Those of us who try to discern tectonic movements from what feel like tiny shakes and tremors risk looking silly when we predict major political realignments. Historians, with the luxury of hindsight, often disagree on what happened before and during historical realignments, so it's understandably difficult to identify what's happening and predict the future. But the signs are getting hard to ignore. They’re visible in the public opinion polls, the results of the last several elections, going all the way back to 1996, and the demographic changes. They can be seen in the changes in the media and how the media is reporting on the Republicans. They’re visible in the internal dynamics within the two major parties, including the Republican scandals, and the diverging paths of the Republicans’ ideologically-driven predictions on numerous subject and the very differnt “facts on the ground,” most notably on
Where we are, how we got here, the impediments to Democratic success and what still stands between us and Republican defeat is a big topic, and will probably take the better part of a month for me to sketch out. To understand the possible tectonic changes we may see in the next few years, we need to understand several dynamics. The decline of the New Deal voting coalition from 1964 through the Reagan era. The creation of the conservative movement, and the related Republican aversion to governance. The myth of Republican momentum since 1996 which have masked the fact that electorally we’ve been in a prolonged status quo, extended primarily by the Republicans’ greater exploitation of tactical opportunities, their more effective political, ideological and communications infrastructure, and the crisis causes by 9-11. And we’ll need to look at the Republican electoral as a coalition of the “losers” destined to fail in their battle against social and cultural change. But before we get too far along in the story, I’m going to start out with a quick overview of the current political environment, as described by Stan Greenberg and James Carville in their most recent Democracy Corps polling analysis:
Even before the announcement of any criminal indictments at the heart of the Bush White
House, Republicans and the president himself were already facing their own shattered standing with the country. We send this memo as an important benchmark, as events perhaps worsen for the Republicans. About 60 percent of the country has settled into dark conclusions about the direction of the country, the economy, and the war. On all measures, they have hit their low point. That the Democrats have a 9-point lead in the congressional contest overall – and nearly as great a lead when we ask using the actual names of incumbent members – is actually the least interesting measure of these times.1
Most interesting is the collapse of confidence in the Republicans on some critical attributes related to public service – on being trustworthy and in-touch, having the right priorities and new ideas, on caring for people and putting the public interest first. On many of these key measures of public support, not even 40 percent believe they apply to the Republicans.
The other interesting development, before the new phase in the White House, is the new signs of life among the Democrats. As you know, we have been quite critical of the Democrats for not being more expressive about their beliefs and plans and bold enough in their thinking, but this poll shows some reduced negativity about the Democrats and some greater respect on change, new ideas, putting the public interest first, and being for families. While Democrats remain at 48 percent in this poll – as in virtually every poll since the beginning of the year – they are poised to make gains over the Republicans, who have fallen below 40 percent of the vote.
The emerging images of the party are setting up the 2006 election as a big choice – with the Democrats for change and cleaning house in
Washington, electing people who will put the American people first and work for everyone, not just the few…
The changes we are witnessing are not just falling indicators, like stock prices, that have ups and downs. The Republicans have lost hold of some fundamental things that will not be easily recouped. There is a broken bond here that leaves the party in a very different place. Looking at the party on its own, just 38 percent describe the Republican Party now as “trustworthy” and “in touch;” 39 percent say they have “new ideas for addressing the country’s problems” and 40 percent say they have “the right priorities.” Critically, each of these has crashed 12 points from March, with the exception of priorities, which dropped 9 points. The muted excitement about the new administration clear in its direction and willing to take on tough issues has given way to judgments about an untrustworthy lot who are out of touch, with bad ideas and misplaced priorities. Only 42 percent say the Republicans are “on your side” (down 6 points). The voters reaffirm their judgment from earlier in the year that Republicans are part of the
Washington mess (58 percent) and devoted to big corporate interests, not the middle class (68 percent).
