Are Democrats the New Whigs?

Can you name the following party?

After twelve years of seeing their opponents occupy the presidency, they finally captured the White House. Once in office, however, their presidential leader, much to the chagrin of many party regulars, adopted many of the opposition party's policies. In the next open presidential election, this party's candidate lost because of a third-party candidate, who took votes away in a crucial swing state. Shut out of the White House, this party vociferously opposed a controversial war, only to backtrack once the United States military gained control of the field. Finally, in an attempt to regain the presidency, this party nominated a political blank slate with little experience instead of an established elder statesman. Winning the election, the new president quickly implemented policies and decisions that divided the country along partisan lines, rendering him overwhelmingly unpopular to the American public.

What party may claim this legacy?

If you guessed the Democratic Party from 1992 to the present, you'd be right; but if you guessed the Whig Party from 1840 to 1848, you would also be correct. While these similarities may just be coincidental, they share one additional trait that is startling. In dealing with the two major issues of the day, both yesterday's Whigs and today's Democrats created a platform in which the solution to one issue conflicted directly with their solution to the other issue. The history of American political parties shows that a party relying on counterproductive solutions to solve the challenges of governing the country has stood, and will always stand, on shaky ground.

During the 1840s, the two issues that dominated national politics were slavery and the expansion of American territory westward. The Whigs' answers to these issues directly conflicted with one another.  Their platform was to oppose expansion in order to avoid the issue of whether or not to expand slavery. An overwhelming majority of Americans, however, wanted both to expand westward and to resolve growing tension over slavery. With their proposed programs, Whigs simply could not give Americans what they wanted. Attempting to mask this problem, the Whigs nominated Zachary Taylor -- a man who used his likability instead of political issues to win the election. When the inexperienced president ignored the delicate issue of slavery and the West and gave support to admitting California to the Union as a free state, the nation, and Taylor's party, became deeply divided. Electing a blank slate and hoping it would soothe party and national fissures did not work.

Zachary Taylor's "hope and change" technique did not present a viable substitute for inconsistent policies. The Whigs went on to lose the 1852 election, and within five years, they no longer existed. They were eventually replaced in the North by the Republican Party, which supported the addition of western states and believed the answer to slavery was to prohibit it in the new territories. In the South, the Whigs lost to expansion-minded and pro-slavery advocates in the Democratic Party. The country sought a party that offered a consistent resolution to both problematic issues.

Today's Democrats find themselves in a similar situation as the nineteenth-century Whigs. Today, the poor economy and rampant government spending serve as the two crucial issues. President Obama's and Nancy Pelosi's solution to fixing the economy, however, is to ignore the growing budget deficit -- much as the Whigs tried to ignore slavery by opposing westward expansion. The implementation of this Democratic solution began early in the Obama administration with the passage of the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act. When people cringed at the price tag for such a "stimulus," the newly elected Democrats hid behind the language of crisis. Claiming that the nation faced impending emergency without their new spending, they hoped that Americans would ignore the enormous deficit.

The Democrats are wrong to think that deficit hawks are just "bluffing" to score political points. Just as the nineteenth-century American public demanded a solution to the twin problems of slavery and expansion, twenty-first-century Americans want an answer to fixing the economic crisis that does not require an astronomical deficit. The Democrats, instead of offering such a solution, tried something different: misdirection.

In an attempt to appease the public clamor for jobs and a decreased national debt, Democrats decided to pursue something that might change the public narrative. They focused on a health care bill -- the El Dorado of liberal issues -- and argued that the passage of their health insurance reform, which would spend nearly a trillion dollars over the next ten years, would both create jobs and lead to a savings on the national debt

For a year, the debate over the Democratic health care reform raged in Congress, at town halls, and in the media. Democratic talking points presenting health care reform as a solution to the top issues of the day were not only shown to be false, but they also did not convince the majority of the American people that it would do what had been promised. This is why, despite assurances by Democratic leaders that the bill would become more popular once it passed, opposition to the bill has remained steady. Americans are concerned about two things: jobs and government spending. After the passage of health care reform, they still can rest easy on neither.

Democrats have shown that they cannot give a coherent solution to the major issues facing our nation. Instead, they have decided to forgo passing a budget in the hope that Americans will not notice and are intent on trying to pass another "jobs" bill. One Democrat has stated, "Name one person who won or lost an election because they didn't get a budget resolution passed. It's totally inside baseball." While he might be right, the inability to write a budget with large majorities in both the House and Senate makes the Democrats look like their former rivals of over a century ago, caught between two political issues with the wherewithal to offer a consistent solution to only one of them.

Will the Democrats disappear like the Whigs did over a hundred years ago? Probably not, but one has to wonder how long a party can just ignore the elephant in the room.

Carl Paulus is a Ph.D. candidate at Rice University and studies nineteenth-century American politics.
Can you name the following party?

