The Democrats

Whatever else happens on January 20, 2009, the date on which, barring impeachment or tragedy, George W. Bush will finally leave office, the day will mark a rather surprising historical fact. As Mark Halperin and John F. Harris point out in their introduction to The Way to Win, it will be the first time since the consecutive administrations of James Madison and James Monroe that “back-to-back presidents both served all eight years of two elected terms.” Monroe’s term ended in 1825. In every era since, death, scandal, political failure, or some other kind of disruption—notably, a broad political shift that ends one era and begins another—has intruded upon the presidential succession process, until now.

In our own time, why have things been different? We can look at the administrations of Bill Clinton and George W. Bush and locate specific reasons—that Clinton had the economy humming along and thus gave voters no reason to turn him out in 1996, and that Bush responded to September 11 by putting the country on a war footing and built his reelection campaign around making voters afraid to turn him out. We can also chalk it up to the weak competition from Bob Dole and John Kerry, whose races were utterly without focus.

But I suspect there may be a more systemic reason. We entered our current era of polarization in 1992, when a well-funded conservative echo machine worked to destroy Clinton, a project that never let up until the day he left office (the Marc Rich pardon, the White House furniture “scandal”). Once conservatives gained power, they held on to it tenaciously, initiating horrifically radical turns in foreign and domestic policy from which we’ll spend years recovering. But for all this ideological volatility, our sharply polarized era has produced comparatively few lasting shifts in voter identification or allegiance. Students of this subject and television commentators tend, understandably, to highlight the changes that show up from election to election. And while there have been fluctuations in the intervening years (occasionally decisive ones, such as in 1994, when the Democratic vote dropped among almost all groups), after last fall’s election we are almost back where we were in 1992.

For example, New York Times exit poll data1 covering the period show the following: men voted 52 percent Democratic in 1992, and, after dropping into the mid-40s for a while, were back to 52 percent Democratic again in 2006. Women voted 55 percent Democratic in 1992, and 52 percent Democratic in 2006 (this vote hardly changed, except in 2002, when it went down to 50 percent); whites voted 50 percent Republican in 1992, and 52 percent Republican in 2006 (remember that H. Ross Perot ran as an independent in 1992, thus lowering white Republican votes slightly).2 One significant difference is in independent voters, among whom Democrats went from 54 percent in 1992 to 59 percent in 2006. But it’s too early to call that a trend.

Other periods of American history have brought vast…

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