Is the era of Republican dominance over?

Business Times - 09 Jan 2008

While anti-Bush sentiment and cracks in the Republican coalition are clearly playing into the hands of the Democrats, it's too early to conclude that the Democrats are about to emerge as the next majority party


IN THE aftermath of the 2004 re-election of US President George W Bush - who was considered in 2000 to be an 'accidental president' - and the regaining by Republicans of control over the Senate and the House of Representatives, analysts were speculating that the Republicans were on their way to dominate US politics for another generation of two.

After all, Republicans had occupied the White House for 16 of the last 24 years and had managed to hold on to the House of Representatives for eight years, reflecting economic and demographic changes that had transformed the nation since the 1960s.

Hence pundits and historians suggested that the 'war of terrorism' was providing the Republicans, whose leaders were regarded as 'tough' on national security issues, with an opportunity to reinforce and extend their rule.

Moreover, the consensus among the experts was that Americans were benefiting from the free-market policies celebrated by the Republicans.

As well, demographic groups that were traditionally more inclined to move in the liberal and Democratic directions - African-American, Hispanics, Jews, young and female voters - were becoming more conservative on social-cultural issues, it was assumed.

Hence it was not surprising that the thesis promoted by two Washington pundits, John B Judis and Ruy Teixeira, in their 2004 book, The Emerging Democratic Majority (Scribner, 2004), that long-term economic and demographic changes were going to turn the Democrats into the majority party, wasn't taken seriously. The Conventional Wisdom in Washington depicted their ideas as nothing more than wishful thinking on the part of liberal intellectuals.

But if a day can be a life-time in politics, four years could amount to several generations when it comes to political expectations. That journalists are taking The Emerging Democratic Majority off the bookshelves these days and re-reading it can be explained by the growing sentiment in the US capital that the political tide seems to be suddenly shifting from the Republicans and towards the Democrats.

Specifically, it seems that the so-called Reagan Coalition, consisting of its national security conservatives, economic conservatives and social-cultural conservatives, that has held the party together for so many years, is beginning to crumble.

There is no doubt that Republican Ronald Reagan's presidency (1981-1989) - his tough stand against the then Soviet Union (which helped set the stage for the end of the Cold War); his efforts to reform the welfare-state and re-energise the free markets; and his emphasis on traditional national and religious values - eroded the power of the then decaying liberal New Deal coalition. It also made it possible for three political groups that probably had little in common - anti-Communist activists; advocates of Laissez Faire capitalism; and the members of the Christian Right - to join hands in exerting enormous influence on American politics, economy and society.

For a while - after the terrorist attacks of Sept 11, 2001 - Republicans and conservatives were hoping that the threat of terrorism would replace the challenge of the Soviet Union and Communism as an intellectual-political glue that would help hold together the three factions; public support for the Republican assertive foreign policy would make it possible to exploit the war on terrorism for electoral purposes.

And for a while, and certainly during the 2004 election, it looked as though that could happen. But the American military fiasco in Iraq and the bankruptcy of Mr Bush's entire diplomatic and national security approach has produced serious cracks in the old coalition.

In particular, there is growing tension between the neoconservative global democratic crusaders and the 'realist' foreign-policy types in the Republican party and conservative movement.

At the same time, the free-market libertarians were horrified by the gigantic growth in government spending under the Bush Administration and its failure to reform the Social Security programme and promote the free-trade agenda.

The libertarians, who tend to be more liberal on social-cultural issues also found themselves increasingly uncomfortable with President Bush's alliance with the Christian Right on such issues as gay marriage and stem-cell research.

The growing uneasiness among Republicans and conservatives have been taking place just as more American voters have been expressing their dissatisfaction with the Bush Administration's policies, especially on Iraq, and with the Republican agenda in general, leading to the Republican loss of control of Congress in the 2006 midterm elections.

Moreover, the big Democratic turnout, especially of young voters in the last Iowa Caucuses, demonstrates that the Democrats are seen by voters - angry over Iraq, the housing and sub-prime financial crises, rising oil prices, and illegal immigration - as the agents of change.

The victory of former governor Mike Huckabee in the Iowa Caucuses highlights the influence of the religious Christian voters in the Republican Party. But Mr Huckabee's anti-Wall-Street populist message and his espousal of the anti-immigration position, reflects the isolationist and protectionist mood among Republican voters.

It runs contrary to the position of many economic and national security conservatives who support Senator John McCain and former New York mayor Rudolph Giuliani.

While the anti-Bush sentiment and the cracks in the Republican coalition are clearly playing into the hands of the Democrats, it's too early to conclude that the Democrats are about to emerge as the next majority party.

Indeed, it is well worth asking if the party would be able to maintain its own cohesion as it faces growing splits between the assertive internationalists and the anti-war and the protectionist elements. Time will tell.

Copyright © 2007 Singapore Press Holdings Ltd. All rights reserved.


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