Why the Republican era may be ending
By Edward Luce in Washington
Copyright The Financial Times Limited 2007
Published: August 23 2007 19:31 | Last updated: August 23 2007 19:31
At the state agricultural fair in Iowa this month, Republican presidential candidates competed with newborn piglets for the attention of thousands of passers-by. The squealing piglets won hands down.
Whether they were munching pork on a stick, visiting the life-size cow made of butter or grilling meat in photo-ops, most of the candidates were given the cold shoulder.
The Republican party gets a similar reception across America these days. Barack Obama, the 45-year-old Democratic candidate, has attracted crowds of up to 25,000. Mitt Romney, the leading Republican candidate in Iowa, could barely muster 40 listeners when he spoke from the Des Moines Register soapbox at the annual fair.
Whether judged by their anaemic showing in the opinion polls, the unpopularity of George W. Bush or in-fighting among social conservatives, the Republicans face a bleak electoral horizon in 2008. Many observers – including some Republicans – go so far as to pronounce the end of the party’s period of electoral dominance, which dates from Ronald Reagan’s presidential victory in 1980 or possibly back to 1968, when Richard Nixon was first elected to the White House.
They argue that the era of what political scientists call Republican realignment ended when the party was defeated in mid-term congressional elections last year and that the funeral will be held in 2008.
Most of the evidence looks bad for the Republicans. In opinion polls, 50 per cent of Americans identify with the Democratic party against 35 per cent for the Republicans. In campaign finance, congressional Democrats are raising twice as much as their Republican rivals. Likewise, the Democratic presidential candidates have raised $100m (£50m, €74m) more than their Republican counterparts since January.
But these are just numbers. The more abiding problem is structural. Although in intensity and duration the Republican realignment did not rival the party’s ascendancy in the generation that followed the civil war, or the Democratic hegemony that emerged from the Great Depression, it qualifies as a period of dominance.
Only once since 1964 has a Democratic presidential candidate won more than 50 per cent of the popular vote (Jimmy Carter in 1976, who was swept out four years later). In contrast, Republicans have won more than half the vote in six presidential elections in the last 40 years.
According to Kevin Philips, author of the seminal 1969 book The Emerging Republican Majority, which correctly forecast the Republican party’s takeover of the southern states after President Lyndon Johnson’s support for black civil rights, the latest period of Republican ascendancy ran out several years ago.
“If Bill Clinton had been a more effective president after 1992 and Al Gore had been a better candidate in 2000 then we would now be dating the Republican era as lasting from 1968 to 1992,” said Mr Philips in an interview. “The trends that sustained the Republican realignment have run their course.”
Of these, the most important was the Republican takeover of the south in the 1970s and 1980s which, when added to Republican dominance of most of the heartlands, reduced the Democrats to a regional party of the north-east and north-west.
Last year’s election reversed that picture, shrinking the Republican congressional showing primarily to the south and sweeping out what remained of the more moderate “Rockefeller Republicans” (the party’s liberal wing) in the north-east.
“We look dangerously close to being a regional party – with the south and then parts of the south-west and Midwest,” says Vin Weber, a former congressman who now heads Mr Romney’s campaign policy team. “Our challenge has to be to win elections from the centre again.” Perhaps most troublesome for Republicans, Democrats last year stormed their strongholds in much of the west – the most rapidly growing American states, which include Arizona, New Mexico and Colorado. Not coincidentally, the Democrats have chosen to hold next year’s presidential convention in Denver, Colorado. for the Republicans to retain the White House or regain control of the Senate.
In his recent memoirs, Bill Clinton said that Al Gore lost the 2000 election because of his opposition to guns. The Democrats appear to have learnt that lesson. In a Senate vote following Hurricane Katrina in 2005, many Democrats, including Mr Obama although not Mrs Clinton, voted to permit residents (in this case of New Orleans) to keep their firearms during a state of emergency. That would have been unthinkable 10 years ago.
Likewise, the Democratic party fielded many pro-gun candidates in the 2006 Senate races, including Jim Webb in Virginia, who was a Reaganite in his younger days. “The second amendment [upholding the right to bear arms] is in its strongest condition in many decades,” says Wayne LaPierre, head of the National Rifle Association, in an interview. “One of the biggest reasons for this is that Democrats have recognised there is much to lose by opposing it.”
