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The Political Impasse

Political Parties in the American Mold

by Leon D. Epstein
University of Wisconsin Press, 440 pp., $27.50

The Paradox of Mass Politics: Knowledge and Opinion in the American Electorate

by W. Russell Neuman
Harvard University Press, 241 pp., $12.50 (paper)

Two years ago, after President Reagan’s 1984 landslide, Republican strategists saw the 1988 presidential election as an opportunity to solidify the GOP’s substantial gains in their long campaign to make the country Republican. The 1986 election and the Iran–contra scandal have not only severely damaged those expectations; they have revealed weaknesses in both political parties and in their leadership, leaving a tangled prospect for the next few years.

The takeover of the Senate by the Democrats last November was less a mandate for the party—a shift of just 26,000 votes would have left the Senate in Republican hands—than the result of a string of lucky breaks. The Democratic party has only begun the painful process of accepting that it is no longer the permanent majority party in the country. For Democrats who still don’t understand this, the Iran–contra scandal may prove a dangerous diversion, just as Watergate in the 1970s allowed the Democrats to gloss over the deep divisions between the party’s centrists, who supported Hubert Humphrey for president over George McGovern and now look to such politicians as Sam Nunn or Gary Hart, and its leftists, who were drawn to McGovern, and then to Ted Kennedy, and are now left without a clear choice after the withdrawal of Mario Cuomo.

In recent elections many workingclass and lower-middle-class whites have chosen either not to vote or to vote for Republican presidential candidates. Cuomo’s decision not to seek the nomination means that there is likely to be no Democratic competitor whose basic strategy is to mobilize such people. Instead, with the exception of Jesse Jackson, who has no chance of being nominated, the Democratic field is made up of candidates whose chief political aim has been to strengthen the party’s appeal to the middle classes, although some of the candidates are now trying to appeal to Cuomo’s former supporters.

A prominent Democratic poll taker, Paul Maslin, recently said:

From 1976 through 1984, the biggest single decline in Democratic voting has been among the lower- and middle-class white voters below forty—the Springsteen vote. If 1988 becomes a battle of elites and neither party can generate enthusiasm from the majority of Americans, the Democrats may get lucky and win, but the party will not have done much to advance a real foundation of public support. If on the other hand the Democrats start to inspire these people, at least increase voting levels, bring some back into the system, it will provide a real chance to govern successfully and for a long time.

The Democratic party will have a hard time achieving the goals outlined by Maslin, no matter who is selected from a prospective field that now includes, in addition to Hart and Nunn, Senator Joseph Biden, Representative Richard Gephardt, Massachusetts governor Michael Dukakis, and former Arizona governor Bruce Babbitt. The difficulty the Democratic nominee will have to overcome is reflected in Washington Post–ABC polls in 1981 and 1986 showing a sharp decline in support for the Democratic party on the part of white voters. Among such voters from families with incomes between $20,000 and $30,000, the percentage calling themselves Democrats compared to those calling themselves Republicans has shifted from a 46–42 Democratic advantage in 1981 to a 50–45 Republican advantage in 1986. This was a devastating blow to a Democratic party claiming to represent the interests of the less powerful in society, and a reflection of continuing racial conflict within the party. Among the poorest white voters, those making less than $20,000, the Democratic margin has fallen from a strong 55–36 in 1981 to 51–43 in 1986.

At the same time, conflicts within the Democratic party itself work against the kind of cohesion essential to a presidential candidate seeking a strong mandate. As Democrats take over the Senate, for example, seven of the fourteen new Democratic committee chairmen have records of providing strong support to the Reagan administration, while the other seven have records of intense opposition. Foreign policy remains extremely divisive. This winter’s bitter fight among House Democrats over Representative Les Aspin’s chairmanship of the Armed Services Committee reveals the extent to which such issues as contra aid and the MX missile—both formerly favored by Aspin—remain unresolved. The party has yet to formulate a military policy it can sell to the public.

The Democrats’ sources of campaign money also reveal their internal divisions. In the 1984 election, for example, Democratic candidates for House and Senate received roughly the same amounts of money from union PACs, $24.4 million, as from business and trade association PACs, $28.2 million—that is, money representing opposing political interests. This pattern of contributions helps to encourage paralysis in legislation. It gives no clear sense of direction to party leaders facing difficult choices on military and domestic spending. With the national debt exceeding $2 trillion, the legislator must often make a decision favorable to business at the expense of labor, or vice versa.

