An Emerging Republican Majority?
By the time Al Gore conceded the presidency to George W. Bush in December 2000, there was widespread agreement that the razor-close election they had just fought, and the fractious litigation that followed it, had exposed a disturbingly deep fissure in our national politics. In newspapers and magazines and on television, brightly colored maps showed a country divided almost exactly in half into red (Republican) and blue (Democratic) voting patterns. “There are now two distinct Americas,” proclaimed Business Week in a typical cover story, “split along geographic, social, religious, and racial lines.” So disparate were the tastes and attitudes of the people inhabiting those two different Americas, the story continued, as to “demand entirely different things from government.”
Not only was the country said to be fractured, it was also said to be, on that account, ungovernable—and certainly ungovernable by George W. Bush. Wherever the new President turned, averred the political scientist Walter Dean Burnham, he was bound to find himself crippled by severely “limited opportunities” to forge a consensus behind his policies.
It was in this very circumstance, indeed, that some in the still-smarting Democratic party saw a sign of hope. Although the Democrats had lost not only the presidency but, as it then seemed, both houses of Congress, opportunity lurked in Bush’s irreparable weaknesses. The new President, after all, was woefully inexperienced, especially in foreign affairs. The Republican coalition that had supported him—an unlikely mix of business groups, social conservatives, and libertarians—remained as fragile as ever. Only through the tie-breaking vote of the Vice President could the GOP expect to hold its majority in the Senate. And, as if these difficulties were not enough, the new administration was facing the first serious downturn in the national economy after eight years of remarkable prosperity presided over by a Democratic executive.
As the 2000 results were further digested, Democratic strategists took particular comfort in their reading of the red-blue map. The blue metropolitan clusters that had gone for Al Gore were composed disproportionately of educated professionals, women, and minorities—groups that were projected to grow more quickly than the rural and suburban voters who had pulled the lever for Bush. These demographic trends, along with the swooning stock market and other economic woes, suggested that Democrats might be well positioned to mount a fresh challenge to the GOP as early as the mid-term election of 2002. The party’s prospects brightened further when, in June 2001, Senator James Jeffords announced that he was bolting the GOP and would henceforth vote as an independent—thus giving Democrats a majority in the Senate. In July, for the first time since Bush’s inauguration, a Zogby poll showed a majority of Americans disapproving of his performance. Around Washington, “Re-Elect Gore” bumper stickers began to appear.
But then came September 11, followed by the war in Afghanistan and the budding confrontation with Saddam Hussein—events whose political importance served to boost George W. Bush’s popularity to once-unimaginable levels and make the Gore defeat fade into memory. Last year’s midterm campaign, on which the Democrats had pinned so much hope, became instead a months-long exercise in frustration; by November 5, the actual results left in tatters the party’s dream of a public backlash against an “accidental” President and of its own quick reemergence in American politics. In fact, its fortunes today are lower than they were in November 2000. Two years after the country seemed split down the middle, it is George W. Bush’s Republicans who look to be on the verge of creating a new and wholly unexpected political majority.
To get a sense of the magnitude of the Democratic defeat, it helps to bear in mind that only twice since 1862 has the party not holding the White House failed to gain seats in the House of Representatives in a mid-term election, and seldom has it failed to gain in the Senate. As November 5 approached, however, candid Democratic leaders were already admitting they had little hope of winning the House (though none foresaw the loss of fully seven Democratic seats). As for the Senate, eleven races were still deemed to be toss-ups through the final weekend before the balloting. Stunningly, the Republicans went on to win all but one of them. At the end of the balloting, the President enjoyed larger majorities in both houses of Congress than on the day he took office.
The morning after the voting, the line from the Democratic National Committee (DNC) was that the party’s losses in Congress were offset by significant gains in gubernatorial races, including in such former Republican strongholds as Michigan, Pennsylvania, Wisconsin, Kansas, and Arizona. But this was spin. Not a single elected Republican governor lost on November 5. Most of the Democratic victories occurred in states where Republicans had held the governor’s mansion for twelve years or more, making it relatively easy for Democratic candidates to call for a change. Moreover, many of the victorious Democrats had campaigned on explicitly conservative platforms, and in Tennessee, Kansas, and Arizona they had vigorously opposed tax increases. The one notable exception was Mark Fernald in New Hampshire, who advocated an increase in state taxes and lost to the Republican candidate by 21 points.
