Ronald Reagan and Reaganism were blows from which the Democratic Party has not fully recovered in the 24 years since his election.
In the five presidential elections since Reagan’s 1980 victory, Democratic candidates have managed to win, on average, 45 percent of the popular vote. They have averaged 228 electoral votes (270 are needed to win the White House). This is not an encouraging historical trend for the Democratic Party.
What was it that Reagan did to the Democrats?
In simplest terms, he beat them, in 1966, defeating California Gov. Pat Brown — and then he beat them again (the legendary boss of California's state Assembly, Jess Unruh, in 1970), and again (a sitting president, Jimmy Carter, in 1980) and again (former Vice President Walter Mondale in 1984). He proved that genial conservatism can win by huge margins.
The stylistic contrast between Reagan and his 1980 adversary was superficial, yet important:
Carter: dour, dutiful, defensive, earnest to a fault. Reagan: chipper, optimistic, practiced in the art of the one liner: “Are you better off than you were four years ago?”
In their 1980 debate, Carter treated Reagan almost as a preposterous figure, ignorant of details of nuclear weapons policy, among other things. Carter’s attitude toward Reagan was a harbinger of Al Gore’s theatrical sighs and eye-rolling during his first debate with George W. Bush in 2000.
In Carter’s words during that 1980 face-off, Reagan was “extremely dangerous and belligerent” on nuclear weapons policy, “very dangerous” on Social Security, as well as “heartless” toward "working families" and guilty of “a very great insensitivity” toward poor people.
Puzzling over Reagan Democrats
In spite of such rhetoric, or perhaps partly because of it, Carter a week later suffered a crushing defeat and for the next 20 years Democratic strategists struggled to understand the phenomenon of the “Reagan Democrats.”
No one had ever heard of “Hoover Democrats” or “Tom Dewey Democrats” or “Nixon Democrats” (although there was a “Democrats for Nixon” group headed by Nixon’s former Treasury Secretary John Connally).
Most Democratic strategists and candidates believe that middle- and lower-income voters will ultimately vote for government policies that will provide them with health insurance and other benefits by redistributing income from the wealthy to those who aren’t.
How did Reagan win a majority of such voters in 1980 and a bigger majority in 1984, even after he'd engaged in what critics called “union-busting” by firing the striking air traffic controllers?
One answer is that Reagan practiced “deficit jiu-jitsu” on Democrats.
In the 1950s and 1960s, the Republicans had been the party of fiscal austerity, bemoaning federal budget deficits and the national debt.
In his 1984 race against Mondale, Reagan flipped the party personas on their heads.
Vowing to raise taxes, Mondale and Democrats took the old Republican role as the grim party, bewailing the deficit, even though in the 1960s Democratic leaders had been unconcerned about growing deficits.
Reagan cheerfully promised economic growth and implied that deficits would not hurt in the long run.
When Reagan left the White House, the deficit amounted to 2.8 percent of Gross Domestic Product, after having hit 6 percent of GDP in 1983. The economy grew out of the 1982 recession and by the end of Reagan’s presidency the unemployment rate was 5 percent, less than half what it was in 1982.
Taking away the South
Reagan also delivered a strategic electoral blow to the Democrats: He took away the South and the Democrats have never gotten it back.
In 1980, Reagan carried all the Southern and border states except for West Virginia and Carter’s native Georgia. Since then, only when Southerner Bill Clinton headed the ticket did Democrats win any Southern states; in 2000, Gore, himself from Tennessee, carried no Southern or border states.
“In the South the Reagan realignment of the 1980s was a momentous achievement,” wrote political scientists Merle Black and Earl Black. “By transforming the region’s white electorate, Ronald Reagan’s presidency made possible the Republicans’ congressional breakthrough in the 1990s.”
Their reference to the “white electorate” is deliberate: Reagan alienated many black voters by, among other actions, contending in 1982 that racially discriminatory private schools were entitled to tax-exempt status unless Congress specified otherwise.
Part of the Reagan legacy is that nearly 60 percent of the House members from the South are now Republicans, a major reason why Republicans control the House.
This year’s Democratic candidate, Massachusetts Sen. John Kerry, seemed to acknowledge last year that the South might be out of reach.
“Al Gore proved that you can get elected president of the United States without winning one Southern state — if he had simply won New Hampshire … or a number of other states," Kerry said.
Finally what Reagan did to the Democrats was to prove that moral clarity and simplicity can be an electoral asset.
He had a knack for provoking the Democrats with his unvarnished anti-communism: the Vietnam War, he said in August of 1980, had been "a noble cause" — a remark the New York Times predicted would cost him votes. The contra rebels working to overthrow the Marxist Sandinista government in Nicaragua were, he said, "the moral equivalent of our founding fathers."
The foreign policy contrast persists today: the Democrats, the party of nuance; the Republicans, the party of bold, simple (Democrats would say “simplistic”) statements.
When asked in his debate with Reagan about using military force to counter Soviet expansion in Afghanistan, Carter said as president he'd learned “there are no simple answers to complicated questions.”
Reagan did have a simple answer: He called the Soviet Union “the focus of evil in the modern world.”
In Carter’s most memorable foreign policy statement, at Notre Dame University in June of 1977, he did not talk about the evil of Soviet totalitarianism.
Instead he said he had a "hope" that he could “persuade the Soviet Union that one country cannot impose its system of society upon another.”
He reframed Lincoln’s half-slave/half-free formula as an issue of some people having too much wealth and others not enough. “We know a peaceful world cannot long exist one-third rich and two-thirds hungry,” Carter said.
He urged cooperation with “the developed Communist countries … in providing more effective aid” to the poor.
'Inordinate fear of communism'
Carter assured his Notre Dame audience in 1977 that “we are now free of that inordinate fear of communism,” which had led the United States to ally with anti-communist dictators.
Reagan took the contrary view: Soviet communism was to be feared, more importantly, it had to be overcome.
Facing a new enemy, Reagan’s Republican successor practices Reaganesque phrase-making: “America has made a decision about these terrorists: Instead of waiting for them to strike again in our midst, we will take this fight to the enemy.”
How Kerry and the Democrats counter that rhetoric may well determine the outcome of the election this November.