Sunday, December 1, 2013

A Little Perspective: Where Are We Now?

At the end of Friday's part 1 of these series of posts, I stated my firm belief that American politics was at the brink of an event capable of the kind of transformative realignment that has taken place on 3 occasions in the Republican/Democratic two-party era.  Today I intend to make the case for what is happening.

To do this will require some further expansion on the history discussed Friday, delving more into the 'how' of past realignments.  There are several components that go into answering the question of how, each of which can be seen in all three preceding occurrences.  It's important to understand what these look like, for the same conditions can be seen today.

But politics is never without challenges, and today is certainly no exception.  Without taking steps to tackle these problems this moment of opportunity could easily go by unfulfilled, and these problems will be addressed as well.

On a brief aside, you'll see several different maps used in the course of this to help highlight a couple points.  As much as I wish I could take credit for them, they come from what really is the preeminent source for electoral history: Dave Leip and his Atlas of US Presidential Elections found at uselectionatlas.org.  All credit for the images and information to him.  Also note that he uses the international standard for party colors (the one I've always preferred as well), blue to symbolize conservative parties (Republican) and red for liberal parties (Democratic).

There are three essential factors that precipitated the dawning of new political eras of the past.  The first is rather obvious: an unpopular incumbent President from the party that has been dominant in an era.  Second, a transcendent event or confluence of events must take place that serve to undermine the governing philosophy of the party in power.  The third and final factor is an oft overlooked one.  There must be a burgeoning new base already developing for the party to expand into, a region in a state of political flux that the other two factors push into the opposite camp.  Each factor has been present in the 3 realignments outlined Friday, and they can be seen in today's political climate as well.

To paraphrase President Obama with a statement that actually proves true, if people like their current President's party they can keep it.  When an incumbent's approval rating is high he (or his successor) is likely to win the next election.  At minimum, there does not exist any kind of disapproval level sufficient enough to transform the electorate.  Only when the incumbent becomes unpopular at a toxic level can other factors cause voters en masse to make a permanent change in their inclinations.

Herbert Hoover's chance to be a popular President effectively ended on October 29, 1929 when Black Tuesday hit Wall Street.  Although there were no Presidential job approval polls at the time (George Gallup would conduct his first of these in FDR's 2nd term) it is one of the safest declarations one can make in history to say that Hoover was unpopular.  When the American people name communities of homeless people after you chances are it isn't meant as a term of endearment.

Lyndon Johnson entered 1965 with soaring approval marks near 70 percent after being elected to a term of his own by a landslide, but the longer combat in Vietnam dragged on without tangible result the more his ratings fell.  By the end of 1966 LBJ's approval rating was consistently under 50, and it never made a sustained recovery.  Johnson hit the low point of his Presidency on August 7, 1968 (3 months from Election Day) when Gallup showed just 35 percent approval for his job performance.

George H.W. Bush seemed certain to win reelection on the day the Gulf War ended in triumph, with an approval rating that had surged to an astounding 89(!) percent.  But Bush's fortunes would dim as attention turned away from his foreign policy bona fides and onto domestic issues.  The fall of the Soviet Union late in 1991 came just in time to cause attention to turn toward a sudden short term economic recession.  On July 31, 1992 Bush had an approval rating of just 29 percent with 60 percent disapproval, a drop of 60 points in just 17 months.  It was a death sentence for his reelection campaign's hope of victory just 100 days later.

Barack Obama is less than one year into his second term, but the signs of his decline into the lows of approval seen by Hoover, Johnson, and H.W. Bush are becoming evident.  One need only go to Real Clear Politics to see what is happening.  Obama's approval rating hovered around a respectable 52 percent at his second inauguration, yet he hasn't had a positive net approval mark since the first week of June.  As of early this morning, Obama's averaged approval rating is a dismal 40.1 percent, 15.4 points lower than his 55.5 percent disapproval.  His approval rating on the economy is three points worse at 37.1 percent (59.3 percent disapprove), and on foreign policy it's exactly 37 percent.  While these numbers are not so low as to be incapable of salvage over the next three years, the trend lines are unmistakable with little to indicate any positive corrections in the near future.

Hand in hand with a popular decline must be a major event that forces the public to change its perception of politics.  Now the three past examples were already discussed to some detail in Friday's post, so I won't belabor those points again.  But I will make one additional point: whatever form the event takes, it must be one that undercuts the governing philosophy of the party in power.  To make that statement clearer in meaning, consider a major political event that didn't spark a new political era: Watergate.