Democratic gubernatorial victories also have to be seen against even more surprising wins by the GOP. Sonny Perdue became the first Republican governor to be elected in Georgia since Reconstruction. Robert Ehrlich, a graduate of Newt Gingrich’s congressional class of 1994, defeated Kathleen Kennedy Townsend in Maryland, a state widely viewed as the most Democratic in the nation. And Jeb Bush, the President’s brother, resoundingly upset the prediction of DNC chairman Terry McAuliffe that he would soon be “gone,” defeating his challenger by thirteen points.
There were other significant reverses at the state level as well, where Democrats lost control of seven legislatures. Republicans now control 21 state capitols nationwide, compared with only seventeen still in the hands of Democrats. (Another eleven are split.) This marks the first time since 1952 that Republicans have enjoyed such a majority. In Texas, the state House of Representatives is ruled by Republicans for the first time since 1870; in Missouri, for the first time since 1955.
From one perspective, of course, the results of the November election were not so astonishing. Ever since September 11, President Bush’s approval rating had stood at historically high levels, and in most polls a majority of Americans were saying that the country was on the right track. In the new era of patriotism and national unity, the deep political chasms that separated Bush voters and Gore voters had become less meaningful.
The mid-term election reflected this changed mood in more ways than one. Although many Senate races were closely contested, and there were many tight gubernatorial races, none was a pitched ideological battle. In no contest did abortion, the death penalty, gun control, race, or class warfare play a major role. With the exception of the late Paul Wellstone, no candidate for the U.S. Senate actively argued against disarming Saddam Hussein or removing his regime from power. Even on the economy, which remains worrisome to most voters, the campaigns produced no clear party-line disagreements that might have tipped the balance one way or another in the hundreds of local races.
If the country was no longer so bitterly torn, however, Democratic activists failed to notice it—or so their campaign strategy would suggest. Many in the party’s leadership appeared to believe that Bush’s post-September 11 popularity was ephemeral, and that the lingering wounds of the “stolen” election of 2000 would be enough in themselves to excite the Democratic base. “We must never, ever forget what happened” in 2000, intoned Ralph Neas, president of People for the American Way. Donna Brazile, Gore’s former campaign manager, advised activists to “go out and say, ‘Remember what happened in Florida.’ ”
It may well have been this mistaken assumption of a generalized desire for payback that lay behind the failure of the party’s elites to present a genuine challenge to Bush’s Republicans. That failure, at any rate, was the burden of much post-election analysis. The Democrats, lamented Peter Beinart, the editor of the New Republic, had “fought this election from the meek and cynical center.” Two former Clinton advisers, Tom Freedman and Bill Knapp, sounded a similar note in the New York Times, complaining that the Democrats had “ended up arguing over seemingly esoteric differences [and] let bigger national trends, like the war on terrorism, dominate.”
But what all such Monday-morning criticisms ignore is that, from the very start of the election year, Democrats in Congress had in fact tried to seize upon every possible issue by which to create a clear distinction between their own priorities and those of the White House. In every instance, however, they found themselves outmaneuvered by a President who seemed determined not to let them get the upper hand on any contentious matter.
Thus, early in 2002, Democrats proposed a reconsideration of the Bush tax cut, only to be waylaid by a White House gleefully reminding reporters of the many Democrats who had initially supported the cut. When, soon thereafter, congressional Democrats joined Senator John McCain’s call to rid election campaigns of soft money, they found the President suddenly willing to sign a campaign-finance bill even if it was patently defective and constitutionally suspect. Democrats hoping to tie a cascade of corporate scandals to Republicans and their business donors came up against a White House that welcomed bipartisan legislation to contain corporate fraud. On government-financed prescription-drug benefits—a winning Democratic issue according to every poll—the GOP produced a plan that to the casual eye was indistinguishable from the Democrats’. And so it went.
In short, the Democratic problem in 2002 was not just the failure to win a fight but the inability even to pick one. Politically, the war on terror was off-limits—even John Ashcroft, Bush’s attorney general and the Democrats’ nemesis, was given a relatively free hand to implement his controversial measures for detaining and investigating suspected terrorists. And in the meantime, again and again, domestic issues that had once seemed the exclusive preserve of the Democratic party were being quietly co-opted by a President riding a crest of popularity and a White House enjoying a unique moment of immunity to complaints from the Right that it was pandering to liberals or selling out its own political base.
