Why the GOP Keeps Winning

Why the GOP keeps winning

There are two kinds of defeats in electoral politics. Some are expected, even felt to be inevitable (for example, Walter Mondale in 1984). Such losses are sad for the losers, but they do not lead the losing party to reflect on fundamentals. Other defeats are stinging because they are unexpected (for example, Michael Dukakis in 1988). In such circumstances, the defeated party believes that its candidate, agenda, and electoral strategy are clearly superior to those of the winner; the defeat is experienced not only as surprising, but in a deeper sense, unjust. This kind of defeat typically sparks self-reflection on the party’s very identity. The presidential election of 2004 is more like 1988 than 1984, and it is already producing among Democrats the willingness to reexamine fundamental premises.

It is essential to conduct this reassessment without recriminations, and with due regard for history. In the first place, there has been a conservative (or at least nonliberal) majority in U.S. presidential elections since 1968. In the ten elections since Lyndon Johnson’s 1964 landslide, the Republican candidates have averaged nearly 50 percent of the popular vote; Democrats, just 45 percent. During this period, the Democratic nominee has attained a majority of the popular vote only once (Jimmy Carter, and just barely, in 1976), while the Republican nominee has done so on five occasions (1972, 1980, 1984, 1988, 2004). In this long conservative cycle, Republican nominees begin with a structural advantage; it is remarkable when they lose, not when they win. And when Democrats do win, they are forced to function within, and adjust to, a hostile political environment. (In this regard, there are some intriguing parallels between Bill Clinton’s presidency and the eight Eisenhower years that interrupted but did not terminate the New Deal hegemony.)

The 2004 presidential election may be regarded as the culmination of a forty-year cycle set in motion by the 1964 Civil Rights Act. Nearly all vestiges of the once-powerful Democratic South have been swept away, leaving safe only (mainly minority) House seats and a handful of Southern senators. Indeed, in the wake of Senate Minority Leader Tom Daschle’s defeat, all “Red State” Democratic senators, outside as well as within the South, should be placed on the endangered-species list.

This election also occurred within an even longer fifty-year cycle of bold court decisions and popular reaction to them: on school desegregation in 1954, school prayer in 1962, abortion in 1973, and most recently, the constitutionalization of gay marriage by the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court. In part as a result of these decisions, a new traditionalist entente has emerged, supressing ancient interfaith enmities while uniting conservative Catholics, fundamentalist Protestants, and Orthodox Jews against liberals and modernists in their respective faith communities. Today, religious observance is one of the key determinants of ideological orientation: 54 percent of Americans who attend services once a week or more consider themselves conservatives, versus only 26 percent of those who never attend. Sixty percent of frequent attendees voted for George W. Bush over John Kerry, versus 34 percent of nonattendees.

Let me now turn from history to the present. The 2004 election was notable in several respects. First, there was a huge mobilization of the electorate. Overall participation rose nearly 15 percent, from 105 million voters in 2000 to an estimated 120 million in 2004, yielding the highest turnout rate since 1968. In many key battleground states, participation rose even more: by 20 percent in Ohio, for example, and nearly 23 percent in Florida.

This massive mobilization was asymmetrical. The Democrat vote total rose from 51 million to a record of more than 57 million, more than enough to assure victory in most years. But 2004 was not a normal year: the Republican total surged from 50.5 million to nearly 61 million, replacing George W. Bush’s half-million vote deficit in 2000 with a healthy edge of about 3.5 million.

As the electorate grew, its ideological contours changed: while self-identified liberals as a share of the electorate remained roughly constant at 20-21 percent, the conservative share rose by about 4 percentage points, to between 33 and 34 percent. Of the 10 million new Republican votes, at least 7 million came from individuals who regard themselves as conservative, moving the median Republican voter to the right. Since moderates declined from 49 to 45 percent, the electorate became more polarized.

Bush scored broad gains across the electorate. His share of the vote rose by 5 percentage points among white women, by 7 points among Hispanics, by 4 points among Catholics, by 6 points among voters sixty years of age or older, by 10 points among Americans with less than a high school education, and by 11 points in large urban areas. He made no gains among college graduates and actually lost ground among highly educated professionals and young adults. (Contrary to early and erroneous press reports, voting by eighteen to twenty-nine year olds surged this year by more than 4.5 million, and their participation rate rose by an amazing 9 percentage points.)