The schisms facing the Republicans in the post-Reagan years appear likely to be at least as serious. The conservative wing of the GOP is full of discontent with Reagan but it has been unable to coalesce around a candidate, and it has wavered at various times between Representative Jack Kemp, Patrick J. Buchanan, and the television evangelist Pat Robertson. Vice President George Bush is running into increasing difficulty as he attempts to become an ecumenical nominee supported by both Reagan conservatives and by the GOP’s moderate, East Coast faction. Senator Robert Dole, in turn, is trying to revive the Taft wing of the Republican party, for which the principal issue is the danger of the federal deficit, the same deficit that has made the Reagan economic and military program possible. Dole seeks, moreover, to expand his constituency with support for such liberal programs as food stamps and aid to the handicapped, as well as for such right-of-center causes as opposition to abortion and to gun control, and conservative appointments to the federal bench.

Campaign money has also created problems for the Republicans, but, unlike the Democrats’ difficulties, these spring from the party’s prosperity. The three major Republican party committees—the national, senatorial, and congressional—raise roughly four times the amount of cash that their Democratic counterparts do. During the late 1970s and early 1980s, this huge financial advantage was used very effectively to identify vulnerable Democratic office holders, and to finance challengers to run against them. Recently, however, Democratic politicians have become increasingly sophisticated in both raising money and building up local support in anticipation of well-financed Republican challengers. The Democratic committees have begun to channel what funds they have into elections where Republicans are particularly vulnerable. One might even say that in 1986 the accumulation of campaign funds reached a point of diminishing return. In a number of races including the Senate contests in Georgia, North Dakota, and Alabama, huge amounts were raised and spent but made no discernible difference in the outcome of the election.

The Republican party, during the last four years, has used its financial leverage to invest in expensive, national computerized drives to get out the vote, but these failed to increase turnout. Instead these drives, using commercial TV marketing companies and programmed telephoned messages, suggest that the Republican party faces the danger of becoming over-dependent on promotional technology. At the same time, the three Republican party committees have gotten in the habit of handing out $3,000- to $7,500-a-month consulting contracts to former White House aides and former party officials, and to the relatives of the powerful—including President Reagan’s daughter, Maureen, and Senator Paul Laxalt’s daughter, Michelle.

But the pattern of contributions to Republican House and Senate candidates does not encourage paralyzing conflicts over legislation as it does for Democrats. For Republican candidates, there is a twenty-five-to-one ratio in favor of business and trade association PACs ($38.3 million, to $1.5 million for labor). This decisively probusiness bias worked to the advantage of the GOP in the late 1970s and early 1980s, when the electorate was sharply divided on issues of taxes, military spending, and programs subsidizing the poor and unemployed.

Since then, however, the continuing dependence on business money has damaged Republican efforts to promote a more populist image. Pressures from business supporters and donors were a major factor behind the extreme reluctance of House Republicans to support the 1986 tax reform bill, which transferred $120 billion in taxes from people to corporations over five years. The Democrats were thus able to take much of the credit for the legislation. Similarly, opposition to appropriations to clean up toxic waste sites has been more intense among Republicans than among Democrats—and such opposition does not help to convert the Republican party into a majority party.

For the Democrats, the effect of unemployment and inflation during the Carter years has been that fewer voters trust the party to deal with economic issues. The current issue of Public Opinion magazine, in an analysis of 1986 poll data from the major networks and newspapers and from both the Harris and Gallup polls, finds that voters have strikingly different evaluations of each party. Voters said that the GOP was more likely to produce prosperity (by 10 to 18 percentage points), to cut inflation (14 to 22 points), and, by a 5-point margin, to deal with the “most important problems facing the country.” For the Democrats, the most damaging finding is that the party has lost its status in the minds of voters as the party of prosperity and of high levels of employment. According to the polls the major strength of the Democratic party is that it is now seen as caring about and protecting individuals and groups. So were the Democrats favored when voters were asked which party would better handle the problems of farmers (by 18 to 29 points, depending on the poll), the elderly (by 27 points), the unemployed (by 17 points), women (17 to 23 points), and minorities (23 points).

Population trends favor the Republicans. In presidential elections, the GOP has carefully constructed a southern and western base that will be difficult for the Democrats to break up in 1988. The 1986 victories for Republican candidates for governor in Florida, Texas, South Carolina, and Alabama demonstrate that this core of support remains strong. In the House of Representatives, the eighty-one-seat Democratic majority depends in large part on the continuing success of congressmen who won traditionally Republican seats in the Watergate elections of 1974 and 1976, and on victories during the recession year of 1982.

The metropolitan regions with the highest growth rates, many of them in the suburbs of the South and Southwest, are likely to vote Republican (particularly when new districts are created after the 1990 census). “When you travel through the old South and see a McDonald’s or a Pizza Hut going up, you know the Republicans are coming,” John Morgan, a GOP consultant, said recently. At the same time, Democratic strongholds in Chicago, Cleveland, Detroit, and Boston will have to have their election districts more and more ingeniously rearranged to produce Democratic victories.

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