Essay Robert Reich

The Real Difference Between Democrats and Republicans

Politics requires the capacity to govern, but also to fight to attain and retain power. The dysfunction today is neither party can do both.

By Robert Reich / RobertReich.Org

It’s important to understand the real difference between America’s two political parties at this point in history.

Instead of “left” versus “right,” think of two different core competences.

The Democratic Party is basically a governing party, organized around developing and implementing public policies. The Republican Party has become an attack party, organized around developing and implementing political vitriol. Democrats legislate. Republicans fulminate.

In theory, politics requires both capacities – to govern, but also to fight to attain and retain power. The dysfunction today is that Republicans can’t govern and Democrats can’t fight.

Donald Trump is the culmination of a half century of GOP belligerence. Richard Nixon’s “dirty tricks” were followed by Republican operative Lee Atwater’s smear tactics, Newt Gingrich’s take-no-prisoners reign as House speaker, the “Swift-boating” of John Kerry, and the GOP’s increasingly blatant uses of racism and xenophobia to build an overwhelmingly white, rural base.

Atwater, trained in the southern swamp of the modern Republican Party, once noted: “Republicans in the South could not win elections by talking about issues. You had to make the case that the other guy, the other candidate, is a bad guy.” Over time, the GOP’s core competence came to be vilification.  

The stars of today’s Republican Party, in addition to Trump, are all pugilists: Mitch McConnell, Lindsay Graham, Ted Cruz, and Marco Rubio; Florida governor Ron DeSantis and Georgia’s Brian Kemp; Fox News’s Sean Hannity and Tucker Carlson; and attack dogs like Rudolph Giuliani and Roger Stone.  

But Republicans don’t have a clue how to govern. They’re hopeless at developing and implementing public policies or managing government. They can’t even agree on basics like how to respond to the pandemic or what to replace Obamacare with.

Meanwhile, the central competence of the Democratic Party is running government – designing policies and managing the system. Once in office, Democrats spend countless hours cobbling together legislative and regulatory initiatives. They overflow with economic and policy advisers, programs, plans, and goals.

But Democrats are lousy at bare knuckles political fighting. Their campaigns proffer policies but are often devoid of passion. (Hillary Clinton’s 2016 presidential bid was little more than a long list of detailed proposals.) Democrats seem stunned when their GOP opponents pillory them with lies, rage, and ad hominem attacks.

This has put Democrats at a competitive disadvantage. Political campaigns might once have been about party platforms, but today’s electorate is angrier and more cynical. Policy ideas rarely make headlines; conflict does. Social media favor explosive revelations, including bald lies. No one remembers Hillary Clinton’s policy ideas from 2016; they only remember Trump’s attacks on her emails.

As a result, the party that’s mainly good at attacking has been winning elections – and pushed into governing, which it’s bad at. In 2016, the GOP won the presidency, along with control over both chambers of Congress and most governorships. On the other hand, the party that’s mainly good a governing has been losing elections – pushed into the role of opposition and attack, which it’s bad at. (House speaker Nancy Pelosi, however, seems to have a natural gift for it.)

This dysfunction has become particularly obvious – and deadly – in the current national emergency. Trump and Senate Republicans have let the pandemic and economic downturn become catastrophes. They have no capacity to develop and implement strategies for dealing with them. Their knee-jerk response is to attack – China, Democrats, public health officials, protesters, “lazy” people who won’t work.

Democrats know what to do – House Democrats passed a comprehensive coronavirus bill in May, and several Democratic governors have been enormously effective – but they’ve lacked power to put a national strategy into effect.

All this may change in a few months when Americans have an opportunity to replace the party that’s bad at governing with the one that’s good at it. After all, Joe Biden has been at it for most of the past half century.

Trump and the GOP will pull out all the stops, of course. They’ve already started mindless, smarmy attacks.

The big question hovering over the election is whether Democrats can summon enough fight to win against the predictable barrage. Biden’s choice of running mate, Kamala Harris, bodes well in this regard. Quite apart from all her other attributes, she’s a fierce fighter.

Robert Reich
Robert Reich

Robert Reich’s latest book is “THE SYSTEM: Who Rigged It, How To Fix It,” out March 24.
He is Chancellor’s Professor of Public Policy at the University of California at Berkeley and Senior Fellow at the Blum Center. He served as Secretary of Labor in the Clinton administration, for which Time Magazine named him one of the 10 most effective cabinet secretaries of the twentieth century. He has written 17 other books, including the best sellers “Aftershock,””The Work of Nations,” “Beyond Outrage,” and “The Common Good.” 


