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Wednesday, May 04, 2005

Looking Back to Move Forward

If George W. Bush can fulfill his second term, he will have, in conjunction with Bill Clinton , accomplished something in American politics that has not been achieved in a hundred and eight years. The last time an American President served a full eight years after his immediate predecessor served a full eight years was when James Monroe followed James Madison into the White House. Monroe and Madison, however, were members of the same party – in fact Madison was part of Monroe’s cabinet. Bush and Clinton, you will remember, are of opposing parties.

Monroe’s terms were known as “the Era of Good Feelings” , but he was able to maintain control over his party only through masterful political maneuvering. During his Administration, a bill to gradually phase out slavery – the great “moral values” question of the time – held up the House for two full years of debate. The result was the “Missouri Compromise” , which set the stage for regionalization of slavery tensions.

Monroe, a former Secretary of State, was a hard-liner on foreign policy, too. He simply refused to talk to Spain until that country ceded control of Florida. He then issued his statement now known as the “Monroe Doctrine” that the American continents were off-limits for further colonization. He did not, however, actually recognize Latin American countries as independent powers until 1822.

Monroe’s success would lead into the destruction of his party. Regionalism saw John Quincy Adams winning the next election over Andrew Jackson. In response, Jackson began organizing a true modern political party , complete with a national convention and party platform to which members could pledge their support. Those that opposed him organized the Whig Party in opposition and the two-party system was born.

George W. Bush, like Monroe, seems to be at the top of the power game. Conservative Republicans have won five of the last seven Presidential elections. Like Monroe, however, Bush must also achieve balance between two competing factions in his party. Both sides expect him to pucker up every time they bend over. He only has himself to blame for this.

When Conservatives were a minority, differences could be smoothed over by focusing on a common enemy – “big gubmint”. Now that they have a strangle-hold on power, those differences are becoming weak points. The religious conservatives are demanding a morally theocratic government. The so-called “paleo-conservatives” are wondering what happened to the idea of a balanced budget. Rockefeller Republicans (progressive conservatives?) are demanding a few minutes of glory, too.

I look for Bill Frist to continue trying to play to the religious crowd. It is hard for him not to do so if he wants to keep his base in the South happy. John McCain in the West and John Sununu in the Northeast will vie for paleo-conservative votes. Chris Shays in Connecticut and Lincoln Chafee from Rhode Island are constantly being courted by Democrats and have got to be wondering at this point what happened to their party (don’t forget Christy Todd Whitman, either).

In other words, the Conservative movement is about to split like the Liberal movement did in the 1960s. There are plenty of good moderate Democrats in Governorships now – Brad Henry in Oklahoma is someone I’ve taken a liking to. But there’s also Bill Richardson in New Mexico, Jim Doyle in Wisconsin, Joe Manchin in West Virginia, and Mark Warner in Virginia. Pair any one of these guys with a senior Senator – like Joe Biden in Delaware, Jeff Bingaman in New Mexico, Bill Nelson in Florida, or Chuck Schumer in New York – and you have a ticket that demands attention.

An encouraging development is the developing voice of the religious left. By offering a competing moral voice, the fractures of the right will become harder for most Americans to stomach. I am proudly part of this effort (and looking hard for people to join me).

It is not impossible to repeat the Jackson-Madison-Monroe three-peat. In fact, if Democrats can get their stuff together, I would say it could be likely. The upcoming 2005 state elections (in some places) will not be so much of a test as a possible launching point – with Jon Corzine looking like a shoe-in for Democrats as governor in New Jersey and populists Frank Pallone and Rush Holt looking like his successor (and possibly for (my personal hero) aging Senator Frank Lautenberg). The real test remains a year and a half away when the mid-term Senate elections occur and in the Governor’s races.

It’s never too early to begin working for the future. To quote my federal Representative, Steve Rothman, “It is never the right time to make the wrong decision, but it is always the right time to work for the right idea.” Last week, I listened as Rev. Jim Wallis told a crowd of young activists at Princeton University, “You are the leaders you’ve been waiting to follow.”

In other words, it’s time to take advantage of the future breakdown of the Conservative Republicans.

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