In 1951 the political observer Samuel Lubell, surveying the almost two decades of Democratic rule and the dominance of New Deal liberalism, noted that in the American “political solar system,” the Democratic Party was the sun (the majority party) and the Republican Party was the moon (the minority party). In such a universe, Lubell wrote, “it is within the majority party that the issues of any particular period are fought out; while the minority party shines in reflected radiance of the heat thus generated.”
More than half a century later, Lubell's famous formulation still holds true -- except that the parties now occupy opposite places in the political solar system. The Democratic Party is now the moon, and the Republican Party is now the sun. And the man who made that transformation happen was Ronald Reagan.
Democrats and progressives may complain about the Reagan record and this week's near deification of him, but they must recognize that Reagan did more than just win two elections and leave office a beloved figure: He made conservatism the dominant paradigm in American politics. Reagan set the terms of the public debate -- how much government to cut, how to avoid tax increases, how to support families, and how to have a strong military -- and it is within these parameters that Democrats have had to operate ever since in order to stay relevant.
Yet while Reagan nostalgia is at its height, the sun he helped launch high in the heavens is beginning to set. A generation after he became President, Democrats are faced with an opportunity not just to occasionally eclipse the Republican sun, but to be the dominant star in our political sky.
Of course, Republicans would scoff at any suggestion that their day is fading. After all, Republicans control both houses of Congress, sit in the White House, dominate the judiciary, and control 28 governorships. But remember back to 1980 when Reagan was elected: Democrats also controlled both houses of Congress (and had for almost three decades), had a hold on the White House, dominated the judiciary, and faced a party that six years earlier had seen its leader resign in disgrace.
Yet there was a weakness underneath Democrats' electoral strength. The post-1968, interest-group version of liberalism that dominated the Democratic Party was proving to be both ineffective. Politically, Carter did not reconstruct the New Deal coalition in his 1976 victory, failing to win a majority of the Southern or white non-Southern vote. Operationally, Carter worked to extend détente with the Soviet Union only to see them invade Afghanistan, and his response to OPEC wreaking havoc with gas prices was to call on Americans to wear a sweater.
Now there are signs that, just as Democrats were running on the dying fumes of interest-group liberalism in 1980, Republicans today are being powered by a conservatism that is losing steam.
First, Republicans won the White House in the closest election in American history and without winning the popular vote. Second, Bill Clinton proved that supply-side economics and the huge deficits that accompany it do not work, and the failure of George W. Bush to recognize that is hurting him with economically pressed voters, imperiling his re-election this fall. Third, as the country has become more tolerant and diverse and more time has passed since the culture wars of the 1960s, '70s, and '80s, Republicans are finding it harder to turn wedge-issue politics into victories. Finally, a foreign policy governed by a black-and-white view of good and evil seems to be causing more trouble for America in the world than it is preventing.
Moreover, in the eyes of the electorate, Bush is proving no better than Carter when it comes to both economic and foreign policy. According to a Gallup poll from last month, 56 percent of those polled disapproved of his handling of the economy, 55 percent disapproved of his actions in Iraq, and 53 percent disapproved of his handling of foreign affairs. Bush's personality and perceived strength in prosecuting the war on terrorism is keeping him in the race, but as John Kerry is introduced to the American public, Bush's advantages on both could be undermined.
Politically, Democrats have revamped their party's infrastructure, much like the Republicans did after their post-Watergate defeats, and have proven to be able to use the Internet to raise record amounts of money from small donors. Democrats won governorships in 2002 in places like Wyoming, Kansas, Michigan, and Arizona, and have won two special Congressional elections this year in Kentucky and South Dakota. And as John B. Judis and Ruy Teixeira argue in the Emerging Democratic Majority, there is a growing group of middle-class professionals who, along with an ascendant non-white America, are giving the Democratic Party a ripe opportunity to forge a lasting majority coalition.
The Democratic ticket may win this fall just by offering itself as an acceptable alternative to a failed president; after all, the moon does occasionally eclipse the sun. But the real opportunity and challenge for Democrats is to do what Reagan did and knock the other party out of its place in the political universe.
To do that, Democrats need to offer a compelling and bold agenda rooted in a
coherent worldview. They need a public philosophy that does not merely
restore the old-time religion or recycle what worked in 1992 and 1996, but
that builds on both to offer a vision of where the party wants to take the
country during these difficult times.
When that happens, Democrats will regain their place as the sun, and a
new kind of “morning in America” will dawn.
Kenneth S. Baer, a former senior speechwriter for Vice President Al Gore, runs Baer Communications, a Democratic consulting firm.