One of my favorite movie quotes is from Back to the Future when Christopher Lloyd, as Doc Brown, challenges Michael J. Fox's Marty McFly in 1955 to prove his preposterous time-travel story by naming the president in 1985. When Marty replies, "Ronald Reagan, "Doc Brown hoots and says, incredulous," Ronald Reagan, the actor? Hah! "
Before the 1980 presidential election, there were many Americans of the same opinion as the good doctor. Jimmy Carter's presidence may have been weakened by the Iran host crisis, a stubborn recession and the second energy crisis of the decade, but the conventional wisdom after the primaries was that GOP candidate Ronald Reagan did not have a prayer. What he did have, however, was devout support from the defiantly religious, rapidly rising and well-funded "New Right." When this movement helped steer Reagan into the White House, their influence went on to shape American politics and policy for a dozen years. The pendulum had swung dramatically to the right. Progressives and moderates were stunned. Back to the Future, indeed.
But those who were shocked either had short memories or were too young to remember another dramatic swing – to the left – in the wake of the Watergate scandal. The resignation of President Nixon on August 8, 1974, preceded by two years of a "national nightmare" and the birth of unabashed investigative journalism, wave rise to a deep and enduring distrust of government by the press and the public. This collective rejection of presidential arrogance, coupled with outrage at Ford's pardon of Nixon, propelled a bevy of freshly minted Democrats (including Jimmy Carter) into Washington.
Let's return to the much-touted Reagan Revolution. Characterized by trickle-down economics who terminus mysteriously eluded its promised benefiaries, it started to dim under the presidency of George HW Bush. While his prosecution of the Gulf War met with generally high marks, Bush's tin ear toward the recession of the early 90s became his downfall. The clever and charismatic Bill Clinton sustained the presidency away from the Republicans for the first time in twelve years. While Clinton ushered in the era of the "New Democracy" that rejected some of the more liberal policies of the party's past, the pendulum had undeniably swung back to the left.
Two short years later, Newsweek ran an article with a beleaguered Clinton on its cover accompanied by the title, "The Incredible Shrinking President." Hobbled out of the gate by embracing the worthy but narrow issue of gays in the military, the resulting "Do not Ask, Do not Tell" policy proved unpopular with all sides. Most critically, it was a dangerous distraction from the average voter's primary issue: in the immortal words of James Carville, "it's the economy, stupid." Enter (stage right) firebrand Newt Gingrich, The Contract with America and the GOP takeover of both houses in the mid-term election of 1994. The future looked bleak for the New Democrats.
Reports of their demise, of course, were greatly exaggerated. Two years later, Clinton's serendipity was personified by …