The Democrats have emerged with huge advantages over the Republicans on a broad range of values and attributes – produced first by a pull back from the Republicans but also by not insignificant gains for the Democrats on some key measures. As we see below, the Republicans biggest declines in comparison with the Democrats have come on reform and change, cares about people, new ideas and thinking about the future, convictions, improving America and putting the public interest first.3 Barely 30 percent opt for the Republicans on advancing the public interest, trust, reform and change, for the middle class or for new ideas. Those are all well below the Republicans’ current vote for Congress…
In the end, 2006 will be a zero sum game, with the Republican crash reflected in the choice people make. The 9-point Democratic lead in the generic contest is reflected in even bigger advantages on the big themes, values and convictions that structure the choice in the election. The biggest Democratic advantages all relate to putting people and the public interest ahead of the big special interests. The Democrats enjoy advantages of 25 points or more on standing up for people (not big special interests), being for the middle class and caring about people, and standing up for the public’s interests. On this terrain, almost 58 percent say these terms describe the Democrats, but barely 30 percent opt for the Republicans. The Democratic margin is three times the Democrats’ advantage in the actual race for Congress. That is why one of the strongest definitions of the election focuses on making the country work for everyone, not just the few.4
The Democrats at this point enjoy an 18-point advantage on “reform and change” – reflecting the simple conclusion, for many that they may be the change. Their advantage is double their vote margin for Congress, re-enforcing the determination of Democrats to turn 2006 into a change election. On a whole series of other comparisons, Democrats are doing respectably well, though mostly reflecting their vote margin. This includes being on your side, improving
America, and new ideas. Here, the Democrats are chosen by less than half the electorate, helping explain why Democrats keep bumping up against the 48-percent ceiling. Raising the Democrats as a party battling for people and advancing new ideas to improve the country promises a yet stronger vote…
The two strongest areas for the Republicans are “security and keeping the country safe” and “know what they stand for.” Their 15-point advantage here is what keeps Republicans in the game, though for now, these are not driving the congressional vote. In any case, the Republican margin has been cut in half since January on this key choice for the election.
Greenberg and Carville don’t spend much time addressing the “know what they stand for” issue, but even that may not be much of a positive. Ever since the Goldwater campaign the conservative movement has allowed the Republicans to conceal their true goals, using reassuring rhetoric and hoping that voters didn’t notice the Republican cuts to essential services and valued public programs and protections for security, including economic security. Bush kept the 2000 election close with tips of the hat to the electoral middle with his “compassionate conservative” rhetoric and emphasis on schools, integrity and honesty. In 2004 he narrowly defeated Kerry in part by changing the subject from just about every domestic issue, on which even Kerry had advantages over Bush, instead using fear-mongering about terrorism (which he cynically conflated with Iraq) and the supposed inherent untrustworthiness of the suspiciously Gallic John Kerry. But the Republicans’ advantage on the issue of “know what they stand for,” in the light of the DeLay indictment, the Abramoff investigation, the Frist scandal, and the Plame outing which reaches right into the West Wing of the White House, may just finally be the voters concluding that what the Republicans stand for is sweetheart deals with lobbyists and corporate crooks, and dishonest use of intelligence to drive us into what’s become a deeply unpopular war.
Whatever the specifics, Greenberg and Carville do suggest that the voters are paying closer attention to the Republicans’ problems, and that it could be an early indicator of significant Democratic gains next November.
Despite the Democrats’ gains relative to the Republicans on key attributes and values, the party’s overall image has barely moved upward. In this survey, the negative assessments have dropped a few points, allowing the Democrats to emerge with a marginally positive image (39 percent warm and 35 percent cool). But with declining positives (39 percent warm) and hardening negatives (41 percent cool over the last four months), the Republicans have emerged with a net negative image. That is allowing the Democrats to approach where the Republicans were in 1993 when they were challenging from the outside, though Democrats are not yet as strong.
It is worth remembering that both parties are at historic lows and this is a very alienated electorate, unhappy with
Washington, the direction of the country and its political leaders. This is still a moment for the Democrats to emerge much more decisively as a bold change agent, ready to change Washington, ready to battle for people and advance new ideas for the country. There is evidence that the electorate is starting to pay attention.
Because of how the Congressional maps are drawn, there’s almost zero chance that Democrats could post a net gain of 73 seats in Congress, as the Republicans did in 1994. But it’s possible that the underlying movement against the Republicans could be at least as strong as it was in 1994 against the Democrats, with major losses by the Republicans in Senate and Gubernatorial races, as well as the often overlooked state legislative races, which are especially important later in a decade as they set up the majorities that will redraw the legislative and Congressional maps in 2011.
Beyond the electoral changes that may be in store next year, a more profound shift may be happening: we may be seeing the exhaustion of the conservative/Republican attack on government and governance. Americans, especially swing voters under 60 years old outside of declining rural areas, have expectations of government that the Norquist strategy of destroying government and demeaning competent governance, appears to have run its course. It lost its momentum less than two years after the 1994 Gingrich/Norquist takeover of Congress. Since then the Republicans have generally prevailed in pitched battles aimed at reversing their 1994 gains. But time seems to have run out. Just as George W Bush and Karl Rove let Grover Norquist get his hands on the American government and political system and dragged it into the bathroom, the American public drained the bathtub. Now’s the time for the Democrats to take the government back.