Friday, November 29, 2013

A Little Perspective: The Road Goes on Forever and the Parties Never End

A party in disarray on the national stage, just under a year removed from its 5th popular vote defeat in the past 6 Presidential elections.  Their most recent nominee, a Massachusetts Governor, had looked promising for a while before polling numbers faded late.

In the wake of defeat and facing serious questions about whether they could ever again rebuild a winning national coalition, factions within the party wrestled for control and for a leg up on who the next nominee would be.  Three years out, Presidential front-runner speculation swirled around several members of Congress (including the past year's VP nominee) and a high profile Governor aided by governing within the shadow of the NYC media market.

Now you may have read that intro and assumed I'm referencing where the GOP stands today, and in fairness there is no part of that description that would be inaccurate.  But I am not describing about the Republican Party of 2013, I'm describing the Democratic Party of 1989.

America's political map exists in a continual state of ebb and flow.  One need only look back two Presidential election cycles and observe the myriad of articles openly speculating on whether Karl Rove's strategy for Bush-Cheney '04 was to become a blueprint for a permanent (or, at minimum, a generational) Republican majority.  These pieces perfectly captured the zeitgeist of early 2005, and reading them in 2013 they are laughable in hindsight.

Just as those ready to hand the reigns of power to the GOP indefinitely in 2005 were wrong, I am convinced that the media voices gleefully predicting the Republican Party is destined to go the way of the Whigs will be proven wrong as well.  But as we conservatives look to 2014, 2016 and beyond, it's important for everyone to have a little perspective about where the GOP finds itself in a historical context, the advantages and challenges the upcoming elections pose, and ways for the party to go from 47.21% to the 50.01% or greater we'll want and need in 2016.  In my own admittedly limited way, I plan to tackle these questions in this and the 2 posts to come.

Given the dramatic shifts in the strengths of political parties in the first 6 decades of America's constitutional republic, the stability of the Republican and Democratic parties as the unquestioned dominant parties throughout the last 157 years is somewhat remarkable.  Founded in 1854 in the wake of the anti-Jacksonian Whig Party's demise by a collection of northern Whigs, Free Soilers, and other abolitionist interests, in just 2 years time the Republicans became the unquestionable 2nd major party in America alongside the established Democrats.  What has followed since have been 4 major eras of Presidential/national politics that begin with a major political realignment and ended with an event large enough to fundamentally change the psyche of America and force another realignment to transpire.

The first, and longest, of these periods begins at the election of Abraham Lincoln and the dawn of the Civil War and lasted all the way up to the Great Depression.  It was a 72 year period where national politics almost uniformly dominated by the Republican Party as the Democrats struggled to rehabilitate their image outside of the Solid South throughout the period.  14 of the 18 Presidential elections were won by Republicans, winning a popular vote majority in 10 of the 14 wins.  By comparison Democrats would only win a majority of the popular vote once, and that one candidate (Samuel Tilden) actually lost in the controversial 1876 election.

The Democratic Party became a glorified regional party for much of the era.  After Reconstruction, the former Confederate states once again left to their own devices on elections became the overwhelmingly Democratic Solid South.  Even when Democrats won nationally it was on the back of their Southern base.  In fact, the only time a Democratic candidate won a plurality of popular votes outside the former Confederacy was in 1912, when Woodrow Wilson ran against a GOP divided between Teddy Roosevelt and William Howard Taft (even then, Wilson ran almost 1.9 million votes behind Roosevelt & Taft's combined totals in the North).

Congress displayed similar one party dominance through the era.  Thirty-six Congresses gaveled in over the 72 years, and Republicans controlled the Senate in thirty-one of them with the average Senate comprised of 13.6 more Republicans than Democrats.  While the House fluctuated more frequently, Republicans still held the majority two-thirds of the time (24 of 36 Congresses) and averaged a margin of 21.5 more seats.

It would take nothing less than the single most shocking domestic event in American history for this era to end: the Great Depression.  The collapse of the nation's economy came about for a variety of reasons, but there was no way the party in power would not bear the brunt of the brunt of the voters' frustrations.

It's likely that any Democrat not caught with a dead girl or a live boy could have defeated Hoover in 1932, but of course the task fell to Franklin Roosevelt.  His landslide victory ushered in a 2nd era of Republican/Democratic national politics, a 36-year period dominated by Democrats where the electorate lurched dramatically to the left.

Democrats won 7 of the 9 Presidential elections held, none with fewer than 303 electoral votes as Republicans finished with under 100 electoral votes 5 of 9 times.  The only break in this litany of Democratic victors was Dwight Eisenhower, Supreme Allied Commander in World War II and an international hero who's immense personal popularity made him unbeatable despite the nation's predisposition.

Congressional dominance was just as overwhelming for Democrats, holding the House and Senate for 16 of the 18 Congresses of the time.  Only the 80th and 83rd Congresses from 1947-49 and 1953-55 would see Republicans hold very slim majorities in both houses.  The average Senate was comprised of a modern filibuster-proof 22.8 more Democrats than Republicans (with a high of 75-17 in 1937), while the average House was comprised of a 260-173 Democratic majority.

The Republican coalition of the era, such as it was, spread out across the map as a piecemeal assortment.  GOP candidates remained largely competitive in New England, the Midwest, and the Great Plains, but never (other than Eisenhower) achieved the level of dominance in these regions that would have been needed to build a majority coalition.  Late in this era, with Nixon and Goldwater's candidacies, Republican nominees began to make inroads into the formerly Solid South as well that would be forebearers of the party's future success there.

