Clinton Loses in 1992.
Here's a fairly uncontroversial history of politics in America over the past 25 years. Conservatives, swept into the White House with Ronald Reagan in 1980, begin to swing the pendulum of politics rightward after a half-century of liberal rule. Religious and fiscal conservatives exercise power and begin to reverse the gains of the New Deal and Great Society. The shift continues, despite a bump in the road with the election of Bill Clinton in 1992, as Congress shifts Republican in '94 and finally, all branches shift in 2002. Even the Democrats are forced to shift right, fueled by Gephardt, Clinton, Gore, and the rest of the New Democrats of the Democratic Leadership Council.
But what if Ross Perot never jumped into the election in '92? Imagine a very different campaign in which the forays of a scandal-ridden Clinton candidacy fall flat in the rebounding economy of late '92. Bush, with a more intact coalition unweakened by dual assualts, manages to parley the power of incumbency into a second term. Now, how does the story shift?
Americans were mighty pissed in '92. Twelve years of Reagan-Bush had worn them out, which was why Perot attracted so much attention in the first place. The GOP was looking worn out and tired--a conspiracy of the rich to stay rich, a bunch of old men who were out of touch with America. Bush waged war to protect his own oil profits, and Washington had the stink of corruption about it. Had he managed to stay in power, it's difficult to imagine the emergence of Newt Gingrich and the revolution of '94. Democrats may well have lost the house, but Newt's (and Limbaugh's) rhetoric wouldn't have been aimed at the "Draft-dodger in Chief."
The Democratic Party, by contrast, would have had to completely retool. The DLC, which started gaining power in the late '80s and opposed the "Dukakis Wing" of the party, managed to turn the Clinton victory into 12 years of primacy in Democratic circles, despite losing pretty much every other major election since Reagan. By sticking with Clinton moderation in 1992, the Dems inherited a platform that inadvertently corroborated Newt's hypothesis about American politics. They tried to outrace Republicans to the corporate, warrior right.
But the Reagan Revolution was near exhaustion in '92, and the election of Bush may well have sealed it. A Democratic Party on the outs for 12 years would have had to take the serious look at itself it has only just begun--another 12 years after the fact. In 1996, a Bob Dole candidacy would have looked even more catastrophic than it did--yet another old white man standing up for entrenched power and politics as usual. An energized and electrified Democratic Party, running now against Newt and Dole, might easily have won the White House, set itself up for winning back Congress two or four years later, and have a rejuvenated platform based on fiscal responsibility, the environment, and labor.
The history of American politics I began with is an unnuanced and only half-right picture--but it has become the accepted version. In 1992, it was anything but certain that the conservative generation was only gathering momentum. It is a thought experiment I've run before, and each time I come to the same conclusion. It looks to me like the great downfall of liberals was the victory of Bill Clinton. (It doesn't take great imaginative skill to see the downfall of conservatism as beginning with the "election" of George W. Bush. Ironic, no?)