So what has happened to the red and blue map, with its supposedly hard-line divisions between Democratic and Republican voters? Few analysts of American politics could have been more confounded by the electoral transformation wrought by Bush than John Judis and Ruy Teixeira. Ever since the 2000 election, these two authors had been arguing tirelessly that the demographic facts signified by that famous map augured well for the Democratic party. In a book bearing the now-embarrassing title The Emerging Democratic Majority—a play on Kevin Phillips’s prescient book of 1969, The Emerging Republican Majority—Judis and Teixeira drew a profile of the new, winning coalition. Its members are the educated professionals, working women, minorities, and middle-class Americans who live in large metropolitan areas—“ideopolises,” in the authors’ coinage—and are affiliated with the technology sector, universities, social-service organizations, and government.
Today it still seems indisputable that these urban clusters will be increasingly important in national elections—and also that, as Judis and Teixeira demonstrate, they are growing faster than the older suburbs and rural areas in the South and West where Republicans have dominated. But the core of the Judis-Teixeira argument rests less on shared demographics than on shared ideas. What has drawn this particular group of voters together, they contend, is a new kind of politics, or rather a new combination of political attitudes, to which they give the collective name “progressive centrism.”
If the name sounds somewhat oxymoronic, that is for a reason. On the one hand, the authors write, these voters
do not subscribe to the [Republican] gospel of deregulation and privatization. They want to supplement the market’s invisible hand with the visible hand of government. . . . They want to strengthen social-insurance programs . . . [and they] reflect the outlook of the social movements that first arose during the 60’s. . . . They oppose government interference in people’s private lives . . . [and] support targeted programs to help minorities that trail the rest of the population in education and income.
But, on the other hand, this is not your father’s brand of progressivism. Although these voters may indeed “favor government intervention,” they do not, “except in very special circumstances,” favor
the government’s supplanting and replacing the operation of the market. . . . They want incremental, careful reforms that will substantially increase health-care coverage. . . . They want aid to minorities, but they oppose the large-scale imposition of quotas or the enactment of racial reparations.
And so forth. Judis and Teixeira are quite deliberate in defining what is to their mind this winning combination of fiery Democratic populism with the tempered incrementalism of “New Democrat” politics a la Bill Clinton. This “new synthesis,” they believe, accurately reflects the transformation of America into a post-industrial society characterized by large, diverse metropolitan centers; it speaks to the interests and preferences not only of the blue (Democratic) states but of most denizens of “ideopolises” who are hungering for a new political brew. And it is the natural property of the Democratic party, its two components having been clearly if separately at work in, respectively, Clinton’s 1992 centrist appeal and Gore’s populist defiance of corporate power in 2000. The successful amalgam of these two strategies is what, in their view, will help usher in the new era of Democratic dominance.
After the divisive election of 2000, it was surely not unreasonable to suggest that a new brand of politics would emerge. But Judis and Teixeira’s analysis, shaped by hopes as much as by facts, was out of date even as they were writing it, and is at odds with the current disposition of both political parties.
Concerning the Republicans, Judis and Teixeira are stuck in the year 1994, the year of Newt Gingrich’s Contract with America. Their straw man is a GOP supposedly rife with racial hatred, disdainful of single mothers and homosexuals, hostile to all government programs, and eager to infiltrate religious orthodoxy into every nook and cranny of American life. This overheated caricature prevents them from recognizing a lesson that in retrospect can be seen emerging out of their own reading of the 2000 election data. Two years later, not only had major parts of the agenda of “progressive centrism” been seized by a Republican President, but the party he led was no longer, if it ever had been, the party of their imagining.
Judis and Teixeira are hardly the only observers who thought the Republicans were heading for the precipice in the mid-1990’s. As Christopher Caldwell wrote in the Atlantic Monthly in 1998, the party had allowed itself to be captured by a Southern voting bloc that socially and culturally was far to the Right of the rest of the country, and as a result it had lost the confidence of the electorate. But if voters once told pollsters that they trusted Democrats more on everything from education to the economy to crime and taxes, that is surely not the case today.
