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Losing it

On Tuesday, either George W. Bush or John Kerry will go down to defeat. But in the long run, some observers are already suggesting, to the losing party may go the spoils.

IN THE NARRATIVE of the modern American conservative movement, few election years loom larger than 1964. After a generation of Democratic hegemony tempered only by eight years of a disappointingly moderate Dwight D. Eisenhower, the right wing of the Republican Party finally managed to get one of its own, Senator Barry Goldwater of Arizona, nominated for the presidency on a platform of military aggressiveness, economic libertarianism, and moral outrage.

An impassioned army of activists, thinkers, fund-raisers, and candidates flocked to Goldwater's standard. The party's center of power began to shift from the Northeast to the West and the South. Four years later Nixon was in the White House. Sixteen years later Reagan, Goldwater's ideological heir, swept to victory. And 30 years later, the Republicans, led by Newt Gingrich, their teddy-bear Robespierre, took control of both houses of Congress for the first time since 1954. Today, of course, conservatives control the Republican Party, and the Republican Party controls all three branches of the federal government and the majority of statehouses.

The funny thing is, Goldwater lost -- and badly -- in 1964. In one of the most lopsided presidential contests in American history, Johnson won 486 electoral votes to Goldwater's 52. As Rick Perlstein recounts in "Before the Storm" (2001), his well-regarded history of the Goldwater campaign, the conservatives were seen as finished, and the RepublicanParty doomed to further electoral futility. "[Goldwater] has wrecked his party for a long time to come," declared The New York Times' James "Scotty" Reston, "and is not even likely to control the wreckage."

So are there lessons to be learned from 1964? Although nobody is predicting a landslide this time around, one thing is certain: On Tuesday night (provided the whole electoral process doesn't collapse in a tangle of lawsuits) either George W. Bush or John Kerry will win, and his opponent will lose. And, perhaps inspired by Goldwater's ghost, a few commentators have suggested that it might be the losing party that looks back more fondly on this election.

In the current issue of The American Conservative, executive editor Scott McConnell endorses John Kerry out of the belief that a Bush defeat would allow "traditional conservatives" to wrest control of the Republican Party from their neocon step-siblings and then in 2008 knock off a Kerry still reeling from Bush's legacy of deficits and an unruly Iraq. Back in July, John Micklethwait and Adrian Wooldridge, reporters for The Economist and coauthors of the recently published "The Right Nation: Conservative Power in America" (Penguin Press), made a similar point in an op-ed in The Los Angeles Times. Ditto for historian Niall Ferguson, who penned an op-ed for The Wall Street Journal in August titled "Republicans for Kerry." From the other side of the aisle, Rick Perlstein, in an article in the Boston Review, argued that however "imperative" a Bush defeat was this year the Democratic Party urgently needed to extend its mental horizon to, say, the 2018 midterms. Losing now, he allowed, might be the price for the sort of retooling necessary for future dominance.

To skeptics, this may seem nothing more than preemptive Pollyanna-ism. The idea that defeat is the crucible of future victory is a hoary sports cliche. But is it also a helpful -- or even an appropriate -- way to look at the evolution and mutation of American political parties?

It's not surprising that Micklethwait and Wooldridge and Ferguson, all Brits, see virtue in the well-timed loss. Recent British history provides the clearest example of a poisoned electoral victory. The 1992 election, by nearly all accounts, was one the Conservative Party deserved to lose. Prime Minister John Major was deeply unpopular, and it was only because Neil Kinnock, the Labour Party challenger, was even less impressive that the Tories squeaked by with a surprise victory. Their reward was a humiliating five years plagued by sexual and financial scandals and a deep recession resulting from an earlier decision to put Britain on the European Exchange Rate Mechanism. It was ample fodder for Tony Blair and New Labour, who swept Major's party from office in a 1997 landslide and look to stay in power for some time to come. If Kinnock's inexperienced Labour Party had inherited the exchange-rate recession, Wooldridge said in a recent interview, "it would have been the end of the Labour Party for a generation.

"There are, the thinking goes, a few ways that a party can end up grateful for a loss. The first is simply by getting out of the way of unpleasant events. "The Democrats are probably damned glad that Al Smith lost in 1928 because otherwise they would have been saddled with the Great Depression," says Philip Klinkner, associate professor of government at Hamilton College and the author of "The Losing Parties," a look at how party national committees react to electoral losses. The Democrats, by this logic, were ill-served by Jimmy Carter's being in office for the Iran hostage crisis and the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan, and a President Kerry might have reason to regret being left holding the bag on Iraq.

