Larry Sabato, a man known for being a tremendous political scientist and a tremendous ass, made the following comment on Neil Cavuto's sycophantic Fox News show early in the 2008 election:
"Look, when you analyze parties, you need to think of them this way: The Democratic Party is the mommy party, and the Republican Party is the daddy party…the mother is loving and caring and takes us back in and provides the safety net. The father is the disciplinarian. Tough love. He makes us face up to hard realities, at least in many families."
This gender-stereotyped piece of conventional wisdom has been popular since the Great Depression. Americans, especially the older ones, tend to see the parties this way. The Republicans make prosperity with their endless reserves of prudence, caution, and forethought. The Democrats spend prosperity with equally endless reserves of idealism, compassion, and committment to the poor. Democrats have big, expensive ideas. Republicans soberly tend the purse strings. When times are good, the public turns to Democrats to try to make things better for the greatest number of people. When times are tough we bring on the GOP to apply some discipline to our spending habits and social crusades.
Conventional wisdom is often misguided or flat-out wrong. But let's be honest: these stereotypes had some basis in reality during the New Deal period. The Democrats were exceedingly idealistic. They did spend a lot of money on the social safety net and always had ideas that would spend even more. They had plans to save the poor and elderly, to rehabilitate criminals into productive citizens, and to end racial disharmony. Throughout the New Deal era the GOP, nearly always from the minority, indeed played the role of the killjoy, the responsible adult who would say, "Your ideas are nice, but we can't afford it." They applied the brakes and generally acted as a big stick in the mud, albeit a welcome one. The country needed their dour presence to keep the Democrats from going overboard.
It's not perfect – generalizations never are – but there is some truth to the stereotype of the parties as Compassion/Idealism vs. Sobriety/Discipline. So my question is, what happened? Why has so little attention been paid to the fact that if this was true at some point it certainly isn't anymore?
Of course, the media believes the stereotypes are still relevant. Witness the stimulus legislation, they say. The Democrats wanted to spend-spend-spend and the GOP was there to say "no." That's overly-literal and far too simplistic an analysis of what role the parties are really playing at the moment. Since 1980, when Reagan replaced the ideological combination of tax cuts/spending cuts with tax cuts/spend like drunken sailors on shore leave, the Democrats have twice been called to clean up a Republican clusterfuck. The 1992 and 2008 elections were both reactions against 12 and 8 year binges of Reaganomics which left the nation balls-deep in debt, with high unemployment, trying to keep employers from heading to Mexico, and in the midst of a dangerous recession. Our drunken orgies of fiscal irresponsibility now come courtesy of the responsible party. The hippies and dreamers of the left are now the responsible ones.
It's tempting to say that the roles are reversed, that the GOP is mommy and the Democrats are daddy. But given that the GOP lacks anything resembling the compassion we'd associate with the mommy stereotype, I think it's more accurate to say that the Democrats have become Mom and Dad. The GOP is our drunken uncle, the kind who isn't allowed to be alone with the kids. Who blows his Social Security checks at the riverboat casino. Who is always evading creditors. Who always seems to be wanted by both the law and the criminal class. Who is an alcoholic, a drug addict, or both. The GOP may fancy themselves our level-headed protectors but in reality they are like junkies. They piss through enormous sums of money in the blink of an eye, benefitting only themselves and leaving them in need of more cash five minutes later.
Looking at the small picture – the fact that the GOP is going to oppose any and every single thing the Democrats propose – reinforces the stereotypes. But when one considers the current political scenario in the context of the past eight years, understanding why the Democrats are in charge and why everything is so fucked up, it makes no sense whatsoever. If this is "daddy," it's the dad on the billboard who owes 10 years' worth of child support and who bears facial scars from the misfortune of being hunched over the meth lab when it exploded.