After twelve years of seeing their opponents occupy the presidency, they finally captured the White House. Once in office, however, their presidential leader, much to the chagrin of many party regulars, adopted many of the opposition party's policies. In the next open presidential election, this party's candidate lost because of a third-party candidate, who took votes away in a crucial swing state. Shut out of the White House, this party vociferously opposed a controversial war, only to backtrack once the United States military gained control of the field. Finally, in an attempt to regain the presidency, this party nominated a political blank slate with little experience instead of an established elder statesman. Winning the election, the new president quickly implemented policies and decisions that divided the country along partisan lines, rendering him overwhelmingly unpopular to the American public.

What party may claim this legacy?

If you guessed the Democratic Party from 1992 to the present, you'd be right; but if you guessed the Whig Party from 1840 to 1848, you would also be correct. While these similarities may just be coincidental, they share one additional trait that is startling. In dealing with the two major issues of the day, both yesterday's Whigs and today's Democrats created a platform in which the solution to one issue conflicted directly with their solution to the other issue. The history of American political parties shows that a party relying on counterproductive solutions to solve the challenges of governing the country has stood, and will always stand, on shaky ground.

During the 1840s, the two issues that dominated national politics were slavery and the expansion of American territory westward. The Whigs' answers to these issues directly conflicted with one another.  Their platform was to oppose expansion in order to avoid the issue of whether or not to expand slavery. An overwhelming majority of Americans, however, wanted both to expand westward and to resolve growing tension over slavery. With their proposed programs, Whigs simply could not give Americans what they wanted. Attempting to mask this problem, the Whigs nominated Zachary Taylor -- a man who used his likability instead of political issues to win the election. When the inexperienced president ignored the delicate issue of slavery and the West and gave support to admitting California to the Union as a free state, the nation, and Taylor's party, became deeply divided. Electing a blank slate and hoping it would soothe party and national fissures did not work.

Zachary Taylor's "hope and change" technique did not present a viable substitute for inconsistent policies. The Whigs went on to lose the 1852 election, and within five years, they no longer existed. They were eventually replaced in the North by the Republican Party, which supported the addition of western states and believed the answer to slavery was to prohibit it in the new territories. In the South, the Whigs lost to expansion-minded and pro-slavery advocates in the Democratic Party. The country sought a party that offered a consistent resolution to both problematic issues.

Today's Democrats find themselves in a similar situation as the nineteenth-century Whigs. Today, the poor economy and rampant government spending serve as the two crucial issues. President Obama's and Nancy Pelosi's solution to fixing the economy, however, is to ignore the growing budget deficit -- much as the Whigs tried to ignore slavery by opposing westward expansion. The implementation of this Democratic solution began early in the Obama administration with the passage of the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act. When people cringed at the price tag for such a "stimulus," the newly elected Democrats hid behind the language of crisis. Claiming that the nation faced impending emergency without their new spending, they hoped that Americans would ignore the enormous deficit.

The Democrats are wrong to think that deficit hawks are just "bluffing" to score political points. Just as the nineteenth-century American public demanded a solution to the twin problems of slavery and expansion, twenty-first-century Americans want an answer to fixing the economic crisis that does not require an astronomical deficit. The Democrats, instead of offering such a solution, tried something different: misdirection.

In an attempt to appease the public clamor for jobs and a decreased national debt, Democrats decided to pursue something that might change the public narrative. They focused on a health care bill -- the El Dorado of liberal issues -- and argued that the passage of their health insurance reform, which would spend nearly a trillion dollars over the next ten years, would both create jobs and lead to a savings on the national debt

For a year, the debate over the Democratic health care reform raged in Congress, at town halls, and in the media. Democratic talking points presenting health care reform as a solution to the top issues of the day were not only shown to be false, but they also did not convince the majority of the American people that it would do what had been promised. This is why, despite assurances by Democratic leaders that the bill would become more popular once it passed, opposition to the bill has remained steady. Americans are concerned about two things: jobs and government spending. After the passage of health care reform, they still can rest easy on neither.

Democrats have shown that they cannot give a coherent solution to the major issues facing our nation. Instead, they have decided to forgo passing a budget in the hope that Americans will not notice and are intent on trying to pass another "jobs" bill. One Democrat has stated, "Name one person who won or lost an election because they didn't get a budget resolution passed. It's totally inside baseball." While he might be right, the inability to write a budget with large majorities in both the House and Senate makes the Democrats look like their former rivals of over a century ago, caught between two political issues with the wherewithal to offer a consistent solution to only one of them.

Will the Democrats disappear like the Whigs did over a hundred years ago? Probably not, but one has to wonder how long a party can just ignore the elephant in the room.

Carl Paulus is a Ph.D. candidate at Rice University and studies nineteenth-century American politics.

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