U.S. Senate, balked when he was told his only job would be to “hold the line” for the remaining two years of Biden’s term. Instead of proposing new ideas, Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) refuses to elaborate, candidly admitting, “I’ll let you know when we take [the majority] back.”

Biden’s “here I come” approach makes the 2022 and 2024 races Armageddon contests. The stakes are high, with engaged voters seeing a loss as having dramatic consequences.

If Republicans win, Democrats view the Constitution and voting rights as being under siege, and their fears of a Trump comeback will be accentuated. Should Democrats defy the odds and maintain control of Congress, Republicans see a changing political demography that threatens the continued existence of their party as they know it.

Wherever they can, Republicans will prevent would-be Democratic voters from getting to the polls. And should a Republican-controlled state legislature in 2022 refuse to certify the results, or demand another election, or refuse to send the appropriate paperwork to Congress, expect, in the words of Steve Bannon, “all hell is going to break loose.” For the foreseeable future, political Armageddon has arrived.

John Kenneth White is a professor of politics at the Catholic University of America. His latest book is “What Happened to the Republican Party?”

Tags Al Gore Barack Obama Chris Sununu Donald Trump Hillary Clinton Joe Biden Joe Biden 2020 presidential campaign Joe Manchin Kyrsten Sinema Mitch McConnell Politics of the United States Presidents of the United States Republicanism in the United States. Trumpism Steve Bannon

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