On paper, Watergate would seem to have had everything required.  It was an event that dominated national news, shredded Nixon's once-high approval marks, and was a catalyst for Jimmy Carter's victory in 1976.  But for all the damage it did to Nixon and the GOP brand in the short term, it never undercut the core governing philosophies of the Republican Party.  It was an ethical breach, a tale of corruption at the highest level, but it didn't change how people viewed tax policy or Cold War-era foreign policy or any other issue in a meaningful way.

Even in Carter's win this reality demonstrated itself.  What at one time was a 30-point national lead for Carter over Ford melted away to an extremely narrow win in November despite very little of substance changing during the election.  There was no rapid economic recovery or foreign policy coup to help Ford, just an electorate that steadily realized it still wanted the general policies it had been promised by Nixon.  What it hadn't wanted was the corruption of the Watergate scandal.  That's why the electorate re-normalized by 1980 to deliver 3 more landslide Republican victories.

Ever since it was passed early in 2010, Obamacare has been consistently unpopular in polling.  Yet until the last few weeks it was an opposition that many average voters held in only a conceptual manner.  They knew they didn't like what they saw/heard about the law, but until it was implemented they couldn't really know how it would impact them or others and they couldn't really know whether it was as big of a deal as they heard Republicans on TV say it was.

But the ongoing rollout of Obamacare has hardened and amplified opposition.  A $174 million (and counting) website that's still less functional than a local car dealer's old GeoCities site, premiums that are massively higher than they were before the law was passed, and millions finding out the old policies Obama swore they could keep actually can't be kept have driven Obama's already weakened approval numbers and sent them plummeting downward.  Vulnerable Democrats up for election in 2014 are already falling over themselves to distance their political brand from Obama and Obamacare's brands.  The odds of Republicans reclaiming a majority in the Senate next session seem to rise by the day.

Here is where one of the challenges mentioned earlier comes into play.  If left in a political vacuum, Obamacare is not enough in and of itself to permanently realign the electorate.  Like Watergate for Democrats, Republicans can fairly easily run against this 1 really, really awful law to win in 2014 and then in 2016 to repeal Obamacare, but that has a finite and short-term shelf life.  At some point the message has to begin to pivot into the larger philosophical issue.  The public must be persuaded that Obamacare is not merely a single bad law, and not even merely the failure of a Presidency (though neither would be inaccurate).  No, Obamacare must become nothing less than proof of the failure of the entire liberal, big government philosophy Democrats pursue.

When the Great Depression struck America, Democrats didn't merely run against it as unfortunate event they'd fix.  They held it up as proof that small government Republican philosophy had failed, and they used it against GOP nominees for decades to come.  The Vietnam War was not used merely as a quagmire of the Johnson/Humphrey administration, it was used as a galvanizing point from which Republicans attacked Democrats as weak on defense and foreign policy.  This message made the impact of ads like the infamous Dukakis tank ad amplified to an electorate already pre-disposed to view the 'D' next to his name as a sign of weakness.  And while the end of the Cold War didn't undermine Republican foreign policy arguments of the past, it rendered them moot going forward.  One need only look at the reaction to Mitt Romney's still accurate declaration that Russia is a major geopolitical obstacle: Democrats pounced on the statement as an outdated, outmoded relic of a time long since gone.

In the same way, Obamacare must become the proof that the often blind faith liberalism has in the ability of government to solve societal problems is nothing more than a fantasy.  The drive for a national solution to the health care system wasn't just some pipe dream of the 44th President, it has been a driving impulse and goal of the Democratic Party for decades.  It's not the folly of one man or one Congress, but the folly of an entire party and ideology.  It's by no means the only failed liberal policy in effect, it's merely the one that can't be swept under the rug or buried in a list of budget items no ordinary person reads.  Obamacare opens the door to making other failed, ineffective, and costly big government programs issues the public can finally comprehend through the prism of this law.  And when future Democratic nominees begin to run through their litany of social program ideas the words 'remember Obamacare?' can resonate with a whole generation of voters, if the debate is eventually shifted toward the heart of the philosophy behind what was passed.

Obamacare's failure is an opportunity for conservatism, but only if the argument against it is extended to the logical, larger implications.  If that's done then a new Republican majority can emerge, thanks to third factor behind such shifts.

Democrat Al Smith lost 40 states in 1928, but his campaign made dramatic gains in numerous major cities that would point toward the future liberal domination of urban areas.  The gains Smith made in northern states dominated by urban areas were massive (e.g. he won Massachusetts 4 years after Republican Coolidge won it by 38), and would have won several additional states had his combination of being a "wet" (anti-Prohibition) and a Catholic not been a poison pill to many voters.  Smith's campaign set into motion the kinds of monolithic urban voting for Democrats that have come to be a given today.

