Journalist and historian Rick Perlstein’s new book, The Stock Ticker and the Superjumbo: How the Democrats Can Once Again Become America’s Dominant Political Party, begins with a “political parable” about the rise and decline of the American airplane giant Boeing. Founded in 1917 with a singular vision of cheap, accessible commercial air travel despite its huge risks, Boeing ultimately became one of the country’s most successful companies by sticking to its ambitious vision through thick and thin. In the ’80s, just as they were abandoning this long-term thinking for the quarterly profit-driven tactics approved by Wall Street, the upstart Airbus came onto the scene with their own long-term vision of the superjumbo. Boeing thought it folly, but it now appears that Airbus will get the last laugh – their new plane, the world’s largest passenger aircraft, made its maiden voyage in April. For Perlstein, author of Before the Storm: Barry Goldwater and the Unmaking of the American Consensus, this story serves as an analogy for the fortunes of the Democrats, who abandoned their own long-term project in the centrist ’90s to please the “stock ticker” of the next election. Perlstein took time away from work on his forthcoming sequel to Before the Storm to talk about why Democrats must recommit to a long-term vision and stop playing by stock ticker rules.
You have this analogy between Boeing’s multi-generational devotion to building the first jumbo jet and the Democratic Party’s multi-generational commitment to insuring economic security. How have successive generations of Democrats built on the same project?
Take something like federal aid to education. That was an idea Democrats had ever since the New Deal. It never succeeded for various political reasons, but they just kept at it and by 1965 Lyndon Johnson finally passed the thing. By that time, everyone knew what the Democrats were about: They were the party that supported federal aid for education. Compare that to when the Clintons proposed their health care plan in the early ’90s. He ran and won on the idea that he was going to deliver health care to all Americans, and for various complicated reasons he lost that battle. But instead of saying well, this is what the Democrats are about, we’re going to stick to it despite the setback, Hillary Clinton very explicitly said: What I learned was that you have to do things in small steps and incrementally. She specifically backed off the marker that the Democrats laid down, that we are the party defined by our pledge to deliver health care to everyone.
I like this term marker. What’s it mean?
It’s a gambling term. A marker basically is a commitment to pay. In Guys and Dolls, Nathan Detroit would say, “that guy holds my marker.” It’s something you can’t back out of, on pain of getting your knees broken. The marker that Republicans have is that everyone who runs for office has to sign a pledge – it’s enforced by their own knee-breaker, Grover Norquist – that on pain of political death they’re not going to raise taxes.
My thesis is that a commitment that doesn’t waver adds value by the very fact of the commitment. The evidence is that even though the individual initiatives that make up the conservative project poll quite poorly, they’ve managed to succeed simply because everyone knows what the Republicans stand for. And the most profound exit poll finding in the last election had nothing to do with moral values, it was all the people who said that they disagreed with the Republicans on individual issues, but they voted for George W. Bush anyway because they knew what he stood for.
He’d given them a marker.
Exactly. The world is an uncertain and scary place and there’s value just in making credible demonstrations of fortitude. Now the amazing thing about this is that it’s a virtuous circle for the Democrats. Not only can we increase the devotion of an electorate that looks at Democrats as piddling and feckless, it just so happens that when you poll the public on what they want, it looks much more like the Democratic agenda than the Republican agenda.
Okay, but if our superjumbo is “Big Government,” many Democrats say that plane won’t fly anymore. The project is intellectually bankrupt, we need a new one. What do you say to that?
Well, first of all, I’m a historian and the only time Democrats have been able to pull together a new majority and to grow was when they laid down these markers, pledges to ordinary Americans that the government would protect their economic interests.
The other thing is, there’s a story about economic history of the recent past that historians will find us strange for not speaking about more often, and that’s the stagnation of incomes for ordinary Americans. What could be more contemporary? What could be more timely than programs that address that crying need? Between WWII and the ’70s the real incomes of Americans doubled. People who used to have outhouses were able to afford vacation cottages. Well, that’s dropped off a cliff. If it makes me an old Democrat to try and restore what the Democrats of the ’40s, ’50s and ’60s accomplished, which was running the country, sue me. I’m an old Democrat.
The most common analysis of why Democrats have strayed from this project – as one New Deal congressman whom you quote says “Freedom Plus Groceries” – points to corporate money. Today’s Dems are feeding at the same trough and they can no longer take on the insurance companies, etc. But in the latter half of the book, you provide a fascinating psychological account of why the Democrats strayed from this project, which was sort of born out of the conflict of the ’60s.
Yeah. The trauma of the generation of people who are running the Democratic Party was being blindsided by the political failures of left-of-center boldness. If you look at a lot of the most resonant and stalwart centrists and Democratic Leadership Council (DLC) Democrats, for a lot of them, their political coming-of-age was being blindsided by conservatism. For Bill Clinton, it was losing the governorship in 1980. For Joe Lieberman, it was losing a congressional race in 1980. For Evan Bayh, the chair of the DLC, it was seeing his dad lose his Senate seat to Dan Quayle in 1980. But the formative traumas of my generation of Democrats – and I’m 35 – have been the failures of left-of-center timidity. So there really is a structural generational battle among Democrats. People of a certain age are terrified that the electorate is going to associate them with the excesses of the ’60s, but most voters are too young to remember that stuff. The Republicans keep trying to paint the Democrats as the party of the hippies and punks who burn the flag.
In fact, we just got a new flag-burning amendment.
Yeah, but there’s really less juice you can squeeze out of that orange every year.
So then how much do you think the political situation has changed since November? Do you see any positive movement forward?
With Social Security, where they’ve said “this far and no farther,” could that be leveraged into something a little more ambitious?
Democratic politicians have done one thing very well this year. They’ve drawn the line on Social Security. It’s been not only morally imperative, but enormously successful politically. The popularity of congressional Democrats has kept going up and the president’s popularity keeps going down.
Now think about this: We’re talking about a 70-year-old program. They’re still drawing on the capital that Democrats bequeathed them 70 years ago. Isn’t it their duty to work towards bequeathing some capital for Democrats 70 years from now to draw on? To me, the answer is obvious: Every American needs guaranteed health insurance. Unless these guys create a reason for people to identify with the Democratic Party, they have to work so hard every two years to squeeze out that 51 percent of the vote.
I want to make your job easy, guys. Do you really think that if the Democrats could make a credible pledge to Americans – vote in enough Democrats and you’ll never have to pay another health care bill – people would still be voting on gay marriage?
We do have a timid bunch of folks in the Democratic Party, but that doesn’t mean all is lost. Timid and cautious people can often express their timidity and cautiousness by being swept up in a tide. We’ve got to provide the tide and let them surf it.