End of the Reagan-Bush era?

February 8, 2008

The 2008 election has the potential of being for Democrats what 1980 represented for Republicans.

IF CURRENT projections hold, 2008 has the potential of being equivalent for the Democrats what 1980 was for the Republicans.

The 1980 election--when Ronald Reagan won the White House and the Republicans won a majority in the U.S. Senate and made major gains in the House of Representatives--marked the beginning of Republican and conservative dominance of mainstream politics for almost two decades.

It's still too early to make big predictions, but it appears that 2008 will be a year of major gains for the Democrats, with a high likelihood of a Democrat winning the presidential elections.

The "leading indicators" of a strong Democratic showing in November are clear. The sheer amount of money that Democrats have raised has put the Republicans in the shade.

In 2007, Democratic presidential contenders Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton raised just under $200 million between them, compared to a total of about $126 million for the leading Republican contenders Mitt Romney (with $88 million) and the likely nominee John McCain (with $38 million). As of late 2007/early 2008, the Democratic congressional campaign committees hold similar advantages over the Republican campaign committees.

This means that the voters in the "money primary"--the corporate interests and wealthy individuals who fund U.S. elections--have already decided that the Democrats will be the winners in 2008.

Another "institutional" indication of a likely Republican defeat in November is that nearly one in seven Republican members of Congress facing an election in November have said they will retire.

More important are the indicators "from below." Since late 2005, the majority of the population has turned against the Bush administration and the Republican Party.

The 2006 election ended Republican congressional rule, rendering Bush a nearly irrelevant lame duck for the last two years of his term.

This year's Democratic primaries have seen record turnouts--in most cases, dwarfing the number of Republicans participating in primary contests. If these trends hold, they point to a heavy turnout in November where the majority of voters will be primed to toss the Republicans out of office, from the White House to City Hall.

Not only has the public turned against the Republicans as a party, but it also appears to have turned against conservatism. As a March 2007 Pew Center for People and Press report on social attitudes over the last 20 years explained:

Increased public support for the social safety net, signs of growing public concern about income inequality and a diminished appetite for assertive national security policies have improved the political landscape for the Democrats as the 2008 presidential campaign gets underway.

Even more striking than the changes in some core political and social values is the dramatic shift in party identification that has occurred during the past five years. In 2002, the country was equally divided along partisan lines: 43 percent identified with the Republican Party or leaned to the GOP, while an identical proportion said they were Democrats. Today, half of the public (50 percent) either identifies as a Democrat or says they lean to the Democratic Party, compared with 35 percent who align with the GOP.

SINCE THE mid-1970s, when the ruling class took a decisive turn toward neoliberalism and employers launched a three-decade-old offensive against organized labor and the working class, the Republican Party was their chosen vehicle for delivering, enforcing and building a social base for these policies.

After largely accomplishing these goals, the Republicans have come up against the limits of their strategy.

The success of the conservative program--tax cuts for the richest Americans, cutting government spending on programs to benefit working Americans, and exposing more government policies to "market forces"--has produced an ideological fallout in the population, the majority of whom have not benefited from this agenda.

In fact, ordinary Americans' lives have worsened as they try to cope with declining living standards, the loss of government social benefits, declining house prices and so on. The clear public perception that Bush has been a president for the rich, coupled with the increasing economic precariousness reinforced by the bipartisan consensus, has discredited neoliberal nostrums.

This is part of a larger shift in consciousness that has remained largely inchoate. While Republican politicians (and Democrats who want to mimic them) use rhetoric that appeals to a 1950s image of America, in reality, the U.S. is a far more tolerant and less paranoid country than it was in the 1950s.

The more open-minded social climate draws also from the emergence into adulthood of the largest birth cohort since the postwar "baby boom"--people born in 1990 who are turning 18 this year. This group and those born in the 1980s have grown up in a more multicultural and sexually accepting society than their parents. Politically, they have known nothing but Bush/Clinton neoliberalism, which has certainly not improved their lives, nor their families' lives.

Given these observations, it should come as no surprise that this age group is the most liberal and most pro-Democratic bloc in the electorate. It also appears to be the age group most attracted to Barack Obama's candidacy within the Democratic Party.

With Bush ending his term as one of the most unpopular presidents ever, the notion that his administration would usher in a generation of conservative Republican rule seems laughable today.

Instead, large majorities of the population associate Bush and the Republicans with disastrous policies (Iraq), incompetence (Katrina), scandal (too numerous to list) and cronyism (Halliburton, et al.). The boost that September 11 gave to Bush and the right wing temporarily slowed, but did not stop, the longer-term trends that appear to be unraveling the old Republican coalition.

FACING THESE headwinds, the GOP machine looks rusty as it heads toward November. The Republican primaries exhibited all of the GOP's contradictions, with different candidates representing different parts of the Republican voting base, and with none really exciting rank-and-file party supporters. Super Tuesday will likely deliver the most votes and much of the party establishment to a candidate, John McCain, that much of the GOP "base" dislikes and distrusts.

While conservatives will no doubt rally to him--and he, in turn, will pander to them--this outcome is indicative of the larger problems that the Republicans face. The flood of corporate money to the Democrats is a vote of no confidence in the Republican Party, as currently constituted, to be the main vehicle for Corporate America's policies today.

The ruling class of the world's largest and most technologically sophisticated economy is no longer willing to invest millions in a party whose candidates have to kowtow to people who believe in creationism.

This doesn't mean that the Republicans or the institutional right wing are finished. It just means that they will have to reinvent themselves to become a more viable option for the American ruling class.

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