The Democratic party has also neutralised some of its vulnerabilities on issues that matter to religious voters, such as abortion, gay marriage and secularism. In 2004 John Kerry, the Democratic presidential candidate, won just 22 per cent of the white evangelical vote, according to exit polls, compared with the 33 per cent Bill Clinton won in the 1990s. If Mr Kerry had sustained Mr Clinton’s share he would have won the state of Ohio and would now be in the White House instead of Mr Bush.
More encouragingly for Democrats, the Christian coalition looks like it is fragmenting. Not only are evangelicals and Catholics unable to unite behind one Republican candidate, but the movement as a whole appears to be losing steam. Some evangelicals are now more interested in global warming than abortion. Other Christian groups have lost leaders to death or scandal and do not seem able to find replacements.
On many of the “values issues” that have traditionally benefited Republicans, the tide seems to be going the Democratic way. “If you look at the attitude of Americans then the younger the demographic, the larger the support for gay civil union or the woman’s right to choose,” says Tom Schaller, a political scientist at the university of Maryland. “On embryonic stem cell research, which is probably the biggest values issue of the day, Americans of all age groups are in favour.”
Likewise, Republican candidates are finding it hard to ignite enthusiasm among their supporters with traditional rallying cries of fiscal conservatism, low taxes and strong defence. Partly this is because of Mr Bush’s record of big government conservatism, which has inflated America’s national debt on hefty new spending programmes – not all of them related to national security – without addressing America’s looming deficits for Social Security and healthcare.
Chris Edwards, an expert on tax and budget issues at the Cato Institute, the libertarian think-tank, says Republicans need to demonstrate substance behind their fiscal rhetoric given that they are labouring under Mr Bush’s shadow.
Most of the Republican presidential candidates claim to be “Reagan Republicans”. But, so far, Mr Edwards has seen little evidence of genuinely Reaganite policies on the campaign trail. “Reagan gave specific details of the departments and programmes he wanted to close,” he says. “Today’s candidates compare themselves to Reagan but they don’t want to take the tough decisions he made.”
The burden of the Iraq war is even harder for Republicans to escape. Because of the ardent pro-war sentiments of a significant rump of the party base, none of the candidates can afford to distance themselves too much from Mr Bush’s military surge in Iraq during the party primary elections. That will make it much harder for whichever Republican wins the nomination to tack back to the centre during the general election campaign.
Some Republicans see signs that Mr Bush’s surge may be yielding results. But given the state of public opinion, which has moved decisively against the war in the last two years, it will be very hard for that argument to sustain force on the ground in the presidential campaigns.
“What you will probably see is the Republican nominee becoming much more critical of Mr Bush when the primaries are over,” says an adviser to one of the Republican campaigns. “At the moment there is a delicate balancing act but it won’t last much beyond February.”
The departure at the end of this month of Karl Rove, Mr Bush’s electoral “boy genius” who is returning to his home in Texas, also brings into sharp relief the failures of the party’s recent attempts to extend the gains of the Nixon and Reagan era to create a permanent Republican majority. To many Republicans that aspiration now looks like hubris.
Mr Rove’s strategy of enthusing the Republican base helped the party to achieve its historic mid-term congressional victory in 2002, which was extended in 2004. But the same base now looks despondent and fragmented. Much of the Rove magic, including the micro-targeting of voters and “get out the vote” effort that sprung from it, have been copied by the Democrats.
“Karl Rove pioneered techniques in Texas and then on the national stage that took the Democrats by surprise,” says Jim Lindsay, a political scientist at the University of Texas in Dallas. “But techniques only give you a temporary advantage, which already appears to have faded.”
The other piece of Mr Rove’s strategy was to expand the Republican base by targeting America’s fastest-rising demographic segments – the Hispanic community and retiring babyboomers. Mr Rove’s logic was impeccable. But the execution proved faulty.
Mr Bush won 40 per cent of the Hispanic vote in 2004. But that share fell to just 29 per cent in the 2006 congressional elections following a backlash by conservative Republicans against liberal immigration reform, which is now also consuming the Republican presidential campaign.
Likewise, Mr Rove’s dreams of setting up private Social Security accounts to give Americans control over their retirement savings came to naught and frightened many senior citizens. “Both Hispanics and senior citizens are moving in the Democratic direction,” says Mr Lindsay.
What can a Republican presidential hopeful do to overcome these disadvantages? Some Republican optimists are pinning their hopes on a slip-up by the Democrats, perhaps by overreaching in their opposition to the Iraq war or by nominating the wrong presidential candidate. They point out that the Republicans lost the 2006 election because of Mr Bush’s unpopularity and because of the party’s reputation for corruption on Capitol Hill. But the Democrats did not win it, they claim.
