Thursday, November 04, 2004

One more election post-mortem

I've refrained from posting during the returns and the immediate aftermath. For one thing, I enjoy soaking up all the details; it is a quadrennial treat in which I have indulged for 40 years or more. For another, I felt it prudent to allow the emotional rollercoaster of the last few days to end before commenting.

So, what happened?

#1. In the end, this election merely shows the electorate returning to the slow but steady course first outlined by Kevin Phillips and Ben Wattenberg in their seminal 1970 book, The Emerging Republican Majority. The last Democratic Presidential candidate to win 51% or more of the popular vote was LBJ in 1964. Republicans have won 7 of the 10 elections since, the only exceptions being the narrow loss of the unelected Ford, severely damaged by the Nixon pardon, and the Clinton victories with pluralities. All three Democratic wins in this period were by moderate southern governors.

Thrice it seemed as if the Phillips-Wattenberg projection had been realized for good: after Nixon's landslide in 1972, and Reagan's in 1984, followed by the big Bush win in 1988, and finally after the GOP takeover of Congress in 1994. But Republicans managed, in each case, to give the Democrats renewed life and hope with their self-inflicted wounds. Nixon abetted the Watergate coverup. George H.W. Bush abandoned his pledge not to raise taxes, and paid scant attention to domestic economic concerns, inviting the Perot rebellion. Republican congressional leaders Gingrich and Dole overplayed their hands, and appeared too negative, allowing Clinton's brilliant "triangulation" strategy to give the Democratic Party a new lease on life.

Now, however, the inexorable move to the right by America resumes. It is slow, but sure. Notice that, at a time when our military is in harm's way, the threat of international terror remains elevated, and employment recovery has been slow, the issue most often cited by voters as critical to their decision was moral values.

#2. Truisms are truisms because they are indisputably true. Just as no Republican has ever been elected President without winning Ohio, no Democrat has ever been elected without at least two states of the old south {excluding Florida}. Democrats have put forth candidates since 1796, and the only one to capture the White House without two or more southern states was J.Q. Adams in the "faction" election of 1824 {all the serious candidates were Democrats} which was decided in the House of Representatives - a result repudiated by the electorate as Jackson rolled to victory in the 1828 rematch.

The ONLY Democrat ever elected with as few as two southern states was Clinton; besides him, all have won three or more.

So, when the Democrats began their calculations late last year on how they could assemble an Electoral College majority without the south, they were engaging in an exercise far more futile than William F. Buckley's declaration of purpose in founding his National Review in 1955: "To stand firmly athwart history, yelling 'Stop!'"

The Democratic Party, the Party of Jefferson and the oldest political party in the world, was born in the south, but now seems to have entered a self-imposed exile.

#3. The map of red and blue by county tells all: See it here.

The Democrats hold the urban areas of the northeast and west, the upper Great Lakes, and along the Mississippi River. That's it, beyond a smattering of other urban areas here and there, and some patches in southwest Texas, New Mexico, and Colorado. They are rapidly becoming a party which cannot appeal to a broad cross-section of America. FDR's grand coalition has been fractured with the desertion of southern conservatives and the growing competitiveness of the GOP in Catholic and union households.

In this crisis, the Democratic Party is divided along sharp ideological lines. While they were able to unite behind Kerry, the divisions remain. The left wing, represented by Kerry, Kennedy, Dean, and Pelosi, et al, is fighting the center-left faction of Clinton, Lieberman, Daschle, and the DLC for supremacy. Most of the grassroots activists are of the left, so the dilemma is real: if the party moves toward the center to capture more of mainstream America, it could alienate its most fervent supporters.

The sole standing pillar of the FDR coalition, black Americans, are still overwhelmingly loyal to the party. However, when the question turns to issues like abortion, tax cuts, prayer in schools, and gay marriage, blacks are more conservative than whites. While Kerry won 89% of black votes this year, the disconnect between the beliefs and voting habits of this critical group cannot be encouraging in the long term.

While the Democrats are in crisis, conservatives have little cause to celebrate. As the GOP becomes the majority party in America, it is moving toward the center. While some conservative principles have become mainstream positions - tax cutting, strong military, traditional values - federal spending and entitlements are hardly threatened.

#4. "Rock the Vote" - NOT! For the fifth consecutive election, we were told of the impending explosion of influence by young voters 18-25. This year, they were supposedly off the pollsters' radar because of their reliance on cell phones. The Dean surge last year portended, it was claimed, the emergence of a new, energized, and youthful force in American elections.

The 18 - 30 age group comprised 17% of the electorate in 2000. In 2004, they were . . . 17%. They may turn out in droves to hear Springsteen and other rock stars play, but their voting habits remain unchanged.

I have to wonder what the artificial paradigm for a surge in the youth vote will be in 2008, but I expect it will prove as empty as those from preceding elections.

In conclusion: This election represents less of a personal victory for George W. Bush than a reaffirmation of long term trends.


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