Presidential coalitions endure because their agendas remain unfulfilled. Thus, when communism ended, the Reagan coalition began to decay. In politics, there is an important axiom: Success kills party coalitions. The fall of communism presented the Reagan coalition with its first crisis. Bill Clinton took advantage and won the presidency because of Reagan’s success.
George W. Bush sought to revive the Reagan coalition. First, he energized Christian conservatives who were repulsed by Clinton’s behavior during the Lewinsky affair. Second, he revived the Reagan tax cuts. But it was the war on terror that gave Bush his best hope for success. By reminding voters of September 11, Bush Republicans could offer themselves as the only barriers between safety and imminent holocaust.
There is a second rule of politics that is being reaffirmed this year: Failure guarantees the end of a party coalition. Dissatisfaction with Iraq is so high that Republican candidates have become stand-ins for Bush. Despite the burdens Democrats carry into the midterm contests, they are likely to win thanks to the successful enactment of a Republican tax cutting agenda at home, and the abject failures of the GOP’s foreign policy. This is reminiscent of 1968, when Democrats lost the presidency because the New Deal succeeded at home while the Vietnam War had become a colossal failure overseas.
The result is a terminal shrinking of the Reagan coalition. In 1980, Ronald Reagan asked a weary public the following questions: "Can anyone look at the record of this administration and say, ‘Well done?’ Can anyone look at our reduced standing in the world today and say, ‘Let’s have four more years of this?’" Democratic pollster Patrick Caddell observed that "there was no way we could survive if we allowed [the election] to become a referendum on the first three years of the Carter administration."
So it is once more. This year, Democrats want to make this election a referendum on the past two years. If you like the way things are going, they say, vote Republican. Republicans counter that these contests should not be a national referendum on the past, but a choice between an unhappy past and an even unhappier future should Democrats seize power. Since so few Americans are satisfied with the status-quo, Democrats are poised to win.
Ronald Reagan understood this elemental rule of politics -- namely, that elections boil down to choices based on simple questions. And his 1980 questions have renewed resonance this year. It is the Democrats who have donned the Reagan mantle. All they need is a presidential candidate to forge their new majority.
-- John Kenneth White is a Professor of Politics at the Catholic University of America and the author of The Values Divide: American Politics and Culture in Transition.
The Death of the Reagan Coaltion, Courtesy GWB