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The Thrill of Defeat

After the 2004 presidential election Democrats were crushed. Four more years of George W. Bush seemed unthinkable, disastrous. But now that the Obama era is beginning, Democrats should view John Kerry’s defeat as something else entirely: the luckiest break the party has caught since at least the 1964 election, which yielded the presidency of Lyndon Johnson and two-thirds Democratic congressional majorities. (Those 1964 victories made possible the passage of a long list of legislation backed by northern Democrats, including federal aid to education, Medicare, and the Voting Rights Act.) Indeed, had Bush lost in 2004, the Democrats simply wouldn’t be anywhere near as powerful as they are now.

Of course, many will assert that a second Bush term is a very steep price to pay for today’s success. But consider the pattern of events that likely would have followed Kerry’s election. He would have faced a Republican Congress substantially weighted against him and hell-bent on disrupting his legislative agenda. That means no universal health care coverage and no elimination of Bush’s tax cuts for the wealthy. Past experience also indicates that the electorate probably would not have blamed the Republicans for the congressional gridlock. For example, in the months leading up to the 1994 midterms, the Senate GOP used the filibuster to frustrate almost all of the proposals the Democrats sought to pass, but it was President Clinton and his party who took the blame. In fact, only three times since 1900 has the party of a sitting president failed to lose House seats in a midterm election, and given the political conditions, there’s little reason to think President Kerry would have bucked the trend.

The Congress starting in 2007 probably would have been even harder for Democrats to navigate. Some version of the current financial crisis probably would have occurred. (Given that further regulation of the financial system was never part of candidate Kerry’s ’04 campaign, he probably would not have measurably changed government oversight of the financial sector.) But again, it would have been the Democratic president who got the blame, saddling him with a significant burden come reelection time. We might either have seen Kerry narrowly reelected along with a hostile GOP Congress, or a restoration of unified government under the Republicans.

Instead, the Bush administration survived, and the public grew increasingly disenchanted with its performance and the Republican brand. We see this not just in the net gain in House seats (51 since 2006) and in the Senate (12 more Democrats, and up to three extra depending on the outcomes of the unresolved races in Alaska, Minnesota, and Georgia), nor merely in Obama’s crushing White House victory (the first Democrat to win more than 50 percent of the vote since Carter, and the largest popular vote percentage for a northern Democrat since Franklin Roosevelt), but also in the party’s new, mammoth fundraising advantage. The Democratic Party apparatus spent more than a million dollars in 38 House races; the same was true for the Republicans in only four contests. Similarly, the Democratic Senate committee spent more than $8 million in five races; the most the GOP spent in any Senate contest was $6.5 million. According to exit polls, in 2004, 37 percent of the electorate identified themselves as Democrats, and the same proportion said they were Republicans. In 2008, the Democrats had 39 percent, while the GOP had only 32.

The Democrats under President Obama now have a working governing coalition for the first time since 1965-66. (President Jimmy Carter had large Democratic majorities in Congress, but they had little value for governing because of internal divisions and Carter’s visible contempt for politicians. Clinton had narrower majorities than Carter, and he squandered his possibilities through poor strategic decisions and an unwillingness to work with congressional Democrats on major bills.) They hold at least as many Senate seats as they did when Clinton was elected, and almost as many House seats. Democratic-leaning legislation that has a good chance of passing now--from major health care reform to new energy policies to a shift in the tax burden--almost certainly would have looked hopeless had Kerry won in 2004.

To be sure, the “alternate history” of a Kerry victory discussed here involves probabilities, not certainties. It is difficult to predict precisely how events would have unfolded. For example, opinions of Bush suffered greatly from his handling of Hurricane Katrina; perhaps Kerry’s approach would have been a big boost. Also, the situation in Iraq might have been very different, and that could have affected election results and governance. But even accounting for these uncertainties, it still seems extremely likely that Democrats are now far, far better off than they would have been under President Kerry.

It will take time to discover whether the developments in 2006 and 2008 constitute an enduring pro-Democratic shift in the electorate, rather than just a transitory negative reaction to Bush and the GOP. But the benefits the Democrats have realized from 2006 and 2008--the ample mandate and the majorities the Democrats now possess--have put the party on the path toward substantial progress in its policy goals. And if John Kerry and John Edwards had found their way into office four years ago, they would have found a much more difficult, possibly impossible, road ahead of them.

David W. Rohde is Ernestine Friedl Professor of Political Science at Duke University and Director of the Political Institutions and Public Choice Program.

By David W. Rohde