  1. I see this differently. For 4 years Democrats have attacked Donald Trump’s personality. None but Bernie Sanders has talked policy. I saw hardly any policy at the DNC convention, just endless reminders of how awful Trump is. Nancy Pelosi doesn’t do policy. She just rips up Trump’s speeches. She even now says it is beneath Biden to engage in a policy debate with Trump.

    Biden has no policy. He just wants to get back to how we were before Trump. But what we were was a plutocracy where most Americans were forced into austerity. “Normal” is actually what coughed up Trump in the first place.

  2. I have to disagree with so much of this editorial. There is much more alike with the two parties than is different. Both are funded and owned by the same corporate interests and because of this fact, neither party will do what poll after poll claim Americans want. Both parties fund endless war (only 44 Democrats voted against the recent 740 billion dollar defense giveaway), fossil fuel, resist M4A, and the GND. See Green Greenwald: Both parties only offer the same failed policies. The Republicans want to privatize or shrink Social Security, but so did Obama (Grand Bargain) and Biden (several attempts). Where it is a given that the Republicans don’t want progressive change, the Democrat’s are much more insidious at stopping progressive candidates with Super Delegates, and funding for neoliberal clones. They dilute the primaries with a dozen empty suit neoliberal candidates who withdraw together and back their chosen one. The choice in November is bad or less bad, never good vs. bad. Both parties rig elections, neither is pushing for paper ballots, and neither is attempting to remove the Electoral College. And Nancy Pelosi who you seem to praise, wasted 2-1/2 years impeaching Trump and then finally did on such narrow grounds when there have been close to a dozen offenses that she should have used. Our health care system is dependent for the most part on employment and its for profit model show its failings during this pandemic. The police are often out of control and Biden wants to infuse them with another three hundred million dollars. Biden has stated that if he is elected, “Nothing will fundamentally change”. Reich is correct about the Republicans, but he is missing the mark by a mile with the Democrats. And no, we don’t need a third party, we need a second one.

  3. Prof. Reich, it seems that you’ve missed an important aspect of this disparity in your analysis. Both parties pass or giddily support de-regulation, tax-cuts for the rich, increases in military spending, increasing the draconian level of security/police state or going to war. Neither party can pass legislation that benefits the 99% – as you full well know from the studies of Guiles and Page. So, both parties have been shown to be very effective in legislation that benefits their true constituencies – the plutocracy. Take the first two years of the Obomber admin. as an example – what headway was made on the promised ‘Hope and Change’ agenda? Precious little, if not actual back-sliding. No, the ‘blue’ wing of the single American Plutocrat political party relishes it’s position as ‘inauthentic opposition’, as they can revel in the regressive accomplishments while braying false objections.

  4. is this MSDNC? The democrats are objectively more reactionary than GOP; to believe otherwise is to deny evidence. dimocrat policies are always ruling class, slightly less so the GOP—fully demonstrated by the mueller fiasco. it is the dims that are the most imperialist bloodthirsty despicable cretins; they consistently support all genocides—polls demonstrated liberals most supported the war in Vietnam –referenced by the Marxist social philosopher, Richard Sennet. In Europe it the left wing that advocates for more liberal gun laws; in America it is the liberals that are more fascist

  5. Excellent article at first but, then, Kamala Harris is a fierce fighter? Of what???? Putting and keeping more people in jail? Using Prison labor? Eliminating the “school” step to send pour kids directly to jail?

    Sorry Robert but judging from your previous position that we should have used those now lost 4 years to build a progressive party/approach, it is mind boggling to me that you find Kamala the right choice for any of the causes you mention.

    So I’m standing here liking your manner and your analysis only to feel once again betrayed by your conclusion. Here’s my conclusion … thus! Both parties and their members are clearly OBSOLETE! Their time has passed and even those with good suggestions don’t have the emotional and mental “stamina'” to do anything at all. Their ideas and their solutions come from decades ago when indeed it was their time. Biden in his speech mentioned triumphantly something about “THIS GENERATION” defeating one thing or another and I was left wondering “which generation ???? exactly. Biden is about 3 generations off THIS GENERATION.

    And this is what your conclusion makes me feel after a good main article. That you guys – as honorable as you may be- don’t get the times. Proposign Kamala confirms just that!

