Friday, April 11, 2008

A New National Political Realignment?

The prolonged spectacle of the Obama-Clinton contest in 2008 may seem finally to be a caricature of the former first family's incorrigible attempt to regain executive power.

I suggest that it may also signal an imminent political realignment of U.S. presidential politics.

At the outset of this campaign, virtually all political commentators, myself included, were thinking in terms of the now established paradigm of the so-called "red" and "blue" states. This color code seemed operative for 2008, and the election seemed certain, as it had been in 2000 and 2004, to be determined by s handful of Midwestern and Border states.

Recently, my friend Michael Barone has offered a canny analysis suggesting that Democratic voters may be partially divided into "academics" (educated white collar liberals) and "Jacksonians," (blue collar workers and moderates), with the former inclined to vote for Senator Obama and the latter to support Senator Clinton. He also points out that demographically the academics live mostly in a few areas of each state, those areas most intensely urban and suburban. There is much meat in Mr. Barone's analysis that I will not discuss here, but if accurate, it has significant consequences for how the various states will vote in 2008. Since the election is determined by the electoral college vote, which is by state, it is much more useful to focus on this than the popular vote (and thus national polls).

In the recent past, the Democratic Party has been composed of a coalition of the academics and Jacksonians, as well as black voters. That was the New Deal coalition. Republicans came to win the presidency much more often, beginning in 1952, when their presidential candidates began to attract independent and centrist voters with the candidacies of Eisenhower and Nixon. In 1980, Ronald Reagan began also to draw conservative blue collar workers from the Democratic Party. President Bill Clinton won two terms by coaxing back many straying Democrats.

In 2000, GOP strategist Karl Rove fashioned a presidential campaign that won electoral votes throughout the South, West and Midwest in what became popularly known as "red" states, conceding the West Coast and the Northeastern states, popularly known as "blue" states to Al Gore. Bush lost the popular vote in 2000, but won a majority of votes in 2004 against John Kerry. The electoral college map was very similar in both 2000 and 2004.

John McCain is a maverck Republican, and associated with several reform issues that have upset the more conservative base of his party. This has caused a conservative revolt that has been critical of McCain, and explicitly has threatened to sit out the election, as many did in 2006.

McCain's appeal to independents and conservative Democrats, however, became apparent in the primaries this year.

The right wing revolt, and McCain's reform/maverick appeal to the political center, enables the Arizona senator to run, if necessary, an unorthodox campaign in 2008, one that can win even if the far right of his party stays home. For example, Pennsylvania and New Jersey and some other past blues states are now in play, while Ohio, Texas and Florida seem more secure.

The prolonged and bitter campaign between Obama and Clinton could enhance such a McCain strategy if a relatively small number of disappointed Clinton voters, including women over 50, decide to vote for McCain, as more than 20% (in polls) now threaten to do. I don't think that many will defect, but even 5-10% would probably balance off the conservative defection from McCain, and make him a winner in November (with the help of independent and centrist voters).

The irony of this is that voters have, in the primaries, given strong evidence of their desire to elect a Democratic president in 2008.

Republican voters, however, selected the one person in their party who could win this year, and the Democrats are divided roughly in two. "Jacksonian" Democrats, especially because of foreign affairs and national security issues, might desert the Democratic nominee.

The Republican Party, at least for the time being, could become a national center-right party.

All of this, of course, is speculative.

But the ingredients are already there. The nation is tired of war, but wary of letting down its guard in the face of continued threats from Islamofascist terrorism.. The nation is worried about the economy, but wary of raising taxes and spending as a solution to its economic problems. The nation wants health care, energy and education reform, but knows it must somehow pay for them.

A national centrist party almost came about once before. Weary of war, still wary of the Depression, America faced a presidential election in 1944. Very ill, President Roosevelt wanted to retire. He met with Wendell Willkie, who had been his surprise opponent in 1940. Willkie lost that election, but was planning to run again in 1944. At their meeting, they outlined forming a new centrist party. But early in 1944, Willkie died. Roosevelt then dumped his leftist vice president, Henry Wallace, and picked Harry Truman to take his place. Only months after the 1944 election, and merely days after his fourth
inauguration, Roosevelt also died.

We know the rest of that story.


-This article first appeared in The Washington Times on April 11, 2008.

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