2010: Historic Political Realignment or Just a False Start?

The ink wasn’t dry yet in the Saturday editions of the NY Times and the Washington Post and the news stories were all about “winners and losers” from the last minute agreement which had been reached to avert a government shutdown. Similarly, the Sunday talk shows featuring the usual “in the know” experts were debating about whether Speaker Boehner won or lost, whether the tea party had prevailed or overreached and whether the president had improved his reelection prospects.

Not much different than the halftime analysts during the just completed NCAA tournament discussing how to overcome poor first half play or hold a lead; the talking heads continue to see everything as if it were a sporting event. One would think that people who have daily access to those in power and whose job it is to enlighten their audience might see the events they cover in the context of what is unfolding in our national life. There are far more profound issues to address than which politician or which party came out on top during the most recent news cycle, such as whether some new trend is brewing that may indicate what the electorate wants from its government (and also what they don’t want), whether the matter on which they are reporting portends a major philosophical shift in the body politic, or is instead simply something merely ephemeral …more like a spring zephyr which blows a light breeze and then fades away. The big question they should consider with all the airtime they occupy is whether America is in the early stages of a political realignment.

Historians have seen many US elections as “realignments.” A few examples: When the fever of the Civil War had cooled, a new generation of leaders and issues emerged which resulted in the election of William McKinley in 1896 bringing conservative business oriented Republicans to dominance. The election of Wilson in 1912 (he was reelected in 1916) was an aberration during this period of dominance largely because former Republican President Theodore Roosevelt ran on a third party ticket in that year, splitting the Republican vote. GOP pre-eminence continued after World War I, a period of almost unparalleled significant prosperity in America which lasted until the 1929 market crash and the ensuing Great Depression.

FDR’s election in 1932 and his New Deal policies followed and the Democrats remained in control (with the exception of the Eisenhower years …1952-1960) until 1968.

In 1964 the southern states, which had been reliably Democratic since the late 1880s, …the so-called solid south …moved into the GOP corner because, at long last, the civil rights movement in America had begun to dismantle the racist Jim Crow south. The white rejectionists in the southern states voted against the Democrats because of their embrace of the civil rights movement. Perhaps further realignment in the Democrats’ favor would have taken place, but disgust with the Vietnam War spelled the end of the Lyndon Johnson presidency and brought the Republicans back to the White House.

With the important exception of the Reagan years and their aftermath (more about that later) control has swung back and forth, typically as a result of one-time issues of importance in particular congressional or presidential elections.

Ironically, the great recession of 2007-2008 and the election of Barack Obama was thought by many to be akin to FDR’s victory in 1932 and to foreshadow a long term return to power for the Democrats who won historic majorities in Congress and brought a liberal Democrat back to the presidency. However, something else also was stirring in the land: American voters began to focus not just on pinning blame on the party in power for causing the great recession, they began to focus substantially on root causes (i.e., the drain to the nation’s fiscal health from out of control and unprecedented peacetime debt and deficits) and the fact that the Democratic majority seemed not to recognize the danger. Rather, they were prescribing their time honored prescription …deficit Keynesian spending rather than any emphasis on getting the nation’s exploding debt and deficits under control. Thus, in 2010 we witnessed a complete reversal of the 2008 results.

It is too early to pronounce 2010 as a defining election. Too much can happen that would reverse yet again the trend 2010 might portend. President Obama is very well liked personally, and, unlike 2010, he will be at the head of the Democratic ticket in 2012. The Republicans for their part do not yet have a presidential candidate and, moreover, there is a seeming schism among Congressional Republicans especially in the House of Representatives.

However, Republican leaders so far have stuck with their deficit and debt reduction philosophy in completing the current fiscal year budget. It is far less important whether budget cuts were $33 billion or $37 billion for the remainder of the current fiscal year or whether one or another rider such as Planned Parenthood funding was included or not. Not that they aren’t important matters, they just are not dispositive of anything. Even though the GOP controls only one-half of the Congress and not the presidency they took a philosophical stance, stuck to it and opened the door on the more comprehensive debate soon to follow. There will be more serious fiscal issues to face this year, most importantly the debt ceiling. Many GOP members say they will not vote to raise the debt limit but they all know that the United States will not be able to finance and refinance its outstanding bonds if the debt limit isn’t raised and that a default by the US Treasury is unfathomable. However, they will surely seek to extract more deficit reduction concessions or policy compromises such as an agreement to allow an up or down vote on reform of the tax system or of the social security system as their price for approving a debt ceiling increase. Everett Dirksen’s jocular remark over 50 years ago: “a billion dollars here and a billion dollars there and soon we’ll be talking real money” seems apropos here although not in the way he meant it. A billion here and a billion there of savings in the current budget are, sadly, a mere pittance when viewed against the changes in government programs, which could happen if only some of the changes proposed in Paul Ryan’s GOP budget are enacted. It is the outcome of the debate over those ideas, which could herald a political realignment …not simply a realignment of parties but a shift in the role of government in our lives. And that is the real context of the just-before-midnight agreement, which avoided a government shutdown.

That is why the period between now and the 2012 elections are more comparable to the 1980 election, which heralded what is known as the Reagan revolution. While no two realignment elections can be completely similar, the 1980 election of Ronald Reagan seems most worth analyzing. The Carter presidency was widely regarded as a massive failure, the economy was in a shambles (at that time, unlike now, due to historically high interest rates and unprecedented inflation …which many economists are now predicting to be in our future as a result of the easy money policies which the Fed has been following), oil prices were at historic highs, the nation was being humiliated by Iran and Mr. Carter’s diagnosis was that the country was suffering from “a malaise.” In short, 1980 was the culmination of invidious problems and not the result of a dramatic event such as the Civil Rights movement, a stock market crash or Vietnam.

Mr. Reagan rallied America with new and bold steps. Dealing with a Democratic controlled Congress he obtained legislation to stimulate economic growth, curb inflation, increase employment, all the while strengthening national defense. While it took painful measures to curb inflation, Mr. Reagan’s ever present optimism convinced America that our national greatness could and would be restored. While parts of his overall vision could have been more easily enacted had he compromised on his principles, he persevered. By the time he left office in 1989, the country was in the midst of a sustained period of peace and prosperity.

That is the real challenge for the Republicans if 2012 is to become a realigning election. Far more is on the “plate” than even Mr. Reagan faced. To get our fiscal house in order without doing harm to the less fortunate will take a great deal of hard work. Undoing dependency on cradle to grave government programs is a daunting task and it won’t be accomplished, if at all, in a single Congress. It will take some early successes to demonstrate step by step that major revisions in programs will not be the Armageddon that the left warns it will be. To be sure there will need to be some compromises and mid-course corrections but it is the voters who ultimately will decide, and to maintain their support will require strong and unwavering leadership from political leaders who the public both trusts and likes.

Was 2010 a realigning election? At this stage we may, indeed, be in the midst of a political realignment in the United States.

By Hal Gershowitz and Stephen Porter

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