In the 20th century, only two presidents shaped new governing coalitions that outlasted them. They were the only two men to appear on five national tickets.
The first was FDR, who rang down the curtain in 1932 on the seven decades of Republican hegemony since Abraham Lincoln that had seen only two Democrats in the White House. And Grover Cleveland and Woodrow Wilson had made it only because of divisions inside the GOP.
Franklin Roosevelt would win four terms, and his party would win the presidency in seven of nine elections between 1932 and 1968.
Richard Nixon was the next craftsman of a governing coalition. While he won with only 43 percent in 1968, by 1972 he had cobbled together a New Majority that would give the GOP four victories in five elections between 1972 and 1988. In two of those victories, Nixon and Ronald Reagan would roll up 49-state landslides.
Roosevelt and Nixon both employed the politics of conflict and confrontation, not conciliation, to smash the old coalition. Find me something to veto, Roosevelt once said to his aides, seeking to start a fight with his adversaries to rally his grumbling troops.
“They hate me, and I welcome their hatred,” said FDR in the 1936 campaign. He believed that if a slice of the electorate was incorrigibly hostile, one ought not appease or court them, but use them as a whipping boy to rally the majority. With FDR, the foil was Wall Street, the “money-changers in the temple of our civilization.”
With Nixon it was urban rioters and campus anarchists and their academic apologists and elite enablers, and the demonstrators who blocked troop trains and carried Viet Cong flags as they chanted: “Ho, Ho, Ho Chi Minh! The NLF Is Going to Win!”
In the late ’60s and early ’70s, Southern conservative Democrats and Northern Catholics and ethnics left the party of their fathers in droves to join The New Majority of Richard Nixon, which they saw as representing their values and standing for peace with honor.
Barack Obama seems to be taking a page out of the playbook of these coalition builders. Since re-election, he has been actively seeking out confrontations to drive wedges through the Republican Party.
“Positive polarization,” it was once called.
Rather than do a deal with Speaker John Boehner and offer one-for-one budget cuts for tax hikes, the president forced congressional Republicans into a humiliating climb-down and public retreat that split the House majority asunder. The he spiked the football to rub it in, saying he had made good on his pledge to make the rich pay.
While Obama declined to do battle for his favorite for State, U.N. Ambassador Susan Rice, a battle that would have united Republicans, he has chosen to do battle for Chuck Hagel for Defense.
As Hagel is a conservative Republican, this has already divided the GOP foreign policy realists from the neocons and the War Party.
If Hagel is confirmed, Republican resistance will have been routed. If Hagel is rejected, the Republican Party will be damaged in the eyes of many for having trashed a patriot, war hero and friend of veterans who put America first and wanted no more unnecessary wars.
Nixon lost the first two battles he waged to put a Southern jurist on the Supreme Court, then castigated the Senate for perpetrating acts of “regional discrimination,” and went on to win all 11 states of the Confederacy in 1972. It’s called winning by losing.
Obama’s selection of White House Chief of Staff Jacob Lew for treasury secretary, a former budget director whose intransigence in negotiations antagonized Hill Republicans, looks to be another fight the president is picking to portray the GOP as obstructionists who cannot accept the verdict of 2012.
The president is also taking a no-negotiations stance on the debt ceiling, saying he refuses to pay ransom to the GOP to prevent their destroying the nation’s credit rating. Republicans would do well to walk this terrain before choosing to fight upon it.
The coming gun battle, too, is one in which Obama seems to be seeking a clash where, should he lose on the assault-weapons ban, he wins with the public and tars Republicans as lapdogs of the National Rifle Association. And the next time a massacre occurs, as inevitably it will, is there any doubt whom the Democrats will hold responsible?
The president has many weapons in his coming clashes with the congressional Republicans. He has the presidency itself, the bully pulpit. He has forums like the Inaugural Address and State of the Union that Republicans cannot match.
He has a press that deeply dislikes the Republican right and serves as his echo chamber. And while the White House speaks with a single voice, the Republican Party is a cacophony of voices.
With demography moving against the GOP, with more and more Americans becoming dependent upon government, it will take leadership not yet visible to rescue the Republican Party from the fate Barack Hussein Obama has in store for it.