Barry Goldwater lost 44 states in 1964, but in addition to once and for all providing a clear ideological delineation between the parties he also gave Republicans their first breakthrough into the Deep South.  Although little beyond segregation era policies still aligned them with the Democratic Party, voting patterns had yet to truly reflect this.  But 5 of Goldwater's 6 state wins were southern (only his home state of Arizona wasn't from the Old South).  Outside of Carter's 1976 victory, the shift rightward since Goldwater has been steady and unmistakable, to the point where the south is now a Republican base of strength.

Michael Dukakis lost 40 states as the 1988 Democratic nominee, but his candidacy made huge gains for Democrats in regions that have been their firewall ever since: New England, the West Coast, and the Upper Midwest.  He won in New York/Massachusetts/Rhode Island, won Minnesota/Wisconsin/Iowa in the Midwest, and took 2/3rds of the West Coast (Washington and Oregon) + Hawaii.  The men who have followed him as Democratic nominees have built on this launching pad for electoral success.

Although many liberal pundits gleefully mocked the Romney campaign's late plays for states like Pennsylvania and Minnesota, there is a clear vein of evidence that the same Upper Midwest region (+ PA) that Democrats have come to rely on is ripe for a political shift.  This reality was dealt with at length in a wonderful article from The Federalist by Brandon Finnigan, and it truly is a must-read.  It makes the case in a compelling manner by itself, but I'll add a couple nuggets of info not mentioned there that I see as conditions readying the region for a change.

For decades the power of unions drove Midwestern Democratic political machines.  The party isn't even known as the Democratic Party in Minnesota, they're the Democratic-Farmer-Labor Party.  The two are joined at the help, with union halls fueling huge segments of the Democrats' GOTV efforts every election.

But union membership is in a precipitous decline: while 1/5th of all US workers were in union 30 years ago, today it's less than 1/8th.  And the bulk of the decline has come in the industrial sector, the old Rust Belt that is synonymous with the Midwest.  Fewer union workers means less money for political operations, fewer union foot soldiers for campaigns, and fewer workers who feel a loyalty to their union and its political ideals.  The collective bargaining reforms signed into law by Gov. Walker in Wisconsin and Right to Work legislation Gov. Snyder signed into law in Michigan are further loosening union bosses grip on power in these states, and the economic recoveries in each state undercut the long-held lines from the unionized left about the alleged danger of conservative economic policies.

Another is the undercurrent of Republican support at the state level.  Ohio, Michigan, Wisconsin, Iowa, and Pennsylvania all have Republican governors for just the second time in the last 30 years.  In all these states but Iowa a majority of the US House delegations are Republican (Iowa's a 2-2 tie).  Republicans also control both state legislative chambers in Ohio, Pennsylvania, Michigan, and Wisconsin, along with Iowa's lower chamber.  In every aspect other than their votes for President, these states have become strongholds of the GOP.  It's a reverse of phenomena in the South during the 1970s and 80s, where votes at the state level lagged behind their identity in national elections.  Here and now in the Midwest, it's their Presidential votes that are lagging behind the identity they've already taken on in state level affairs.

But here too a challenge is posed by the increasing urbanization of the Midwest and America in general.  Take a look at these county-by-county maps of the 1988 and 2012 elections (again, blue=Bush/Romney, red=Dukakis/Obama)

Images from Dave Leip's US Election Atlas

Unless your eyes quickly keyed in on New England or the radically different look of West Virginia, there really isn't much sizable differentiation in these maps.  Yet the first from 1988 was a 40-state, 426 electoral vote win for Bush, while the second was a 26-state, 332 electoral vote win for Obama.  The reason for the difference? Urban counties hold a far higher share of the vote now than they did 25 years ago, while rural areas have shrunk dramatically.  Future Republican success depends upon reversing the tide in places like Franklin County, Ohio (Columbus & its suburbs, if you don't know) that have made the window for Republican success far narrower.

The opportunity for a massive shift in the American electorate is very present as we reach the end of 2013.  The 3 main conditions that precipitate these kinds of changes are all evident, but this alone will not guarantee success.  To claim the future for conservative Republicanism requires an appreciation of the tasks we must embark on going forward to ensure this is not looked back upon as a missed opportunity.  On Tuesday, I plan to lay out what I feel are steps the GOP can take now and in the immediate future to capitalize on this moment in history.

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