In a Gallup survey conducted a few days after November’s mid-term elections, respondents consistently held a much more positive image of Republicans than of Democrats, and regarded them as better equipped to lead the country by a margin of 57 to 47 percent. To be sure, those findings reflected the afterglow of a Republican electoral triumph, and would undergo revision in later surveys. But the fact remains that, thanks largely to Bush, Republicans have become more palatable to a majority of Americans, and they have done so by moving away from some of the defining themes of late-20th-century Republicanism.
I have already mentioned a number of signposts from last year, but the shift really goes back to the fall of 2001. It was then, in the weeks immediately following the attacks of September 11, that Bush sent a signal of things to come by adroitly acquiescing in Democratic demands to federalize airport security workers. The shift could be seen again last spring when he announced the imposition of tariffs on imported steel, a stunning retreat from the free-trade principles he himself had advocated during his campaign for the presidency. Since then, he has signed a massive expansion of farm subsidies, reversing a market-driven policy instituted just a few years earlier; agreed to a corporate-accounting law that includes a high level of new regulation and a considerable expansion of federal intrusiveness; and created a $37-billion Department of Homeland Security that may augment and consolidate federal power to a breathtaking degree.
One can defend each of these initiatives on its merits, or at least try to explain why it has been politically necessary. But that is beside the point. Nowhere in this list can one find the themes—limited government, reduced spending, local empowerment—that preoccupied Republican leaders only a few election cycles ago.
As those themes have faded, so, too, have the cultural hot buttons that gave the GOP such strength among social and religious conservatives. As the columnist John Podhoretz has pointed out, it was only three years ago that prominent conservative spokesmen, notably including Lynne Cheney, appeared before Congress to condemn the violence purveyed in rap lyrics by stars like Eminem. But when Eminem’s semi-autobiographical movie 8 Mile opened to large crowds recently, not a syllable of conservative criticism was to be heard. Of course, rap singers in general and Eminem in particular have somewhat moderated the raw brutality of their message in recent months; but it is also true that, in the age of terrorism, the battle against the liberal culture has faded as a key component of Republican politics.
If once high-profile conservative causes are losing their punch, the same can be said of certain high-profile conservative spokesmen. Jerry Falwell may have permanently lost his place in acceptable conservative circles when, on the heels of the September 11 attacks, he appeared to place the blame on America’s “tolerant” culture. More recently, the Bush White House has distanced itself from both Falwell and his fellow Christian broadcaster Pat Robertson for antagonistic remarks about the Muslim religion.
Nor are conservative Christian activists the only ones out of favor with the White House. In the lead-up to the mid-term elections, it was widely reported that Karl Rove, the President’s top political strategist, was discouraging openly ideological candidacies. In California’s GOP primaries, Richard Riordan, the former mayor of Los Angeles, known as a moderate, was said to be favored by the White House over the conservative activist Bill Simon. In Minnesota, the majority leader of the state House of Representatives was reportedly dissuaded by Vice President Richard Cheney from challenging Democrat-turned-Republican Norm Coleman in the primary. Both stories, if true, reflect an effort to shape the public face of GOP challengers, and in retrospect the political judgment involved is hard to fault: Coleman’s victory in Minnesota relied in part on his ability to attract Democratic voters, while Bill Simon, who won the Republican primary in California, went on to be trounced by the incumbent Gray Davis in a race that many thought Riordan would have won.
This is hardly to say that George W. Bush is out to create a Republican party in the mold of a James Jeffords or even a John McCain. After all, he pressed for and signed the largest tax-cut package in more than a decade and is now seeking to make those cuts permanent. He has consistently selected bona-fide conservatives as his nominees to the federal bench. He fought, successfully, to keep the new Homeland Security Department exempt from federal-employee union rules. He is a strong opponent of human cloning, and has severely restricted the use of stem cells in federal medical research. His administration has proposed privatizing thousands of government jobs. In his personal style, and in his religious faith, he appears genuinely conservative. And this is not even to mention his vigorous stance in foreign policy, clearly reminiscent of Ronald Reagan and clearly distinct from the typical Democrat of today.
But there is also no mistaking the fact that Bush is prepared to offer voters something different from Reaganism and Gingrichism, something that goes beyond even the “compassionate conservatism” he introduced in his campaign for the presidency. What he and his advisers—and his party—appear to have grasped is that mustering the kind of bipartisan support required by a wartime Republican President depends on the ability to stand in or near the Center, and so turn to advantage the same demographic and cultural trends that, a mere two years ago, seemed so threatening to the GOP’s future. The question is whether the palpable successes of Bush and the new GOP as measured in the mid-term elections are an artifact of the moment, or whether they can be molded into something more permanent, and more meaningful.
