An Epochal Battle
Iowa kicks off the most wide-open race since '80.
Looking beyond the Reagan-Bush era
By GERALD F. SEIB
January 2, 2008; Page A1
When Iowa voters walk into their state's caucuses tomorrow night, they will be kicking off a milestone campaign year that promises a new political course for America.
For the first time in 80 years, no incumbent president or vice president from either party is seeking the White House, creating an unusually unsettled campaign with no obvious front-runner. Power in Congress is divided so evenly between the two parties that neither has really been in control since the 2006 elections. Now, in the wide-open 2008 general election, voters will declare whom they want to run the executive and legislative branches.
Americans will make that choice at a time when they are distinctly uneasy. Record numbers of voters are choosing to declare themselves politically independent -- and thus open to moving either left or right. Both the Republican president and the Democratic Congress are receiving historically low public-approval ratings, another sign of voter unease. More broadly, the Wall Street Journal/NBC News poll1 has in recent months found the nation to be in the midst of the most prolonged period of public dissatisfaction in 15 years, as measured by the share of voters who say the country is "on the wrong track."
In one sense change is inevitable. This year marks the end of what can be considered the Reagan-Bush era in American politics that began when Ronald Reagan was elected in 1980. In six of the last seven general elections, a candidate named Reagan or Bush has appeared atop a national ticket, defining a brand of internationally engaged conservatism that has been the dominant strain in American politics for more than a generation.
Now the stage is set for an ideological rethinking in both parties. "The mood for change is more than one of small incremental adjustments," write Republican pollster Bill McInturff and Democrat Peter Hart, who conduct the Journal/NBC News poll. "It is concern for the next generation as well as widespread unhappiness with both President Bush and the Congress."
The question is: Change to what? At the outset of the year, Democrats, having been out of the White House for the past seven years and in the minority of Congress for six of those years, stand the best chance of benefiting from the mood for change.
So far, it appears that presidential candidates Barack Obama among the Democrats and Mike Huckabee among the Republicans have benefited most from the public desire to shake things up. They are fresh faces who seem to represent departures from the establishment.
Beyond that, public polling suggests some of the directions voters may push the system this year. Americans are unhappy with the Iraq war, though their displeasure is subsiding as the situation improves on the ground. Perhaps more surprisingly, they are displaying ample doubts about international trade and economic globalization, both of which Americans were more likely to consider good for the nation in years past. That suggests some voters are at least flirting with protectionism.
Unease about the economy is at exceptionally high levels, driven by worries over health care and anxiety over the collapse of the housing bubble and the record wave of home foreclosures. The December Journal/NBC News poll2 found the lowest levels of economic satisfaction in the survey's two-decade history. Just 32% of those surveyed said they are satisfied with the U.S. economy, while 68% are dissatisfied. That suggests voters may be open to calls for dramatic changes in economic policy, including greater government intervention in markets.
The other area of voter ferment is on immigration, where attitudes have hardened. With fears of terrorism mingling with record numbers of illegal immigrants in the country, Americans have grown more inclined over the past two years to say that immigration has done more harm than good to the country.
Lingering just behind, of course, is continuing concern about terrorism and uncertainty about the threats posed by Iran.
All of that suggests some paths down which voters, and the politicians they choose this year, could send America:
Fears about trade and globalization could prompt a revival of old-fashioned populism, in which the interests of average people are set against those of perceived economic elites.
On the Democratic side of the presidential campaign, John Edwards has tried to tap into such sentiment with his skepticism about free trade and his railings against the advantages enjoyed by the wealthy.
On the Republican side, Mr. Huckabee has tapped into it with anti-Wall Street rhetoric, his skepticism about some trade deals and his pledges to make the Republican Party more responsive to small taxpayers and business people on Main Street. "I'm not angry at all the folks at Wall Street," Mr. Huckabee said recently. "In fact, I think my policies would do more for them, but it wouldn't just be for them. It would also be for those guys that don't necessarily have a stock portfolio."
Rep. Ron Paul, a dark horse who has enjoyed surprising success with his libertarian message, has gotten traction by voicing deep skepticism about trade deals and the World Trade Organization.
A harsher version of economic nationalism could emerge. Anger about immigration may mix with antiglobalization sentiment and unhappiness over the war in Iraq to produce an America-first approach that combines high trade barriers, a wide crackdown on illegal immigration and isolationist foreign policies.
Anxiety over the economy, and particularly worries about health care, could prompt a return to classic big-government liberalism. In this scenario, voters would turn to government to provide health care and bail out homeowners thrown on the street by the escalating payments on their adjustable-rate mortgages. Democrat Hillary Clinton has been aggressively pushing the message that the government should ensure health coverage for all Americans. Strikingly, though, no presidential candidate, with the exception of fringe contender Dennis Kucinich among the Democrats, is really advocating big-ticket liberalism.
It's possible that voters could consider such alternatives and decide that, in an era of terrorism and other national-security risks, it's safer to stick with the kind of internationally engaged conservatism offered by the Bush administration. The current turmoil in Pakistan has underscored the way international unrest can mute the desire to experiment with new foreign-policy approaches. Former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney is offering up a conservative path with a twist: His campaign argues that voters like a basically conservative approach, but want it carried out with greater competence than Mr. Bush has demonstrated or other Republicans could bring -- which its candidate offers, the Romney camp argues, because of his record of success as a businessman and a governor.
