Sunday, August 19, 2007

Permanent Republican Majority? Think Again.

By Andrew Kohut and Carroll Doherty
Washington Post
Sunday, August 19, 2007; B01

Karl Rove dreamed of creating a "permanent Republican majority." But as President Bush's longtime adviser exits the Washington scene, the political landscape he helped chart is already shifting beneath his feet: The era of conservative values -- a tight-fisted approach toward government aid to the poor, traditional positions on social issues and a belief in a muscular foreign policy -- that emerged in the 1990s is coming to a close.

Disenchanted by the failures of the Bush administration, the public is moving away from its policies, values and ideology. This shift is an echo of the late 1960s, when weariness with the Vietnam War and discord at home resulted in a backlash against Lyndon B. Johnson's Great Society, and the late 1970s, when growing discontent over the stumbling performance of Jimmy Carter's administration opened the door to the Reagan revolution.

This time, though, it appears to be the Democrats' turn to reap the benefits.

Earlier this year, the Pew Research Center released the results of our comprehensive study of the public's political and social values, the most recent in a series of reports dating to 1987. We found that many of the trends that had fueled the Republicans' rise to political dominance over the past decade-plus have weakened -- and in some cases even reversed.

Consider this: In 2002, the country was evenly divided along partisan lines -- 43 percent of the public identified with the Republican Party or leaned toward it, while the same number said they were Democrats. That shift in affiliation was a historic change from most of the 20th century, when Democrats usually held sizable advantages over Republicans.

But if Rove hoped for a permanent majority, his hopes may have been dashed. Today, half the public -- 50 percent -- lines up with the Democratic Party, compared with 35 percent who align with the GOP. Even more striking is the public's disenchantment with military muscle, a traditional GOP bailiwick. Today 49 percent think that military strength is the best way to ensure peace, the lowest level recorded for this question in the two decades that Pew has been conducting political values studies.

Here's something Democrats can really take heart from: Public support for more government aid to the poor and needy is back. The percentage of those who say that "it is the responsibility of the government to take care of people who can't take care of themselves" has gone up 12 points since 1994, the pivotal year when Republicans took control of Congress with their promises of a "Contract With America." Support for more government involvement in dealing with social problems is on the upswing overall.

More Americans now subscribe to the sentiment that "the rich get richer while the poor get poorer." Seventy-three percent concur with that statement today, up from 65 percent five years ago. A nationwide Pew survey last month found that 48 percent of the public sees American society as divided between "haves" and "have nots," with as many as a third describing themselves as "have nots." Both measures are substantially higher than in the late 1990s.

At the same time, many of the key social trends that nurtured the Republican resurgence in the mid-1990s are cooling. Support for traditional values on social issues such as homosexuality or the role of women has edged downward since 1994. There has been a downturn in the percentage endorsing "old-fashioned values about family and marriage," from percentages in the mid-80s in the past to 76 percent in the latest study.

Another bad sign for Republicans, the party of staunch religious values: Most Americans remain religious, but the number expressing strong beliefs has dropped since the mid-1990s. The percentage that says it "completely agrees" that "prayer is an important part of my life" jumped from 41 percent to a high of 55 percent in 1999. It's now down to 45 percent. We also found small but perceptible growth over the past two decades in the numbers who identify themselves as secular -- from 8 percent in 1987 to 12 percent today. Most of that growth is among young people.

During Bush's first term, Americans' foreign policy values were shaped by reaction to the 9/11 attacks. But six years later, they reflect the growing unhappiness with the war in Iraq. Since 2003, there has been a decline in strong support for an activist foreign policy that's consistent with other Pew polls over the past few years, which have shown a rise in isolationist sentiment. And there's considerable wariness about the use of U.S. military force, not just in Iraq, but also in Afghanistan. Forty-two percent of Americans want U.S. and NATO troops withdrawn from Afghanistan as soon as possible.

Leading this nationwide left turn are independents, who've always been the pivotal voting bloc. Rove largely de-emphasized those voters while concentrating on the care and feeding of the GOP base.

Didn't work.

Today, independents are much more in sync with Democrats than with Republicans on both domestic and international issues. One example: We see a striking increase in independents' support for more government help for the needy, even if it means going deeper into debt. Fully 57 percent of independents endorse this idea today; in 1994, just 39 percent did.

In the 2004 presidential election, independents split their votes fairly evenly between Bush and Sen. John F. Kerry of Massachusetts; in the 2006 midterms, they swung decisively to the Democrats -- by 57 to 39 percent -- to propel the party to control of Congress.

So what accounts for changes of this magnitude? Throughout history, they've often represented a response to poor governing as much as any basic ideological shift. In the 1960s, Americans grew exasperated with Johnson's failures with the Great Society and the Vietnam War. The electorate reacted by giving Republican Richard M. Nixon two terms in the White House, at a time when a majority of voters were Democrats. When Carter failed to resolve the nation's deep economic problems and to free U.S. hostages in Iran, the public responded by turning him out of office in favor of a Republican whom they viewed as more conservative than themselves.

The Bush administration's reputation for competent management has taken a beating over the past two years. It's not just the war in Iraq: Domestic failures such as various GOP scandals and the response to Hurricane Katrina, as well as political miscalculations on issues such as Social Security and immigration reform, haven't helped.

But though the GOP may be in trouble, the Democrats' gains aren't necessarily the result of any shining achievements on their part. The Democratic Party's image is no better today than it was shortly after Bush's reelection -- or, for that matter, than it was after the GOP victory in '94. Democrats are perceived favorably by 51 percent of Americans today, compared with 53 percent in December 2004 and 50 percent a decade earlier. The Republican Party's image, on the other hand, has plummeted -- from 67 percent favoring it in December 1994 to 39 percent last month.

What will emerge from the end of the conservative era? It depends on two things. First, who wins the White House in 2008. The Democrats have the advantage, but it's no guarantee of victory. It's just a big head start. Second, if they win, they'll have to prove successful in addressing voter discontent on a variety of fronts -- Iraq, health care, income inequality and other domestic issues.

Ronald Reagan's administration gained public acceptance for its conservative ideas about the size and role of government only when it showed progress in dealing with the nation's pressing economic problems. Its political stock remained low for the first three years of Reagan's presidency, until the economy righted itself and Morning in America was formally declared.

Recent history is full of examples of presidents and political parties overreaching in reaction to a change in the public's political values. Though the public was moving in a more conservative direction in the early '90s, it had little appetite for the more radical proposals the GOP promoted after taking power, such as shutting down the Department of Education. House Speaker Newt Gingrich slowed the Republican momentum in 1995 by pushing his agenda too hard, too fast.

This is a lesson the Democrats should take to heart. Change is headed in their direction, but a new Democratic era will emerge only if a potential Democratic administration shows successful leadership and real achievements.

Andrew Kohut is president of the Pew Research Center. Carroll Doherty is associate director of the center's People and the Press polling unit.


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