Following are excerpts from a discussion on the future of American politics held in New York in June between Edmund G. Brown, Jr., Walter Dean Burnham, Kevin Phillips, and Arthur Schlesinger, Jr. The discussion was sponsored by the Institute for National Strategy, of which Governor Brown and Walter Dean Burnham are members of the board of advisers:
WALTER DEAN BURNHAM: We can start by saying that Reagan will probably defeat Mondale by a decisive margin of the popular vote, at least as great as, or possibly greater than, the 10 percent margin he achieved over Jimmy Carter. I see two basic reasons for this. First, at least as far as we can now determine, the economic situation in 1984 is tailor-made for reelecting an incumbent president. Secondly, Carter was rejected mainly because he was hopelessly inadequate in presenting himself as a leader and because he never was able to figure out, as many presidents have not, how to exercise the shamanistic functions of the presidency—what I once described as the president’s position as pontifex maximus of the American civil religion; there are only a handful of presidents who have done well at that, and Mr. Reagan is a master at it.
I would go further to say that quite apart from those considerations, there are longer-term changes in society and in politics that seem to point in the direction of a Reagan victory as well. Some have argued the race will be closer in the fall, but if we take a look at long-term party realignments that have occurred regionally over the past thirty years, several things make this doubtful.
First of all, the so-called majority party, the Democrats, has really not been a majority party in presidential elections since 1952, so far as I can determine. If we measure the proportionate Democratic vote from 1952 to 1980, during a generation of presidential elections, we find that the party has not grown nationally at all and that the mean percentage of the two-party vote received by the Democrats in those years was 47.6. Hardly the status of a majority party.
Secondly, if we look at the internal shifts that are taking place within the United States over this period, we come very close to what Kevin Phillips has written about extensively in the past. That is to say, we see something that looks like the system of 1896—when McKinley’s northern Republicans defeated Bryan’s southern and western Democrats—turned inside out with a few odd exceptions, perhaps Democratic Arkansas on one side of the line and Republican New Hampshire on the other. The old metropolis of the northeastern quarter of the country is now becoming more Democratic than the country as a whole. The increasingly populated Sunbelt has become more Republican than the country as a whole, in some cases by colossal margins. It is instructive to examine the current electoral strength of the parties as a statistical projection of the trend of past elections, putting aside all factors of personality, of “image,” and assuming they cancel out. (That is, we may assume Reagan scares people about the bomb but this is offset by admiration for, say, his handling of the economy, or for something else.) Such a projection shows not only the standard Democratic vote of 47.6 percent continuing, but an electoral vote of 104 for Mondale, and 434 for Reagan.
Moreover, if you pursue the projection a little further, one of the things that are absolutely fascinating is that there is now a built-in bias against the Democrats enlarging their share of the electoral vote. If we take account of the current geographical distribution of party strength, again as a purely statistical matter, Mr. Mondale has to get a minimum of 51.5 percent of the two-party vote in order to get a bare majority in the electoral college. That point should not be lost sight of because it is quite conceivable that Mr. Reagan, or maybe in 1988 Mr. Bush or somebody else, will wind up actually winning a presidential election while trailing in the popular vote. This of course, as we know, has happened before, the last time with Benjamin Harrison in 1888, and it will happen again. The system is biased toward Republicans partly because the realignment of the parties is most pronounced in states such as California where the increase in population, and therefore in electoral votes, has been greatest.
Quite aside from these neat statistics, as I listen to Walter Mondale, and I see how he has won his nomination, this seems an unpromising year for the Democrats. Just consider that Mondale has had to deal with the threat of Hart; with the problems of Jesse Jackson and the Jews, and of Tip O’Neill and the House leaders who angered the Hispanics by voting for the new immigration bill. In each case potential Democratic voters were estranged from the party. With Geraldine Ferraro as a running mate, he would risk further estranging voters in the South and West. A Democratic victory can’t be ruled out but I would not place much of a bet on it.
The next question to ask concerns the political situation that would emerge from Reagan’s reelection. This, I think, will depend very significantly, though by no means entirely, on the size of his electoral margin and the extent to which he will carry a majority in the Senate, and especially House, races.
