TCS Daily


The New New Deal Coalition

By James Pinkerton - January 20, 2004 12:00 AM

The Iowa caucus results show that Democrats -- enough of them, anyway -- are thinking hard about who can actually win a general election. And so while Howard Dean had been the "buzz" candidate for most of the last year, reality caught up with him last night. He was, after all, the ex-governor from a small left-wing state, another George McGovern -- and what chance did he really have in November? So Dean lost to two sitting senators from big states, John Kerry of Massachusetts and John Edwards of North Carolina.

But for Democrats, here's the rub: Kerry and Edwards might be more attractive candidates in a general election than Dean, but that might not be saying much. The big fear that all thinking Democrats have is that the Republican, George W. Bush, has assembled his own updated version of the New Deal Coalition, the electoral alliance that dominated American politics for much of the 20th century. And if that's the case, then whomever the Democrats nominate this summer, it won't make much of a difference.

Dean, who spent most of the last year as the media-darling candidate, garnering multiple cover-stories in the weekly newsmagazines, had a famously short temper, but what probably did him in was the feeling -- maybe even the certainty -- that he couldn't win. These concerns came to a head on Friday, when the Washington Post ran on article, front page above the fold, entitled, "Democrats Wrestle with 'Electability.'"

The piece was almost entirely focused on the Vermonter's November prospects. The Post observed, "The question haunting Dean, raised in various ways by all his main rivals in recent days, is whether he stands any chance of exerting appeal beyond core Democrats who share his strong opposition to the Iraq war and his liberal social views, and who raise their fists in agreement with his biting attacks on Bush."

The Dean argument, of course, was that his anger would excite new voters and bring them out to the polls, out of the woodwork of their own apathy. That is, a strong left-wing insurgency could mobilize the "youth vote," for example; he could thereby make up for his weak appeal among older voters. But such strategies rarely work, for the simple reason that most non-voters are non-voters, period. And the Post, neatly conflating its own voice with that of experts being interviewed, provided its answer to the Dean "mobilization" argument: "Such an approach, many Democratic strategists believe, could represent a historic miscalculation." That is, the Democrats can't win by enlarging the electorate; instead, they need to transform the existing electorate, by winning over swing voters.

And Dean was not the man to do win over voters in, say, Illinois and Missouri. Recently "Saturday Night Live" offered up parodies of all the Democratic candidates except Dean. Why leave Dean out? Because, the show cracked, "Why bother waiting to lose faith in him when George Bush accuses him of selling Ben & Jerry's to finance his gay marriage to Saddam Hussein, when we're saying it right now?"

In the words of Matt Bennett, communications director for the Wesley Clark campaign, "We don't need to make the blue states bluer . . . Tell me the states that Gore lost in 2000 that Dean thinks he wins with new voters." And that's a killer question -- a question that Dean couldn't answer to the satisfaction of most Iowans last night.

But Democrats don't have to worry just about nominating Dean and getting whacked in November. They have to worry about nominating anybody -- and still seeing the Republicans cement what might be called the New New Deal Coalition (NNDC). What's that? The NNDC is the 21st-century alliance of white Southern Protestants and Northern Catholics forged by Bush and Karl Rove, an alliance that echoes the New Deal alignment put together by Franklin D. Roosevelt, starting in 1932. That partisan alliance brought Democrats victories in seven of the nine presidential elections from the 30s into the 60s.

But wait a second: didn't Bush lose the popular vote four years ago? And didn't he win the electoral college by just a smidgen? Sure he did, but that was then. Master-politico Rove never claimed that Bush was another FDR. Instead, Rove asserted that Bush was another William McKinley, the Republican elected to the White House in 1896, defeating Democrat William Jennings Bryan. Five years ago, as the Texas governor geared up to run, Rove thought of him as another McKinley, a Republican who would win the White House on a moderate domestic platform that would reel in immigrant Americans. In McKinley's time, of course, the immigrants were mostly from Europe; in our time, they're mostly from Latin America. But they had the same American Dream aspirations, Rove figured, and he was proven right.

Indeed, a look at the electoral maps of 2000 and 1896 show great similarity -- the country divided: the Northeast, Upper Midwest, and West Coast vs. the South, Great Plains, and Rocky Mountain West. Of course, there was one huge difference: the states that McKinley carried in 1896 were almost the exact opposite of those that Bush carried in 2000. Let's have a look; first here's the map of Bush's victory in 2000:

Red = Republican -- George W. Bush

Blue = Democrat -- Al Gore

Now let's compare the '00 electoral college map to the electoral map of the 45-state United States back in 1896. Below we see that back then, today's blue states were red and today's red states were blue. But not unlike 2000, the result was a narrow victory for McKinley.

