I am now on the last lap (if not the home stretch) of my political history of the United States based on presidential addresses, having finished the draft chapter on Ronald Reagan and George Bush I and begun researching Bill Clinton. Reagan's rule, I concluded, marked a turning point in American politics comparable to Franklin Roosevelt's, albeit in a very different direction. Our economic and political elites have been very comfortable with the changes he made, but they left large segments of our population behind. Those segments became the swing votes in a series of presidential and midterm elections that enabled dissatisfied voters to express their anger, but not to change the country's direction. Eventually, in 2016, a whole party turned against the establishment completely, and we are still living with the consequences of that shock.
Although Ronald Reagan and Paul Volcker did stop the inflationary spiral of the years 1965-82, they were never all that successful against unemployment, which remained at 5.3 percent when Reagan left office. The Bush I administration showed that the nation remained vulnerable to recession, and after unemployment reached 7.4 percent, Bush's vote percentage fell from 53 percent in 1988 to 37.5 percent in 1992, with Bill Clinton winning 43 percent and Ross Perot 19 percent. Clinton's victory did not however change the direction of the country. He did raise income taxes on the highest bracket from 31 percent to 39.6 percent, but he also focused on cutting the size of the federal government, getting tougher on crime, "ending welfare as we know it," and moving forward on NAFTA, which he had refused to endorse as a candidate. He warned that health care costs might rise from 14 percent of GDP to almost 20 percent by 2019 without a major reform, but Congress refused to act. And in the 1994 midterms the Republicans won the popular vote for Congress handily and gained 54 House seats for a 230-204 majority. They also gained 8 seats in the Senate and emerged with a 54-46 majority after two Democrats switched parties. The economy grew during the remainder of his term and he defeated Bob Dole handily in 1996 with 49 percent of the vote, as Perot's vote fell to 8 percent, but neither then nor in 1998 did the Democrats seriously challenge the Republican hold on Congress. And in 2000, eight years of economic growth and the achievement of a balanced budget only allowed Al Gore to defeat George W. Bush in the popular vote by 48.4 percent to 47.9 percent. Florida, which a post-election recount indicated that Gore might actually have won, was awarded to Bush without a recount by Republican officials and a Republican Supreme Court majority, giving Bush the election. The Republicans maintained their House majority but lost control of the Senate 51-49 because of another party switch early in 2001.
The reaction to 9/11 and the Republican exploitation of social issues led by gay marriage allowed the Republicans to narrowly regain control of the Senate and increase their majority in the House in 2002, and Bush managed to win another narrow victory in his 2004 re-election campaign, with a 51-48 percent margin in the popular vote and 286-251 in the Electoral College. Bush also reversed fiscal policy with two rounds of tax cuts to go with a new series of wars, and the deficit ballooned again. The unpopular war in Iraq led to another popular revolt in 2006, when the Democrats regained control of the House for the first time since 1992, winning 31 seats, and secured a narrow majority in the Senate with 5 new seats. Then came the housing market bust and the onset of a very severe recession in 2008. Hillary Clinton, the candidate of the Democratic establishment, had been the overwhelming favorite for the Democratic nomination, but a new face, Barack Obama, excited the nation and defeated her in the primary campaign. Obama won the biggest Democratic victory since Lyndon Johnson over John McCain, winning the popular vote 53-46 percent and the Electoral College 365-173. The Democrats also scored another big win in Congress and emerged with majorities of 60-40 and 254-181. Many believed that a new Democratic era was at hand.