It would seem reasonable to suppose that a really strong landslide would produce in the House a result roughly similar to those of 1968 and 1972, and of 1980, which ended with 243 Democrats, and 192 Republicans in the House. That still leaves Tip O’Neill as Speaker. The Republican opposition would have to run against him all the time in good weather or bad. But, as we can recall from Reagan’s counterrevolution of 1981, 192 Republicans are enough to give Reagan and his allies some sort of working control of the House on important issues. I assume that the GOP in any case will continue to hold on to the Senate, but with about three seats either way within the present 55–45 balance.
The basic point to bear in mind is that Reagan’s revolution is not finished. If he is reelected, especially by a wide margin, he will attempt to complete as much of it as possible before 1989. One can foresee at least the following elements in what I would describe as a minimum Reagan program.
First, the new administration will attempt to close the budget deficit. This is not as difficult to do in the short term as it may seem. A tax on consumers, whether it takes the form of a value-added tax, a turnover tax, or a tax on consumption, could readily produce $250 billion worth of additional federal revenues per year starting right away. It’s a terrific revenueraiser. The relevant advantages of doing this are that it is indirect, leaves alone big tax breaks for corporations and the rich, and can be made as regressive as one likes. So, it has all sorts of advantages. The political determination to close the gap will, I think, be generated sometime in 1985 or 1990.
Secondly, there will be an active promotion of a budget-balancing amendment designed to eliminate future efforts at reviving the liberal-activist state long after Reagan leaves the White House. We are two stages short of that now. I think that there will be a strong push for it if he is reelected.
Third—and this in some ways may be most important of all—Reagan if reelected will probably be able to appoint five new members of the Supreme Court. That many justices are in their late seventies and not all the others are in good health. We can anticipate the general philosophies of the new justices: they will resemble those of Rehnquist and O’Connor, if they are not still further to the right. It should not be difficult to foresee the consequences of this for the fortunes of economic conservatism, for the rights of criminal defendants, for giving legal sanction to crackdowns on the political dissent that, I am reasonably convinced, will rapidly build up during the later 1980s. The Court could also make basic changes on social issues—even overruling its own 1973 abortion decision in Roe vs. Wade. Then, of course, we could expect the arms build-up to continue, along with the confrontation with the USSR; we may well move from merely developing “star wars” technology to actually installing it in outer space.
One can imagine other trends. The basic domestic purpose of Reagan’s second term would be to reorganize the federal government in order to make sure that nothing like the Great Society programs can ever happen again. How far he will get obviously depends on the balance of forces he’ll have to work with, and contend with, because Mr. Reagan, as we well know, has shown himself capable of being pragmatic as well as ideological. That’s one of the things, along with his extraordinary liturgical talents, that make him such a remarkable president, a “Teflon president,” as they say, to whom egregious failures have not so far stuck. If he makes any retreat, he’ll do so not one moment before he has to.
I suspect that during the latter half of the 1980s we are going to run into situations of considerable political stress. That is partly because, it seems to me, the underlying crisis of the American political economy and empire, and for that matter, culture, will continue to unfold, no matter how popular Reagan seems to be this year. So far as I can judge, there is less positive support throughout the electorate for the Reagan program than there has been a rejection of the Democrats. They are seen as people who just don’t know what the hell they are doing, and who are not likely to provide the kind of impetus that many Americans feel leaders should supply.
But it would be a reasonable guess that we are going to have significant economic turmoil and probably serious recessions at some point between now and the end of the decade. Just how that will come about partly depends on what is done with the budget and the budget deficits. More generally, economic recession will continue to accelerate a social trend that was already in the works before Reagan took office, a trend that his counter-revolution has itself very considerably accelerated. And that is, of course, the general shift of the United States toward a roughly two-class society and toward policies that increasingly bear the pattern of regional triage—a writing off, among other things, of the older industrial regions of the North.
To refer to a two-class society overstates the matter. Our political and social system is one of the most complex, if not the most complex, in the history of the world. And yet, as we know, a very large part of the Democrats’ success in purchasing social stability and political harmony, insofar as they were able to do so during the preceding generation, was owing to their ability to make the most of the uniquely privileged position of the US in the world economy and to pursue a strategy based on the expansive idea of letting people have everything they want.