In 1960, John F. Kennedy recovered the presidency for the Democrats. Kennedy came from a family long involved in Boston machine politics and was the first Catholic elected president. His liberal New Frontier program and his active support of the civil rights cause led to significant new legislation, most of which, however, was passed under his successor.
Kennedy's assassination, in Dallas in November 1963, brought his vice-president, Lyndon B. Johnson of Texas, to the presidency. Although his personal style alienated Northern liberals and the Kennedy organization, Johnson proved an ardent supporter of social reform. His administration was notable for Great Society programs of educational, welfare, and civil rights legislation as well as for its devastating failures in connection with the Vietnam War. The war divided the Democratic party and the nation with a bitterness reminiscent of the Civil War period.
During the cold war years of the late 1940s and '50s, U.S. foreign-policy makers, including President Truman's secretary of state Dean Acheson and President Eisenhower's secretary of state John Foster Dulles, responded to all Communist military actions as though they originated from a single source, Moscow. Thus the Truman administration committed U.S. troops to fight a costly war in Korea to halt the aggression of North Korean Communists (see Korean War). After Vietnam was partitioned in 1954, the United States became more and more committed to the support of the anti-Communist regime in the south. President Kennedy sent military advisors; President Johnson sent troops and began intensive bombing of North Vietnam. By 1966, Americans were deeply divided over the strategies for resolving the war in Vietnam. The deepest divisions were manifest among the leadership of the Democratic party.
Crystallizing the opposition to Johnson's policies in Vietnam, Sen. Eugene McCarthy of Minnesota and Sen. Robert F. Kennedy of New York, John Kennedy's brother, sought the presidential nomination in 1968. Gov. George Wallace of Alabama, hoping to capitalize on racial tensions in the cities and the South, prepared his own challenge. After his narrow win over McCarthy in the New Hampshire primary election, Johnson announced that he would not be a candidate. Vice-President Hubert H. Humphrey then entered the race and won the nomination at the tumultuous convention in Chicago. The disarray at the convention, where antiwar demonstrators clashed with Mayor Richard Daley's Chicago police, blemished Humphrey's cause and contributed to his defeat by Richard M. Nixon. Another source of Democratic weakness in 1968 was the massive defection of blue-collar and Southern voters to Wallace's third party.
The party's wounds persisted for the next half-dozen years. At the 1972 nominating convention antiwar, black, young, and women delegates were pitted against labor and party regulars. Humphrey was defeated for the nomination by Sen. George McGovern, who stressed party reform and an end to the Vietnam War. Feeling ran high, and McGovern was unable to unite the factions. Many former Wallace supporters voted for Nixon, and many other Democrats stayed home; McGovern carried only Massachusetts and the District of Columbia.
When President Nixon was driven from office by the Watergate scandal in 1974, the Democrats were ready to reunite. Excellent results in 1974 congressional and state elections and good prospects for 1976 helped dissolve hard feelings; the Democrats' first midterm national conference produced a party charter in December 1974.
Jimmy Carter, former governor of Georgia, began early to campaign for the Democratic presidential nomination in 1976. His lack of experience in Washington helped him with voters disgusted by Watergate abuses, and Carter's primary-election victories carried him to the nomination. Aided by an unusually high turnout of black voters, especially in the South, Carter won a close race against President Gerald R. Ford.
The Carter presidency, however, marked a precipitous decline in the fortunes of the Democratic party. Relations between President Carter and the Democratic Congress were never close, and many of Carter's initiatives were blocked. Although Carter signed the second Strategic Arms Limitation Treaty (SALT II; see arms control) with the USSR and played a key role in the first peace treaty between Israel and Egypt, his administration was plagued by a reputation for inefficacy and weakness. Republican candidate Ronald Reagan, by concentrating on the steep rise in inflation under Carter and on what many saw as a decline in U.S. military preparedness—epitomized by the Iranian hostage crisis—defeated President Carter in 1980, carrying 44 states. The Democrats lost their majority in the Senate for the first time since 1954.
In the 1984 campaign the Democrat, former vice-president Walter F. Mondale, chose a woman, N.Y. Rep. Geraldine A. Ferraro, as his running mate. Although they campaigned on such issues as reducing the large budget deficit, the popular President Reagan overwhelmed them at the polls, winning 59% of the popular vote. The Democrats retained their majority in the House, although it was diminished, and gained two seats in the Republican-dominated Senate. They recaptured the Senate, 55-45, in the 1986 midterm elections. During the Reagan presidency Democrats held a majority of House seats, governorships, and state legislatures.
The 1988 presidential campaign between Massachusetts governor Michael Dukakis, a Democrat, and Vice-President George Bush ended with another Republican victory—although the Democrats increased their congressional majorities. A pattern of executive-legislative "gridlock" that had begun under Reagan continued. Partly owing to a recession in 1991–92, the Democratic governor of Arkansas, Bill Clinton, a self-styled centrist running on a program of moderate reform, defeated Bush in 1992. Two years later, vilifying Clinton as a tax-and-spend liberal, the Republicans captured both houses of Congress. They also won the governorships of seven of the eight largest states. Clinton, nonetheless, was reelected in 1996 with an impressive 379 electoral votes—though with only 49% of the popular vote. The Democratic victory was tempered by continued Republican control of the House and Senate. The midterm elections of 1998, held in the midst of an attempt to impeach Clinton in connection with the Whitewater affair, brought modest gains for the Democrats instead of the expected losses. The Republican majority in the House went ahead with the impeachment, which was voted in December 1998; the Senate acquitted the president, however, in February 1999, voting 55-45 against the first charge (perjury) and 50-50 on the second (obstruction of justice).
The unpopularity of the whole impeachment process gave the Democrats high hopes for the election in 2000, but the party's presidential nominee, Vice-President Al Gore, still had to struggle to shake off certain Clinton associations during the presidential campaign. He picked Connecticut senator Joseph I. Lieberman as his running mate; Lieberman was the first Jew to run for vice-president on a major-party ticket. In November, Gore and Lieberman won the popular vote for president and vice-president, but the outcome of the election came down to a disputed vote count in Florida. The results in that state were not finalized until a month after the balloting, following protracted legal contests and two U.S. Supreme Court interventions, after which Florida's 25 electoral votes went to Republican George W. Bush (son of the former president), who thus won nationally. Just as the country was evenly split, so was Congress: the Republicans retained a small majority in the House, but the Senate was divided 50-50. Within months, however, in May 2001, Democrats gained a majority in the Senate when Vermont Republican James Jeffords left his party and became an Independent. They lost that majority again in the 2002 elections, when they also gave up some seats in the House.
The 2004 elections, which some had labeled as the most important in a generation, were a total loss for the Democrats. Not only did their standard-bearers, John Kerry and John Edwards, fail to defeat President Bush and Vice-President Dick Cheney, but they saw their minority numbers diminish even further in both the Senate and the House; moreover, they suffered the additional indignity of having their ten-year Senate leader, Tom Daschle of South Dakota, unseated in his bid for reelection.