Unfortunately, Barack Obama proved even before he took office that he would not depart from the new post-Reagan economic and foreign policy orthodoxy, appointing Larry Summers as his chief economic adviser and Hillary Clinton as his Secretary of State. His economic team reacted to the crisis by bailing out the big banks, rather than directly assisting the ordinary Americans who were losing their houses and jobs, and he failed to mobilize the anger in the country against financial interests, as Franklin Roosevelt had done. Meanwhile, he withdrew troops from Iraq, but increased them in Afghanistan, and orchestrated another disastrous change of regime in Libya. The Affordable Care Act--a very controversial measure--was his only major legislative achievement, and the Republicans regained the House with 63 new seats, 257-178, and wiped out most of the Democratic majority in the Senate with 6 more seats there in 2010. Obama nonetheless managed to win re-election over Mitt Romney with a 51-47 popular vote margin and 332-206 in the electoral vote, but the Democrats regained only 13 House seats, cutting the Republican edge to 234-201, while increasing their Senate majority to a still-narrow 53-47. Those margins made any new legislative achievements impossible, and in 2014 the Republicans regained control of the Senate, 54-46, with nine victories, and gained 13 more seats in the House for a margin of 247-188.
Dynasties had become fashionable in this era of American politics, and pundits in 2015 expected Hillary Clinton--Obama's annointed successor--to contest the presidential election against Jeb Bush. Clinton as it turned out faced a surprisingly serious challenge from another outsider, socialist Bernie Sanders, but defeated him for the nomination. Neither Bush nor any other elected Republican official, however, stood a chance against the real estate mogul and reality TV star Donald Trump, who not only ran explicitly against the establishment's policy positions but reveled in violating various taboos of elite American politics and culture. As I have pointed out here in previous analyses, neither Trump nor Clinton really excited the voters, and neither did as well in the polls as Romney and Obama in 2012. Clinton won the popular vote 48-46 percent with huge popular majorities in the northeast and on the west coast, but Trump flipped six key states to his side and won the electoral vote 304-227. The Republicans also won the nationwide popular vote for the House and retained a 241-194 majority, and held on to the Senate, 52-48.
Trump's main legislative achievement--parallel to George W. Bush and Ronald Reagan--was another round of tax cuts for corporations and the rich, and he was no more successful than Obama in winning the nation to his side. Two years into his term the Democrats won the popular vote for the House by a whopping 9 percent, gained 41 seats, and emerged with a majority of 235-200, their first since 2008. The Republicans, however, completed their takeover of several red states and gained 2 net seats in the Senate, increasing their majority to 54-46.
Trump proved in dozens of ways that he was utterly unfit to serve as president, and he was less successful than Bush II or Obama in winning the American people over to his side, particularly after the COVID epidemic struck. Although in 2020 a number of key states were quite close, Joe Biden--another establishment Democrat--defeated him solidly, 51-47 percent in the popular vote, and 306-232 in the Electoral College. Yet nationwide--thanks in part to Republican gerrymandering in several states--the deadlock continued. The Democrats did manage to tie the Senate 50-50, winning control thanks to the Vice President's vote, but they lost 15 House seats, reducing their majority to 220-215. Biden and the Democrats managed to pass a trillion-dollar infrastructure bill and an important measure focusing on climate change, but neither one has as yet had any real impact in the country. Meanwhile, inflation has returned with a vengeance after remaining under control for 40 years, and as I write, Republicans and Democrats are estimated to have 68 percent chances of regaining the House and keeping the Senate, respectively. Social issues, led by abortion and education, have become more important than ever.
On the one hand, the failure of either party to reverse the economic trend towards inequality in the last 40 years has kept the electorate swinging back and forth, punishing first one party and then the other and contributing to gridlock. Meanwhile, one party--the Republicans--have completely abandoned modern political traditions, denying the validity of elections, contesting them by various strategies up to and including insurrection, and relying on the Supreme Court to implement much of its agenda. Biden and the Democrats are not simply trying to hold onto power, but to save US politics as we have known them--and so far Biden has been less successful than either Clinton or Obama in forging a real bond with the electorate. Meanwhile, long-term problems such as the status of immigrants and the cost of health care have only gotten worse. Clinton warned in 1993 that health care already cost us 14 percent of our GDP and warned that by 2020 that figure might reach almost 20 percent. He was exactly right: it cost 19.8 percent of GDP in that year. The trend towards greater inequality has continued almost unabated, and the influence of money over politics has grown. With the Federal Reserve Board actively trying to bring about a recession to check inflation, Democratic prospects look dreadful in 2024. A very large, intergenerational mass of voters clearly has little or no faith in our political establishment--and I can't say that I blame them.