Elections are more than tactical and organizational exercises, of course; they are also (perhaps mainly) efforts of public persuasion. In this respect, one must conclude that the challenger’s effort to build a compelling case against the incumbent was for the most part a failure. John Kerry did not succeed in persuading the American people that the decision to go to war in Iraq was a mistake, or a diversion from the war on terror; that he could do a better job either of conducting that war or managing the economy; or that he would be a stronger and more effective leader. Despite numerous preelection surveys to the contrary, in the end a solid majority of the electorate expressed their approval of President Bush’s job performance. The president’s victory was substantive as well as personal.

With sizable Republican gains in the Senate, and Democrats looking at seventeen Senate seats they must defend in 2006, the GOP is in control of every branch of the national government, and a triumphant president leads his party. Bush has the initiative; the question is what he will do with it. Early signs, particularly his postelection news conference and rare public statement by the acknowledged “architect” of his victory, Karl Rove, suggest that the next four years will be much like the past four years. Bush will press a bold agenda that reflects conservative Republican principles, and he will consult and compromise with the opposition only to the extent necessary to move a partisan agenda through the Congress. In areas ranging from tax reform and Social Security privatization to drilling for oil in Alaska, changes in tort laws, and nominating judges, bitter partisan controversy is likely to prove the norm.

With regard to foreign policy, Bush no doubt feels that he has gained a free hand to conduct the war in Iraq more or less as he wishes. It is doubtful that congressional Democrats will stand in his way, even if, as expected, he soon requests a massive supplemental appropriation ($70 billion is the current guess) to finance military operations. The war is the president’s to end on the terms he regards as most consistent with the national interest. It remains to be seen whether he will be able to deal with other foreign hotspots, from Iran and North Korea to the Israeli/Palestinian dispute, as long as the bulk of our land forces remain pinned down in Iraq and our international standing remains at such a low ebb.

So where do the Democrats go from here? To begin, the party is badly divided on national security. Some Democrats support the president’s policies and endorse his worldview; others criticize those policies on grounds of prudence or execution; still others view them as wrong in principle. John Kerry’s approach to Iraq, which created the appearance of indecision, reflected these splits without resolving them. While the next Democratic nominee may challenge the Bush foreign policy, the critique must be seen as resting on a clear and credible alternative.

Nor can the party stand pat on large economic issues. While Kerry’s criticisms of the administration’s budget deficit, trade deficit, and tax cuts had substantive merit, the Democratic nominee failed to persuade a majority of voters that his alternatives were likely to work better. The American people are worried that the integration of 2.5 billion Chinese and Indians into world markets poses challenges for the U.S. economy that the policies of the 1990s do not suffice to address. Democrats urgently need a new narrative of success in the global marketplace-a compelling vision and sensible policies that offer average Americans more opportunity and economic security than they now enjoy.

And finally, the moral issues, over which so much ink has been spilled in recent weeks. Democrats cannot hope to compete for the right-wing Christian vote, and they should not try. But in the 2004 election, Democrats’ largest losses came among less fervent believers-the broad mainstream of families worried about the erosion of moral standards and the corrosion of our culture. To address their concerns, Democrats will have to distance themselves from Hollywood, reduce their reliance on the judiciary as the engine of social change, and temper what appears to many to be intransigence on morally fraught policies. The modern Democratic Party will never turn its back on Roe v. Wade, but many Democrats quietly wonder why the party is falling on its sword over partial-birth abortion. No doubt purists will reject policies built on such doubts as pandering or worse, much as they criticized Bill Clinton’s approach to welfare in the 1990s. But history suggests that mainstream social policies work, and that proposing them opens up the possibility of renewed dialogue with a portion of the mainstream electorate that is no longer listening to what Democrats are saying.

Published in the 2004-12-03 issue: 

William Galston is Ezra Zilkha Chair and Senior Fellow in Governance Studies at the Brookings Institution. He is the author of Liberal Purposes and Liberal Pluralism, both published by Cambridge University Press. Galston served as deputy assistant for domestic policy under President Bill Clinton, 1993–95.

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