Right up until the very end of the 1980 campaign, when polls still showed Jimmy Carter running even with Ronald Reagan despite high unemployment and inflation and fading national confidence, it was taken as an article of faith among Democrats – and more than a few establishment Republicans – that the country would never turn to a candidate as “extreme” as Reagan. Election Day disabused them of this notion: Reagan won 44 states and his party posted a stunning gain of 12 Senate seats.
The New Deal and Great Society philosophies had become victims of their own success, as the new suburban masses, liberated from the dependence on government that had marked their parents’ lives, revolted against high taxes, big government and the Democratic Party that had come to symbolize them.
But Democrats chose to treat the Reagan Revolution as a fleeting phenomenon. Instead of adapting to address the anti-government fervor that had taken hold, they kept the old guard front and center. In 1984, the old New Deal-Great Society coalition mobilized to nominate Walter Mondale for president, seemingly believing that the electorate would come to its senses and return to its old voting habit. To voters, though, Mr. Mondale was merely a living and breathing representation of the ward heeler mentality they’d run out of town in 1980. He was trounced by nearly 17 million votes.
Republicans are now quickly approaching a similar moment. Despite their tireless efforts to tag him as an extremist, Barack Obama seems well on his way to claiming the presidency next Tuesday, likely with victories in red states that have been off-limits to his party for decades. And Democrats are even better-positioned at the congressional level: A 60-seat majority in the Senate is now possible, and a pick-up of 35 House seats – on top of the 31 they gained in 2006 – isn’t out of the question.
Just as 1980 marked the dawn of the Reagan Revolution, 2008 is poised to serve as its endpoint. “Government isn’t the answer to our problems – it is our problem,” was Reagan’s mantra, but the suburban voters who rallied to him have evolved. The middle class now teeters on the brink of extinction and a financial crisis borne of Wall Street excess now threatens the global economy. Today, middle-class suburbanites are very much looking to their government for solutions.
This places Republicans in the same position that Democrats were in after their ’80 drubbing. They have a choice: Adapt to the electorate’s repudiation of their governing philosophy or treat the changed climate like a momentary blip. The politically wise option seems obvious: The country is not going to come flocking back to the rhetoric of Reagan conservatism in the near future anymore than they were going to embrace the New Deal all over again in the 1980s. To avoid the fate of Democrats in the ‘80s, the Republican Party needs to adjust to this reality.
But, as the Democrats of the ‘80s demonstrated, it can be tough for a party to reach this conclusion. Millions of donors, activists and loyal voters are emotionally invested in the spirit of the Reagan Revolution. Remember how many times Reagan was invoked at this summer’s Republican convention? (His image was even inserted into a video tribute to Abraham Lincoln!) It may be unavoidable that the process of reinvention is, for a political party, a necessarily gradual and painful one.
And, in fact, the early signs point to the Republican base stubbornly resisting the lessons of 2008 – choosing to blame their woes on the media and ACORN and other tired scapegoats instead of facing up to their own failures and excesses.
Nothing illustrates this mentality better than the response of the Republican base to Sarah Palin, who will emerge from this election as the preeminent symbol of what Reagan conservatism has become: a fundamentally anti-intellectual movement, the embodiment of what Stephen Colbert calls “truthiness.” Hordes of intellectual conservatives, the ones who converted Reagan’s philosophy into a governing blueprint, have left the party in disgust. What remains is a base that delights in cultural division and character assassination – the voters who are convinced that Mr. Obama is a Muslim terrorist with a secret Marxist agenda.
Democrats’ lingering pride in the New Deal and Great Society traditions after their ’80 defeat was understandable. But their insistence that the old formula was still a winner locked them out of power for 12 years. Not until Bill Clinton declared that “the era of big government is over” in 1996 did Democrats satisfy the country that they finally understood what voters had begun shouting in 1980.
Now, voters are saying something far different. Republicans may be proud of Ronald Reagan, but they’ll be facing a similarly maddening exile if they don’t start listening.