How The Parties Got That Way


A History of the Democrats

By Jules Witcover

Random House -- 826pp -- $35


A History of the Republicans

By Louis L. Gould

Random House -- 597pp -- $35

One marvel of American democracy is the durability of its founding principles. The same consistency doesn't apply to the nation's major political parties. The Democratic Party, created in the factional tumult of post-revolutionary days, has changed from a predominantly rural, racist, states' rights party into an organ of urban minorities, liberals, and federal power. Meanwhile, the GOP has been transformed from the party of government activism, high tariffs, and enfranchisement of African Americans and women to a foe of big government, high taxes, and affirmative action.

The unlikely journey of the two parties has been chronicled in a pair of complementary volumes written from differing perspectives and arriving just as the 2004 campaign kicks into high gear. Veteran political correspondent Jules Witcover's Party of the People tells the story of the Democratic Party in a lively, journalistic manner. In contrast, University of Texas historian Lewis L. Gould's Grand Old Party is written in an academic style that is drier and somewhat less insightful than its companion volume.

After more than 1,400 pages, it becomes clear that few things about the two groups have remained unchanged through the decades. When it comes to the Democrats, the one constant was best identified by Will Rogers: "I belong to no organized party. I am a Democrat." And the common thread that runs through the GOP's history seems to be opposition to whatever the Democrats stand for. "In short," declared Indiana's Republican Governor Oliver P. Morton in 1868, "the Democratic Party may be described as a common sewer and loathsome receptacle, into which is emptied every element of treason North and South, every element of inhumanity and barbarism which has dishonored the age." Or, as Franklin D. Roosevelt's Republican grandfather told him, not every Democrat is a horse thief, but "it would seem that all horse thieves are Democrats." Current House Majority Leader Tom DeLay (R-Tex.) couldn't have said it better.

The books are chock-full of colorful quotes and fascinating characters, both well-known and obscure. Gould's most interesting portrayals are of Dwight D. Eisenhower and Ronald Reagan. Ike, in Gould's view, was an able politician who nonetheless failed to institutionalize his concept of "Modern Republicanism," a centrist course derided by Barry M. Goldwater as a captive of "the siren song of socialism." Reagan, the author argues, is a transformational figure who completed the ideological shift started by Goldwater, the 1964 Presidential nominee. Their Sunbelt revolution moved the GOP away from the Wall Street Establishment that had dominated it for most of the 20th century.

Witcover writes at length of the key figures in Democratic annals -- Thomas Jefferson, Andrew Jackson, William Jennings Bryan, and FDR -- with an eye for details that bring history to life. His description of the ailing Roosevelt's duplicitous scheming to replace Vice-President Henry A. Wallace with Missouri Senator Harry S Truman in 1944 offers insight into the great Democrat's character. But Witcover also devotes space to important but lesser-known figures: Martin Van Buren, for instance, was a wily New York Senator whose skillful 1828 promotion of Andrew Jackson's war-hero image paved the way for modern electioneering.

Although Witcover, a liberal columnist, is sympathetic to the Democrats, he doesn't hesitate to condemn the party's dark moments. A particularly odious Democrat, in Witcover's mind, is 15th President James Buchanan, a virulent racist who, in the years just before the Civil War, blamed national friction on the Northern abolitionists he said were stirring up slaves with hopes of freedom.

The stench of racism turns out to be a continuing threat to the unity of the Party of the People. The Democrats' populist coalition of farmers, working-class whites, and immigrants collapsed in the pre-Civil War fight over slavery. A century later, a new schism over civil rights helped Richard M. Nixon and Ronald Reagan redraw the electoral map.

Today's Republicans hope that their current dominance reflects a long-term realignment. Gould isn't so sure, and his admitted lack of sympathy for the GOP is likely to grate on some party loyalists. A few of his editorial judgments (he describes 1988 Democratic nominee Michael S. Dukakis as "a moderate, centrist Democrat") seem a tad partisan.

At the dawn of the 21st century, the parties finally appear to be close to reaching the left-right ideological realignment sought 60 years earlier by liberal Democrat FDR and conservative Republicans such as Ohio Senator Robert A. Taft. But, as Gould and Witcover ably demonstrate, today's political reality could become tomorrow's historical relic.

By Richard S. Dunham

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