If there is any lesson to be learned, above all others, from the last 90 years of Republican Party politics, it is: never underestimate the GOP’s ability to bounce back from one scandal, debacle and blunder after another. President Donald Trump’s numerous critics in the Democratic Party are hoping that his disastrous presidency will eventually be the nail in the coffin of the Republican Party. But Trump—regardless of his controversial meeting with Russian President Vladimir Putin in Helsinki, Finland on July 16 or allegations that he had sex with porn star Stormy Daniels and paid her hush money to keep quiet—remains popular among Republican voters. In fact, Trump’s approval among registered Republicans has been hovering around 90% in recent Gallup polls. And whatever happens with Trump’s presidency in the future—even if there are more scandals or if Democrats manage to recapture the U.S. Senate or the U.S. House of Representatives in the November midterms—Democrats should never underestimate the Republican Party’s ability to bounce back time and time again no matter how badly it screws up.
From the Great Depression of the 1930s to Watergate to Iran/Contra, the Iraq War and the Great Recession, the Republican Party has been incredibly resilient over the years. The Republican Party has bounced back from one debacle, one embarrassment, one calamity after another—and Democrats ignore that resilience at their own peril.
Herbert Hoover, one of the worst Republican presidents in U.S. history, was in office when the financial meltdown of 1929 occurred and the U.S. entered the Great Depression. Unemployment soared, banks failed and homelessness became so widespread in 1930 and 1931 that the tent cities, shantytowns and favelas that emerged were dubbed “Hoovervilles.” And when Franklin Delano Roosevelt won the Democratic Party’s nomination in the 1932 presidential election, he ran on an aggressively liberal platform of financial and banking reforms. FDR won by a landslide in 1932, Hoover was voted out of office, and FDR’s New Deal went on to give the U.S. everything from Social Security to its first federal minimum wage.
Back when the U.S. didn’t have presidential term limits, FDR won four terms before dying in office in 1945 and being replaced by Harry S. Truman (his third vice president). Truman went on to defeat Republican presidential nominee Thomas E. Dewey in 1948, but the Korean War proved so unpopular that Give-‘Em-Hell Harry didn’t seek reelection in 1952—and as tarnished as the GOP had been by Hoover’s presidency, it bounced back when Dwight D. Eisenhower defeated Democrat Adlai Stevenson in 1952 and was reelected president in 1956.
Eisenhower would be way too moderate and sensible for today’s GOP. The decorated war hero supported elements of the New Deal, and Eisenhower nominee Earl Warren was the most liberal chief justice in the history of the U.S. Supreme Court. But the GOP did nominate a hardcore conservative in 1964, when Republican Barry Goldwater suffered a landslide defeat at the hands of Democrat Lyndon B. Johnson.
After Goldwater’s defeat, a few dispirited GOP strategists reasoned that hardcore conservatism simply wasn’t popular in the U.S. But the GOP once again showed his resilience when Republican Richard Nixon defeated Democrat Hubert Humphrey in 1968 and was reelected by a landslide over Democrat George McGovern in 1972. The Watergate scandal, however, became Nixon’s political downfall, and he resigned from the presidency in disgrace in 1974.
Although Nixon did some good things when he was his office—Nixon favored universal healthcare, established the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and expanded Medicare and Social Security—he went down in history as one of the most corrupt and sleazy presidents in U.S. history. Under Nixon’s watch in 1972, five burglars broke into the Democratic National Committee’s headquarters in 1972—and that was in addition to his administration bugging of the offices of Nixon’s political opponents.
When President Gerald Ford gave Nixon a pardon for his role in the Watergate crimes in 1974, many Democrats accused him of favoring his party over the wellbeing of his country. Watergate was such a disgrace that in the mid-1970s, some Democrats were fantasizing about a permanent Democratic majority. But even though Ford narrowly lost to Democrat Jimmy Carter in the 1976 presidential race, there was certainly no “permanent Democratic majority” when Republican Ronald Reagan won landslide presidential victories in 1980 and 1984.
Reagan’s second term gave us the Iran/Contra scandal in which arms were sold to the Islamist government in Iran in order to fund the right-wing anti-Sandinista Contra insurgents in Nicaragua. And once again, Democrats were fantasizing that they had found the magic nail to pound into the GOP’s coffin—yet Iran/Contra and Democratic assertions that the Reagan administration was, in effect, helping fund terrorism in the Middle East didn’t prevent Reagan’s vice president, George H.W. Bush, from defeating Democrat Michael Dukakis in 1988.
Bush’s son, George W. Bush, served as president from 2001-early 2009. And his disastrous presidency gave us huge federal deficits, a call to privatize Social Security (which thankfully, didn’t come about), the Iraq War (a foreign-policy blunder that led to the creation of ISIS) and the financial crash of September 2008—which was the worst economic downturn in the U.S. since the crash of 1929 and the Great Depression. When Bush left office in January 2009 with very low approval ratings and Barack Obama was sworn in as president, Democrats were fantasizing that they would be dominating U.S. politics for at least a generation. But that was before Republicans recaptured the House of Representatives in 2010, reclaimed the U.S. Senate in 2014 and saw Donald Trump elected president in 2016. Republicans, who are both effective and deceitful when it comes to messaging, managed to blame Obama for the Great Recession even though it occurred under Bush’s watch.
As wildly unpopular as George W. Bush became as president, that didn’t prevent Republicans from winning countless races in 2010, 2014 and 2016. The GOP, for all its blunders, knows how to come back from the dead time and time again. And not only do Republicans presently control the presidency and both houses of Congress—they are also trying to create the most far-right Supreme Court in generations.
In 2018, Democrats who fantasize that Trump will ultimately be the downfall of the GOP are underestimating just how disciplined and resilient Republicans are as a party. If the Republican Party could survive Herbert Hoover’s presidency, Watergate, Iran/Contra, the Iraq War and the Great Recession, it can survive Trump’s presidency. And the Democratic Party is going to need a lot more than an anti-Trump message going forward—it’s going to need to articulate a bold vision and express what it is for rather than simply listing what it is against. The independent Sen. Bernie Sanders of Vermont has been great for liberal/progressive politics in the U.S. because he has an economic and social vision that goes way beyond reflexive Trump-bashing.
It remains to be seen whether or not Democrats will be able to recapture the House of Representatives and/or the Senate in the November midterms or whether Trump will be a one-term president or win a second term in 2020. But Democrats should never underestimate an opponent that, time and time again, has demonstrated that it is as resilient as it is ruthless.
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