    Otherwise, all the best to you!

    WE still cannot afford vacation like the senate and the congress that (WOW and WOW again) went on vacation after failing to come to an agreement about the millions out of work, home and family.

    It is important sometimes to be modest or even humble. But the Senate and Congress don’t know of such concepts.

    1. in the USA inmate jobs are coveted; while they are paid little this helps address the boredom of lockdowns in small prison cells

  6. Neither party cares about workers in any respect. Hopefully, that will be their ultimate downfall some day.

  7. dims cannot govern their own cities—replete w riots and plywood….4th reich is a member of the Clinton crime syndicate….Hofstadter described amerikan academics “technicians that sever power with a thin understanding of everything”….the specialized nature of amerikan fake academia produce a passive obsequious population…social change or reform is impossible in USA—no empire has ever reformed itself

  8. Thanks Robert,
    What has become “particularly obvious” is that they both govern or legislate, just not in behalf of the people.
    Militarism, non productive, ginormous finance, deregulation, insurance care, climate, immigration, monetary policy, private equity, sustainable jobs with benefits, private catering over public wellbeing, all identical bipartisan support.
    So, they’ve been spineless but very successful creating a construct which
    is working unaccountably perfect for their finance driven overlords.
    And Bob, enough with the difference b.s.

  9. Opps, typo.

    This article is very lame. I am surprised it has flowed from the pen of Robert Reich. Of course Republicans are not good at governing! They don’t believe in government (they want to privatize everything) To them governments role is to field an army, pass massive tax breaks for the 1% and liberate the American people so they can become entrepreneurs. Oh, I am all for the American way, would love for the private sector to solve all our problems and deliver great products and services while they are at it. Who doesn’t like American innovation and can do spirit! Sadly human nature is not benevolent. This is why the founding fathers devised our three branches of government; A balance of powers. Little did they know government could be bought and people would be too busy looking at their phones.

    1. amerikan innovation? nonsense
      Geoffrey Gorer observed this insecurity—20,000 patents stolen from Germany after WWI which the US had nearly no involvement and nearly 100,000 after WWII–little involvement
      my Austrian friend became rich in silicon valley —he has so many insulting stories regarding amerikans–refuses to employ US engineers—only Europeans
      he attended a party in SF—the elite 25 engineers that manage apple computer…he heard only 2 languages—German, Russian…he was told that apple does want incompetent US engineers

  10. recent speech opposing covid fascism by Kenndy in Berlin—-more than 500,000 Germans, none with masks….as Kennedy remarked US fake news reporting he will be speaking to 5 thousand German fascists….the true fascists–US liberals

  11. The Dems know how to attack, lie, and play dirty – they did it to Sanders twice. They do it to any left candicate for any national office.

    They do govern and produce policies, and that’s the rub. They give the Repubs so much to attack because their governance is for Wall St., Silicon Valley, and the empire. It fails the working class – largely white thanks to Dem governance that failed to grow the power of the worker as neo-liberalism shrunk the work force. It leaves wide open right-wing populism because it is do hostile to left-wing populism.

    Prof. Reich, dump your Clintonian preconceptions and get original. This kind of analysis is very weak and dumb.

  12. OK, w/ the flames against this punk so vociferous, he’ll probably not come back w/ more drivel. Hedges cut his balls off on DemNow 4 years ago, yet he’s still trying to sell himself as a Progressive. Yes, I enjoyed his 2 docs re the economy, but since then I learned he was an instrumental part of the evisceration of American Industry.

    More than the Iraq war, Dr. Reisch’s tenure @ DC during the Clinton admin, by staying silent as they put FTA together is his true legacy. The burnt down towns and cities across the Rust Belt are testament to the weakness of his character.

    But, WTH…him & Mikey Moore are buds, and he can get slots on Maher anytime. He didn’t write Hillbilly Elegy…he just helped build the situation.

    His cowardice rivals Sanders’. People like him are why I’m voting Trump.

    1. unfortunately the corrupt dims have elected trump to a 2nd term…less fascist and racist
      when I lived in USA, I was acquainted w a black amateur golfer that caddied in NY….he reported that Spurrier/Limbaugh were so racist he theew the clubs away walked off…the 3rd time he caddied for Trump, so appreciative of his advice he provided him an apt in 1 of his buildings for 1/3 the customary rent, paid for his dental bills

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