Columnist David Shribman

When it comes to politics, are you in love, or in line?

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It’s been almost a quarter-century since Bill Clinton was president, and it’s rare to catch a glimpse of him anymore or to hear his honey-hibiscus-punch voice. But one sentence of political analysis from long ago has such an enduring half-life that it has been echoing through American politics in recent months.

You hear it everywhere. It goes something like this: Democrats fall in love; Republicans fall in line.

For decades, that was true, and especially so in Clinton’s career. Democrats fell in love with the young governor of Arkansas, seeing in him a whiff of Franklin Roosevelt’s imagination, Adlai Stevenson’s intellectual range, John F. Kennedy’s charm, Hubert H. Humphrey’s instinct for inclusiveness. At the same time, the Republicans fell in line to support President George H.W. Bush in the 1992 election and Sen. Bob Dole of Kansas in 1996 — both World War II combat veterans who understood the iron rules of the military command structure, both candidates vanquished by the imagination, intellect and charm of Bill Clinton.

It’s the formula that Caitlin Flanagan described in The Atlantic when, weighing the fall in love/fall in line continuum, she said that the “Democrats wait for a dream candidate to come along — a Bill Clinton or a Barack Obama — and they go out of their minds with excitement and ardor.”

Since then, the Clinton love/line formula has had to be reshaped, overhauled for a new era, recast for the phenomenon of Donald J. Trump, freshened for the rebellion of the MAGA troops who stampeded into the Capitol in 2021 and, in the past two months, into the caucus sites in Iowa and voting booths in New Hampshire.

The latest employment of the love/line comparison came last week in The New York Times, when columnist Ezra Klein wrote that “the reality, in recent years, has been that Democrats fall in line and Republicans fall apart,” adding, “The Democratic Party’s establishment has held, even as the Republican Party’s establishment has buckled.”

Let’s refine that further. We are witnessing the Clinton formula turned on its head. The Democrats are falling in line, to be sure, but the important thing is that the Republicans — whose old establishment, the one full of people with good manners and whose idea of excitement was a cocktail on the veranda overlooking the back nine — have fallen in love.

The Democrats, meanwhile, have come to heel behind an 81-year-old president who was in the Senate while both Bush and Dole enforced the Republican tradition of passing the nomination to the next logical figure — the immutable law that David Yepsen, for years the brilliant Des Moines Register political writer, identified when he said that Republicans were not so much members of a political party as they were member of a fraternal lodge.

Well, the Elks have fled, the Moose have sauntered away, and the Eagles have taken off.

The Democrats now are firmly in line for Biden, even though their procession to that line was more a slouch than a march. He’s our guy, they seem to be saying, for little other reason than because he’s our guy, and we need to get behind him, mostly because he is the one who seems most likely not to let Trump get ahead of him. Not much of an endorsement, but it’s enough to get everyone besides Rep. Dean Phillips, the Minnesota lawmaker who is running a Gilbert and Sullivan comic-opera campaign against him, in line.

“We weren’t all in love with Joe Biden the last time,” said Joe Trippi, the veteran Democratic political strategist. “The party that has fallen in love are the Republicans.”

Quite so. Inexplicable as it may be, they are in love with the least romantic American political figure since Richard M. Nixon. He lacks the management skills of Herbert Hoover, the allure of Wendell Willkie, the personal instincts of Dwight Eisenhower, the ideological integrity of Barry Goldwater, the experience of George H.W. Bush, the conventional political skills of Dole, the charm of George W. Bush, and the business acumen of Mitt Romney. And before you throw at me the example of Gov. Michael S. Dukakis, the Democrats’ technocratic 1988 presidential nominee, let’s agree that he may not have been a matinee idol, but he had a romantic son-of-immigrants story and he found romance in such things as freight-rail schedules and cost-benefit analyses of various types of traffic-easing roads, which at least are elements of actual governing.

Those steeped in GOP service, and accomplished in the art of governing, have joined the line behind Trump, even if skeptical of his comportment, troubled about his legal fights, concerned about his foreign-policy instincts and worried about the way the party has been overhauled into a MAGA vanguard. The love fest the Republicans are having defies everything the party once stood for.

This fealty may last only until November, but it is more likely that the party is undertaking a transformation equal in magnitude, significance and character to the Democrats’ transformation in 1932, when a party of small government and small-ball politics became the party of the underclass and sweeping government programs. There remained a rump of the earlier party — the rump of Southern conservatives, many of them committed racists — but the party of FDR was changed forever.

This time, the Republican Party is being reshaped by its appeal to blue-collar voters and the dispossessed that is a mirror of the New Deal approach. Trump may be defeated, or he may go away, but the next generation of people in the mold of the Bushes and the Doles will not be Republicans. They will have gone to college with, and fallen in love with, the people who today are Democrats.

The danger for the Republicans today is the danger the Democrats used to face: the remnants of the old party kicking up enough of a stir that the unity a major American political party requires is jeopardized. This could be exacerbated if Trump is convicted in one of his many trials — a factor that could peel away as much as 20% of the GOP coalition.

“Democrats have a spirited debate within the party, and then we come home,” said Trippi, “and we come home even if we aren’t in love.”