Republicans usher in new era of instability

November 11, 1994|By John B. Judis

WASHINGTON — SINCE 1968, THERE has been much talk of a "Republican realignment." Quieted by Bill Clinton's victory in 1992, it resounds again after Tuesday's Republican victories.

This election may in fact hail the emergence of a 20-year Republican lock not only on the presidency but also on Congress and the statehouses.

But it is more likely to usher in an era of greater political turbulence characterized by empty sloganeering, mean-spirited campaigning and the growth of local and national third parties -- an era in which neither Democrats nor Republicans can count on stable majorities.

What the 1994 election most clearly signaled was the last fevered gasp of the Democratic majority that has prevailed since 1932. That majority, which controlled Congress and the statehouses even when it ceded the presidency, was based on a coalition among urban ethnic machines, minorities, labor unions and the white South and Southwest.

In 1948, Strom Thurmond and the Dixiecrats temporarily bolted. In 1968, the Democrats suffered a more permanent reverse, as Gov. George Wallace of Alabama led many southern whites and some working-class northerners out of the party to protest Democratic support for racial desegregation.

In the late 1970s, as international competition forced down real wages and eliminated budget surpluses, the Democrats suffered another wave of defections from voters angered by higher taxes, which they believed were being squandered on new social programs. They became the so-called Reagan Democrats.

These last two splits were fundamental. They removed the basis for a liberal populist alliance between the middle and lower classes and opened the way for a conservative populism directed against immigrants, welfare cheaters and the urban underclass.

The Democrats made their share of foreign policy mistakes, but what undermined the party was the voters' perception that it had made irrevocable choices -- on spending, taxes, crime, education -- between its white middle-class supporters and its low-income black and Hispanic constituents.

With this dark cloud hanging over them, Democrats lost five of six presidential elections from 1968 to 1988. Except for a six-year hiatus in the Senate, the party maintained power in Congress and the majority of statehouses.

In the South, Democrats continued to win by staying sufficiently to the right of the national party to preserve a share of the older Democratic vote, while gaining the new minority vote against even more conservative Republican opponents.

In House and state legislative races, Democrats were aided by the Republicans' weak local organizations. And they gained the allegiance of well-to-do young voters drawn by the environmental and social movements of the 1960s. Once the party of James Eastland, Richard Daley and Hubert Humphrey, the Democrats became the party of Sam Nunn, Jesse Jackson and Michael Dukakis.

After the 1992 election, the Democrats had a fleeting opportunity to revive the party by uniting the old Democratic constituencies with the voters who flocked to Ross Perot, wooed by his economic nationalism, fiscal conservatism and calls for political reform in Washington.

But the Clinton administration quickly alienated Perot supporters and Reagan Democrats by supporting homosexuals in the military, appointing lobbyists and Wall Street heavies to high positions, abandoning the middle-class tax cut and championing stimulus package directed at cities.

Of course, no other Democrat would have done much better. While Bill Clinton made obvious tactical errors, he had to address the needs of cities and suburbs, poor and middle class, under the straitened circumstances of a competitive international economy. It's the same dilemma that has plagued Democrats since 1968.

Bill Clinton's victory in 1992, like Jimmy Carter's in 1976, was a product of unique circumstances -- in this case, a powerful third-party challenge and a tone-deaf Republican incumbent.

Tuesday's elections represent the culmination of the process that began with George Wallace's defection in 1968 but was interrupted by Watergate and George Bush's ineptitude.

This week, Republicans finally established a solid congressional beachhead in the South. North Carolina's delegation, which had eight Democrats and four Republicans, now has eight Republicans and four Democrats. Georgia which had seven Democrats and four Republicans, now has seven Republicans and four Democrats.

Democrats also continued to lose ground among suburban whites in the East and Midwest who had been drawn to Mr. Wallace, Mr. Reagan and Mr. Perot. In a white suburban Cleveland district that went 23 percent for Ross Perot in 1992, the freshman Democrat Eric Fingerhut was easily unseated.

In the suburban Lansing, Mich., district formerly held by Rep. Bob Carr, where Ross Perot also won 23 percent in 1992, a Republican, Dick Chrysler, won easily. Nationwide, Perot voters voted for Republican House candidates by almost 2-1.

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