The election could produce leaders who figure out how to transcend ideology and partisan identities to form a kind of unity government that tackles issues such as Social Security and health care. That's essentially the approach Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger has taken in California, where he has virtually detached himself from his Republican party and begun to govern as an independent. Burdett Loomis, a political scientist at the University of Kansas, says the election could produce "some new discourse and definition of issues. Obama on his best days might exemplify this potential dimension."
On the Republican side, Sen. John McCain has enjoyed a resurgence since he began campaigning in the fall less as a conventional Republican and more as a maverick not closely tied to any party or ideology.
If voters are demanding an outcome that moves America beyond partisanship, there is another tantalizing possibility. New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg, with his nonpartisan image and enough personal wealth to fuel a candidacy, could yet choose to run as an independent. He probably has until March, when the dust begins to settle from the two major parties' primary battles, to decide whether to do so.
Elections that really turn the country in a new direction are rare, coming only once in a generation or so. The 1894 election, which saw enormous Republican gains, was one. It set up William McKinley's 1896 presidential victory and marked the beginning of the Progressive Era and a generation of Republican dominance. Franklin Roosevelt's 1932 victory ushered in a generation of Democratic rule and New Deal and Great Society thinking.
Ronald Reagan's win in 1980, accompanied by a stunning Republican pickup of 12 seats in the Senate to give the party control there, was another game-changer. The 1980 results showed, though, how difficult such tides are to predict. Almost no one foresaw the size of the Reagan win or the accompanying Senate takeover. Until the end, many Democrats and pundits thought Reagan too conservative for the country that was about to elect him in a landslide.
The Reagan win ushered in both 12 straight years of Republican control of the White House and a conservative era overall. In 1992, Democrat Bill Clinton took back control of the White House for his party, but that didn't stop the broader rise of both conservative sentiment and Republican strength. Two years after Mr. Clinton took office, in 1994, Republicans had one of the most-sweeping midterm elections in the last century, taking an additional 54 seats in the House and 10 in the Senate and winning control of both chambers. Mr. Clinton himself never won a majority of the national vote, and was elected in part by distancing himself from his Democratic party's traditional liberal base.
In 2006, Democrats turned around the steady rise of Republican and conservative power, but they didn't break out as a majority party. They simply moved the country to a fine balance of power between the two parties. After the 2006 election, Democrats had a majority in 25 state delegations in Congress, Republicans in 24, and one, Arizona's, was divided right down the middle.
As voters have divided power between the two parties in this way, they have also reflected their dissatisfaction with the parties by detaching from them in record numbers. That movement is best seen in the trends in party registrations.
The share of the public registered as neither Democrat nor Republican, but rather as independent, has exploded in recent years. Nationally, the share of all those eligible to vote who have registered as independent has grown to 22% from 4% since 1966, and has doubled since 1992, according to data compiled by the Center for the Study of the American Electorate. (Those data reflect registration figures from the 28 states that record partisan registration, as well as the District of Columbia.)
In New Hampshire, 44% of registered voters don't declare any party affiliation. In California, independent voters are the fastest-growing segment of those who have registered; almost a quarter of the registered voters there now are either independent or affiliated with neither major party.
In the 2006 election, Democrats were the beneficiaries of this rootless voting public, as they pulled a large share of independents to their side in winning control of both the House and Senate. The possibility that Democrats might repeat that feat in the 2008 presidential and congressional contests is the great fear of Republicans.
That's particularly true because Republicans will face voters with fewer of the party's proven stalwarts on hand to hold on to wavering voters. In the House, 16 Republican members have said they will retire rather than seek re-election this year, and five Republican members of the Senate also plan to retire. Democrats have only one House Democratic retiree and none in the Senate. Even without the retirements, Republicans have more to lose in the Senate. They have to defend 21 seats now held by their party, while Democrats have to defend just 12.
But the partisan numbers may matter less than the quest by politicians from both parties to figure out how to get in front of the public's mood for change. At the moment, there are big gaps between politicians' rhetoric of change and the substance of what they propose. That suggests it may only be after the 2008 election that this year's real message becomes clear.
Mr. Huckabee's populist rhetoric, for instance, isn't matched by all of his policy positions. He talks of championing working-class Americans. But his main economic proposal is to replace the income tax with a national consumption tax, which critics say would disproportionately benefit the rich, who spend less of their income than do middle-income families. And his proposals on expanding health care are fairly standard conservative ideas for relying more on market forces, rather than government intervention to directly aid workers seeking health coverage.
Similarly, while Iraq has produced lots of soaring rhetoric among Democrats about ending the war, most of them favor some limited long-term troop presence there. Sen. Obama, for instance, portrays himself as the leading antiwar candidate. But he calls for a phased withdrawal over 16 months, and then says he would leave behind some troops to "protect our diplomats and carry out targeted strikes on al Qaeda."
All told, it's harder to say exactly what comes next in American politics than it is to predict that it will look and feel different from what has been the norm in recent years. William Galston, a political scholar at the Brookings Institution and former White House aide under President Clinton, argues that a 30-year cycle of conservative strength is coming to an end.
"It isn't clear," he adds, "whether it will be replaced with a new, equally well-organized system of thought and policy, or whether we're in for a confused interregnum."