Several events took place following Lyndon Johnson's landslide victory in 1964 that reshaped the electorate.  The stalemate that developed in Vietnam eroded public confidence in the President and his party on foreign policy matters.  The natural overreach of super-majorities such as the one Democrats held after '64 certainly alienated a segment of voters who saw the Johnson administration do far more than they had expected.  And the reaction of  middle America (Nixon's Silent Majority) to late sixties counterculture helped bring social issues to the forefront in a way not seen since the Prohibition battle.  But perhaps nothing shaped the change in the political balance than the ideological realignment of the two parties.

Up to this point, it was in many ways more accurate to describe the two parties as a collection of differing interest groups than as purely ideological entities.  While most liberals had been Democrats and most conservatives Republicans for some time prior, the number of major political figures in each party who defied this divide was simply unthinkable by modern standards.  But the election between the un-apologetically liberal Johnson administration and the un-apologetically conservative candidacy of Sen. Barry Goldwater was the impetus for the firm realignment of the two parties that came about.

Some of these pressures created a split in the Democratic party in 1968 (George Wallace's 3rd party candidacy), while the others propelled Richard Nixon to a narrow victory that began another era of national politics.  Republicans dominated Presidential politics by winning 5 of 6 elections, 4 times surpassing 425 electoral votes and twice winning a record 49 of 50 states.  Only Jimmy Carter, running in the wake of Watergate and sounding like a Southern moderate during the campaign, narrowly claimed a victory for Democrats in this time.

The biggest change to take place in this time, one still seen today, was the transformation of the South from over a century of being solidly Democratic into a key region of the Republican base in Presidential elections.  Combined with domination of the Midwest and virtually every state west of the Mississippi, this created a coalition for the GOP that was simply overwhelming.  With their party's moderate-to-conservative wing rapidly withering away, Democrats would exacerbate these problems with nominees (McGovern, Mondale, Dukakis) who were dramatically left of the political mainstream.

But while this happened at the Presidential level a previously unseen phenomena was happening: the balance of power in Congress was not reflecting the Presidential landscape.  Democrats held the House for all 24 years of this period with sizable majorities ranging from 51 to (post-Watergate) 149 seats.  The Senate would be less monolithic, but there too Republicans only held slim majorities for the first 3 Congresses of the Reagan administration.

A key reason for this was entrenched Democratic incumbency in the South.  Even as the party's share of the Presidential vote dwindled in the region, its Congressional representation remained remarkably static.  As late as 1994, Democrats still held a 13-9 edge in Senators and a 77-48 edge in members of the House from the 11 states that once comprised the Confederacy.  Democrats like Sens. Howell Heflin and Fritz Hollings held their seats (preserving Democratic majorities with it) by distancing themselves from the party's national brand and maintaining fairly centrist voting records, particular on social and defense issues.

But American politics underwent 2 transformations after George H.W. Bush's 40-state triumph in 1988.  An ongoing transformation that continues to this day has been the increased urbanization of Americans.  Urban and suburban counties have both grown in vote share and become increasingly Democratic, and in the urban-dominated states of the West Coast and New England these trends reached an inflection point.  The fall of the Soviet Union in 1991 greatly diminished the importance of foreign policy and defense issues to many voters, neutralizing the impact of an issue Republicans had come to dominate.

Bill Clinton's victory in 1992 began the era we see today, one in which Democrats have had a decided edge.  The 4 Democratic victories in the last 6 elections have been fairly decisive though not overwhelming: ranging from 332 to 379 electoral votes.  The popular vote has been won by Democrats 5 of 6 times, with only George W. Bush's re-election bid the exception.

A firm liberal base in New England, the Mid-Atlantic, Upper Midwest, and the West Coast have amounted by themselves.  Eighteen states plus DC have voted Democratic in all 6 elections, totaling 246 electoral votes in the current electoral college allotment.  By comparison, the list of states voting Republican in all 6 elections is just 13 states for a combined 102 electoral votes.

But much like the era predating it, Congress has been controlled largely by Republicans.  At the end of the current Congress, the House will have been led by the GOP for 16 of the past 22 years.  Senate control has been largely balanced: Democrats will have held the majority for just over 11 1/2 of the past 22 years (due to Jumpin' Jim Jeffords' defection from the GOP early in the 107th Congress in 2001).

Senate control has roughly followed the divide one can see in Presidential elections.  The current Senate's 55-45 divide is only slightly more Democratic than 2012 Presidential result by state (Obama 26 states, Romney 24).  The House meanwhile has been a product of geography.  The Democratic vote has become highly concentrated in urban districts and districts with high minority populations.  Many urban Democrats routinely exceed 70 percent, with totals in the eighties and even low nineties seen in some larger cities.  Republicans districts by contrast are suburban/ex-urban and rural, with winning percentages more often in the sixties than the ranges urban Democrats achieve.  The natural result of this in closely divided states has been a noticeable Republican majority in these states' delegations.

There is no permanence in politics.  Just as some today write prophecies of the new, permanent Democratic majority, there were those at the end of each of the other eras mentioned who would have told you the same and scoffed at the notion that their political realities were about to change dramatically.  And the hills parties had to climb out of in these other examples were far more daunting than the one we in the GOP face today.

I'm firmly of the belief that we may be at the dawn of another of these inflection points in America.  In part 2 of this series on Sunday I plan to lay out the reasons I believe this, the opportunities these events afford to us, and the challenges that still have the potential to stand in the way of a dramatic shift akin to those mentioned today.

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