1896

Red = Republican -- William McKinley

Blue = Democrats -- William Jennings Bryan

The point here is that when North and South are divided, it's going to be a close election. McKinley was comfortably re-elected in 1900, boosted in part by the Spanish-American War, which rose up unexpectedly in the middle of his first term, sort of like 9-11. But interestingly, even though the South is traditionally the most hawkish, pro-military part of the country, Dixie still clung to the Democrats in those days; even Teddy Roosevelt, the hero of San Juan Hill, couldn't carry a single state in Dixie. TR ran on national tickets four times from 1900-1912, and yet the "Solid South" stood solid against him.

In fact, most elections in the first three decades of the 20th century were relatively close, because the GOP would always do well in the North, and the Democrats had the South. But during the Depression, Southern Democrats -- almost all of whom were white Protestants -- were joined by a new group, Northern Catholics. And so the Republicans were left with Yankee Protestants and blacks (few of whom could vote). In other words, the Depression-era GOP had almost nothing, as the map of the 1936 election shows:

Blue = Democrats -- Franklin D. Roosevelt

Red = Republicans --Alf Landon

But of course, American politics, like matter itself, is always in motion. The Democrats controlled the country via the New Deal Coalition, but they couldn't keep it together. Starting in the 1940s, they moved to the left ideologically, especially on cultural issues, most notably civil rights. And in so doing, the heart and soul of the party moved north geographically -- too far north. Meanwhile, the Republicans, sensing an opportunity, shifted both rightward and southward. By the '60s, the once-dominant Dewey-Taft-Eisenhower wing of the party was being muscled by the new Reagan-Goldwater-Thurmond party.

In the meantime, the Democratic New Deal Coalition was running out of steam. By 1972, the backlash against crime, the Great Society, and the general "radical chic" of the Democrats made Richard Nixon's re-election campaign against challenger George McGovern one of the great routes of all time.

Red = Republican -- Richard Nixon

Blue = Democrat -- George McGovern

Once again, the white South and the ethnic North were united -- but of course, whereas in 1936 they had been united on behalf of the Democrats, in 1972 they were united on behalf of the Republicans. Nixon had done it: he had built a new presidential-politics hegemon that was almost the inverse of the New Deal Coalition. But his achievement on behalf of his party was undone, of course, by Watergate. And in 1976, the Democrats found a candidate who could retake the South -- Jimmy Carter.

And so, for two decades, the two parties were split: the GOP was gaining ground in the South, but losing ground in the North. In the six presidential elections from 1976 to 1996, the parties were tied: three national victories each. Here, for example, is the map of Clinton's 1992 victory:

Blue = Democrat -- Bill Clinton

Red = Republican -- George H.W. Bush

Like Carter before him, Clinton, as a Southerner, could win Southern votes; Clinton carried four states of the Old Confederacy in 1992, plus Border States from Maryland to New Mexico. And in 1996, he did it again.

As we have seen, the 2000 election was extremely close, because whereas Bush managed to clinch the whole of the South, Gore won most of the North.

But in the last three years, Bush seems to have cemented his grip on much of the country. Between the economic boom, the war on terror, and his own personal style, the Connecticut-born/Texas-bred Commander in Chief has indeed taken command of the North-South Roosevelt alliance. He has Dixie in his back pocket; that's obvious, from Bill Frist to Tom DeLay to his own brother, Jeb. But crucially, W. also has much of the North, especially the "ethnics," who admittedly are now likely to have white-collar jobs in the suburbs. But even so, the whole ideo-political space held by, say, Bill O'Reilly, Rush Limbaugh, Sean Hannity, and Rudy Giuliani -- heavily Catholic, at least ancestrally -- likes Bush the way their grandfathers liked FDR.

And what do the Democrats have? For the most part, they have what Landon had seven decades ago: Yankees and blacks. After Dick Gephardt's pathetic fourth-place showing in Iowa, it's not clear that the Democrats can even count on the industrial unions anymore. And we'll have to wait and see how the Democrats do among Hispanics; Bush has certainly been courting them hard, the way that McKinley went after, say, German-Americans more than a century ago.

The Democrats in Iowa might not have sat down with maps -- although one can be sure that some in Washington, DC have -- to help prophesy their chances in November, but it must've been obvious to any Democrat that Howard Dean had Alf Landon, c. 1936, written all over him.

And so they are casting around for someone new, someone who can break Bush's New New Deal Coalition. Is it Kerry, the war hero beloved by firemen? Or is it Edwards, who has a little bit of Clinton's Southern savvy in him? Is it Clark, another war hero, with a touch of Ike-like above-politics bearing? Or even Joe Lieberman, who has stronger neoconservative credentials than Bush?

One can make an argument on behalf of any of these four men -- that they could break the NNDC. It might be a stretch, but at least the argument is there to be made. But nobody could argue that Dean could make a red state blue, and that's why he got clobbered in Iowa. It was simply too obvious that he couldn't win, and that's why he's probably sunk in this nomination race.

And just as in Iowa, when New Hampshire Democrats go to the polls on January 27, they will be thinking of November 2, and that will force them to think about candidates other than Dean.


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