A loss can be galvanizing, as well, especially if there are grounds to cry foul. In 1824 Andrew Jackson handily won the popular vote but failed to win a majority in the Electoral College. He was denied the presidency when Henry Clay, the fourth-place finisher, threw his support behind John Quincy Adams, who had come in second. Adams won, appointed Clay Secretary of State, and four years later the still-seething anger of Jackson's supporters over what they denounced as the "corrupt bargain" helped Old Hickory trounce Quincy Adams.

Princeton history professor Sean Wilentz believes the 2000 election might end up working in a similar way. "If you want to talk about a party learning a lot from a loss," he says, "that's a really good example." As he sees it, the 2000 defeat did three things for the Democrats: It stirred up fears of disenfranchisement among black voters, spurring them to vote in what are predicted to be higher numbers this year; it weakened "the Naderite left"; and it catalyzed the rise of extra-party groups like -- all of which may end up making a crucial difference on Tuesday.

Meanwhile, serving as the loyal opposition, some argue, can occasion necessary self-examination. When a party holds power for too long, says Wooldridge, "it grows fat and happy, [and] it also grows corrupt." The classic example, he believes, is the Democratic Party of the 1970s and `80s, which, spoiled by generations of congressional power, "became a party of insiders and deal makers without any sense of the principles they stood for, and eventually collapsed" when they were turned out in 1994.

The more common explanation for the 1994 Republican Revolution, though, is that liberal Democratic ideals -- or at least the way they were presented -- no longer resonated with the majority of Americans. According to Ruy Teixeira, a fellow at the Center for American Progress and at the Century Foundation, the danger for the dominant party isn't ideological bankruptcy but ideological drift. "Certainly you can make the argument that, if a party's far enough away from the mainstream, if they don't lose they don't get enough impetus to correct their behavior," he says.

The hunger that comes with time spent in the wilderness can also spur ideological innovation. Kenneth Baer, a former speechwriter for Al Gore and author of "Reinventing Democrats: The Politics of Liberalism from Reagan to Clinton" (2000), paraphrases Samuel Johnson on the concentrating power of the hangman's noose: "Nothing clarifies a party's focus on their political agenda, their message and the political direction they're going in like defeat."

Fred Siegel, a history professor at Cooper Union, cites the example of the Republican adoption, in the early 1990s, of the mantle of an electoral reform party. Of course, he adds, "the reforms they focused on -- like term limits -- were half-baked, but there was this sense of invention. They weren't in control, so they were willing to roll the dice." The Democrats, he predicts, could go a similar good-government route should Kerry lose, targeting the Electoral College and congressional gerrymandering.

Nevertheless, while political scientists, pundits, and historians allow that losses have on occasion galvanized a party or pushed it in a helpful direction, most view the "losing is winning" trope as at best a self-validating lens and at worst thinly veiled defeatism. Those who advance it, Siegel charges, "are just people who are trying to say, `I'm clever enough to see around the curve."'Applying the lessons of history to the current election is also, according to Columbia University history professor Eric Foner, exactly the sort of speculation most historians make a practice of avoiding: "Sometimes governing parties do benefit from a little time in the opposition," says Foner. "On the other hand, it can lead them to tear themselves apart, which the Democrats have done on occasion. I'm just not sure which analogy one should choose.

"The choice, it seems, often depends on one's own political predilections. As Michael Barone, the principal author of "The Almanac of American Politics" and a columnist at U.S. News & World Report, points out, how you interpret the wages of defeat "depends on where you think history is going."

For their part, Kenneth Baer and Ruy Teixeira, centrist Democrats both, see the defeats of the 1980s paving the way for Bill Clinton and his more centrist Democratic Party. A traditional conservative like Scott McConnell divines conservatism rising refreshed from the ashes of a Bush defeat.

Rick Perlstein -- who, currently at work on a book on George McGovern, seems to be making a specialty of presidential losers -- is decidedly leery of constructing what he calls an overly "hydraulic" model of electoral losses. "It presumes that politics somehow is the plaything of the forces of history," he says. "The socialists in Weimar Germany in the `30s had this attitude, that the worse the better, that `After Hitler we take over.'

When you assume that the worm turns, you write yourself out of history."In the end, it's hard to get around the fact that winners get to set the agenda. They can also consolidate their gains -- redrawing electoral districts, changing the rules of congressional procedure, doling out favors to contested constituencies -- in ways that go a long way toward neutralizing the innovation and focus of the losers.

"Presidents remake the country after they are elected, not before," emphasizes Princeton's Wilentz. "It's not the elections that do it, it's the administrations that do it." Franklin Roosevelt and Andrew Jackson may have owed their electoral victories in part to prior defeats, but they owed their lasting legacy to what they did after they won. Elections are about ideas and interests and organization and circumstance. But they are also about power, and in general, it seems, it's better to have it than not.

Drake Bennett is the staff writer for Ideas.  

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