That will depend in large measure on the Democrats, and on how they play the hand they have now been dealt. So far—and here again is where Judis and Teixeira go wrong—there are abundant signs that they will play it not by sticking to “progressive centrism” but by moving Left. For all the alleged changes that the Democratic party underwent during the Clinton years, it now appears that its congressional wing is retreating to a familiar form of interest-group populism. Despite all the attempts to create a coalition of the Center, the party as a whole remains hostage to public-employee unions, trial lawyers, and organized lobbyists of every kind.
The choice of the unreconstructed liberal Nancy Pelosi to lead the minority caucus in the House, together with the emergence of Senator Hillary Rodham Clinton in a leadership role in the Senate, is a clear indication of the Left’s determination to claim for its own the shreds of the party’s fortunes. Similarly not to be ignored is Al Gore, still the most recognizable presidential aspirant in the Democratic field. In the last year, Gore has almost entirely abandoned the “New Democrat” creed by which he was once defined and moved sharply to the Left, criticizing the administration’s response to al Qaeda, its handling of the economy, and its alleged neglect of the changing American family.
If this pattern continues, one can safely predict that on the road to the next presidential campaign, even as Republicans continue to downplay their “wedge” issues, Democrats will be more and more likely to emphasize theirs—especially in such areas as environmental protection and guaranteed health insurance, already emerging as favored themes. So far, faced with challenges on these or similar issues—the Patient’s Bill of Rights, protection of the domestic steel industry—Bush Republicans have tended to respond with their now-standard “me, too.” But a more left-wing, populist Democratic party may render this strategy unworkable by robbing Bush of any chance of compromise.
That will be a testing moment for the GOP—and, conceivably, an opportunity to define itself for the foreseeable future. If it is to hold on to its edge, the party may be driven to articulate a more consistent and more truly conservative approach to issues of policy, if not to evolve a true conservative philosophy of governance. This does not mean veering sharply Right in a move mirroring the Democrats’ turn to the Left. It does mean, in the broadest terms, developing a constantly reiterated commitment to the virtues of limited government over expanded entitlements, to market incentives over command-and-control regulation, to competition in place of entrenched bureaucratic monopolies, to economic growth over austerity, to conservation over radical environmentalism.
Such an exercise has much to recommend it, and not just in order to reassure doubting conservatives that Republican politics is about more than winning elections from Democrats. There is, in fact, a real danger in the strategy being pursued by the White House. In the hands of a less gifted, or less convincing, politician than Bush, and in circumstances other than wartime, it may represent less a blueprint for future political dominance than a reversion to an older and thoroughly failed Republican role. I am thinking, of course, of the long decades after the New Deal when the GOP was defined primarily by its efforts to slow the inexorable march of liberal ideas—not by substituting better ones but by accommodating them and sanding down their sharper edges. This is essentially a defensive form of politics, and it is a losing proposition. By contrast, making the case for limited government in a consistent and serious and positive manner could actually increase the appeal of the GOP in the eyes of many centrist and/or traditional Democratic voters who have been drawn to it in the months since September 11.
Over the last three decades, the GOP has gone through a number of minor revolutions in an effort to reinvent itself. Kevin Phillips chronicled the start of the process in The Emerging Republican Majority, where he forecast a GOP majority based in the new entrepreneurial communities of the South and West rather than in the old WASP business elites. Ronald Reagan transformed the political face of the party, combining supply-side economics and anti-big-government themes at home with internationalism abroad. Fifteen years later, Gingrich shook up the party once again, demanding the reform of Congress and a shifting of power from Washington to state governments.
Today, Bush’s mix of aggressive foreign policy, expanded government in the interest of domestic security, and a willingness to find a middle ground on domestic issues long owned by the Democrats has given him strengths that have defied almost every prediction of how his presidency would evolve. To be sure, he is a beneficiary of extraordinary circumstances. Nor do we yet know whether the brand of politics he has practiced is ultimately driven by expediency or by principle. But it is certain to set the terms of political debate for the balance of his first term, inform his reelection bid two years hence, and just possibly determine whether his party will emerge unexpectedly as a new political majority.
—December 3, 2002