But even if many Republican woes can be ascribed to the administration’s unpopularity rather than to a deeper malaise, Mr Bush will still be in the White House next year. Only partly in jest, Mr Philips offers the following advice. “Republicans should sit down and stick pins into voodoo dolls of Mr Bush,” he says. “If someone genuinely charismatic comes along and breaks out of the box then Republican fortunes could change. At the moment that is hard to see.”
DEMOCRATS CAUTION AGAINST COMPLACENCY
Michael Dukakis, the losing 1988 presidential candidate, might be an unlikely adviser to Democratic 2008 hopefuls. But in a speech posted on YouTube this week, the former Massachusetts governor struck a chord with the growing number of Democrats who are worried their party may be getting too complacent about its prospects of winning next year.
Criticising unnamed Democratic colleagues for focusing only on states they believe they can win – the so-called “red-state, blue-state” division between Republicans and Democrats – Mr Dukakis argued that much of America was in fact purple. Democratic candidates should aim higher.
“Quite frankly our colleagues nationally just don’t get it,” said Mr Dukakis. “We have to have a 50-state campaign. Oklahoma is now Democratic, Colorado is now Democratic – we’re making gains in Utah, I kid you not.” Failure to organise more ambitiously, he implied, would leave the Democratic nominee vulnerable to events.
“Some crazy guy will blow up a building with three weeks to go [to polling day], and then we’ll be back in Bush-land again,” he said. “You know what’s going to happen – ‘national security, Democrats are weak on defence’ – we know the way they play the game.”
Diplomatic or not, many took Mr Dukakis’s remarks as a wake-up call for those assuming a new era of Democratic dominance is set to replace the fading Republican one. A more likely scenario, say political analysts, is that America is entering a period where neither party is likely to predominate at the national level for long even if the Democrats have far better prospects in the near future. “My view is that we’re entering a political limbo-land where everything is open to contest,” says Tom Schaller at the University of Maryland.
Those who worry about the Democratic party’s ability to shoot itself in the foot worry most about its political tactics over the Iraq war. Although the war is deeply unpopular with the American public and although that sentiment contributed to the Democratic congressional victory last November, much the same could have been said about the Vietnam war in the early 1970s.
A Democrat-controlled Congress helped force the US military withdrawal from Vietnam in 1973. Yet the party was punished for years afterwards by the electorate for the perception that it was unpatriotic and prone to disrespecting – and, on the leftist fringes, even burning – the American flag.
Many fear that the party could once again be overreaching itself in preparation for next month’s congressional testimony by David Petraeus, the US military commander in Iraq, who will give a progress report on Mr Bush’s “new way forward” in Iraq.
In an uncomfortable echo of the bitter rhetoric of the Vietnam era, Harry Reid, the Democratic Senate majority leader, was accused by Republicans earlier this year of hoisting “the white flag of surrender” when he pronounced that the war in Iraq was already lost – a remark that proved hard to qualify.
This week, many Democrats attacked Brian Baird, a fellow Democratic lawmaker representing a district in the state of Washington, after he returned from a fact-finding visit to Iraq. “There is no question that the political situation in Iraq is still a challenge,” Mr Baird said. “But it is my belief that discussion of premature withdrawal makes it more difficult for the political situation to resolve itself constructively.”
The second Democratic vulnerability could be in its choice of presidential candidate. Such is her lead in the polls, most Democrats assume that Hillary Clinton will probably take the nomination early next year. Many have praised Mrs Clinton’s tightly run and well-funded campaign.
But there are also concerns about the possibility of a backlash against political dynasty. If Mrs Clinton became president in 2009, that would raise the prospect of a Bush or a Clinton in the White House for 32 unbroken years (including George Bush senior’s eight-year stint as vice-president) – and 36 years if she were re-elected.
Some Republicans – including, many suspect, Karl Rove – are hoping that Mrs Clinton becomes the Democratic nominee, as they believe this would improve Republican prospects. The former first lady’s unfavourable ratings – the proportion of Americans expressing a negative view – are stubbornly higher than for other Democratic candidates. Equally, however, Mrs Clinton inspires intense loyalty in those who support her.
It may be that Mrs Clinton sails through the nomination and then wins the general election next year. But a lot would depend on her opponent. The same would hold for any Democratic nominee. “The point is that American politics is wide open again,” says Jim Lindsay of the University of Texas. “It is hard to see any permanent majorities on the horizon.”