AS the Republicans leave Houston to begin the fall presidential campaign, they face the end of a long era of GOP control of the White House - 20 of the last 24 years - due to forces which they have little power to overcome.
While much of the blame will be placed on alleged personal failures of President George Bush - lack of charisma, absence of vision, inattention to domestic affairs - or the presumed deficiencies of his running mate, Vice President Dan Quayle, in fact what we are seeing is the unraveling of a remarkably successful political coalition.
The Republican success in winning five of the past six presidential elections, broken only by the Watergate-tainted 1976 election of President Carter, is matched only by six straight Republican presidential victories from 1860 to 1880. This string of victories did not occur by luck or accident but by a carefully constructed, skillful strategy, relying on both Republican strengths and Democratic weaknesses.
Onto the dependable but narrow business/upper-income base of the Republican Party, the building blocks of a successful conservative coalition were added, beginning in 1968. Middle- and working-class white Southern voters (including Southern fundamentalists), traditionally Democratic since post-Civil War days, along with urban ethnics, solidly Democratic since the New Deal, were won by subtle racial appeals, based on opposition to busing, quotas, and taxes for social programs for black and poor Americans,
and by other "hot button" social issues under the rubric of "family values," including opposition to abortions and drugs.
An energetic group of "movement" conservatives, led by Jack Kemp, developed new economic ideas, like supply-side economics and market-based solutions to social problems.
Independent voters became reliably Republican because of the perception that Republican presidents were better managers of the nation's purse strings and its economy than Democrats.
The Democratic Party contributed significantly to this process. The Democratic coalition that had dominated presidential politics from 1932 until 1968 was tired and internally divided.
After the death of John F. Kennedy, the 1960s produced a sea change in the attitude of the Democratic Party. President Lyndon Johnson's War on Poverty targeted government efforts on programs for the underclass, eliminating the working poor and middle class from the broad-based coverage provided by many New Deal programs.
In the wake of the Vietnam War, the party abandoned its historic internationalism and became neo-isolationist, questioning the morality of projecting American military force abroad.
The Republican coalition was further solidified by the double-digit inflation and high interest rates of the last two years of the Carter administration, even though these were heavily influenced by the oil shock of 1979. Republicans had taken away the strongest argument Democrats had since the New Deal: effective management of the economy.
But in 1992 it is the Republican Party that is tired and divided after 12 consecutive years in power. It is split over economic policy (tax-cutters versus budget balancers), foreign policy (isolationists and protectionists versus internationalists and free traders), and social policy (pro-life versus pro-choice). And ironically, just as the Democratic coalition collapsed in the 1960s partly because of its own successes in lifting the incomes of average Americans and providing the rudiments of the welfare
state, so Republican presidents, having reduced inflation and helped win the cold war, eliminated the rationale for their own reelection.
Key building blocks of the Republican Party have been shattered by recent events. The poor economic record of the Bush administration, with the lowest job, income, and economic growth over a four-year period since the end of the Depression, together with a widening gap between the wealthy and the middle class, will drive many conservative Democrats and independents away from the GOP. The economic pain of the middle class will supersede Republican social issues and racial fears as the primary motivator of
Neoconservatives are ready to jump ship with the collapse of the Soviet Union. Conservative ideologues never felt comfortable with President Bush and see the abandonment of his "no new tax" pledge as the prime exhibit to convict him of ideological impurity. Some conservatives feel they would be better off in opposition, refreshing their idea bank and seeking a kindred spirit to be their standard bearer in 1996.
Even with these developments, Republicans' prospects would be favorable if the Democratic Party had remained unchanged. But that is not the case. There is now a viable alternative. Under Gov. Bill Clinton and Sen. Al Gore the Democratic Party is ready to govern, bursting with the new ideas and energy the Republicans brought to the country in the '70s and '80s.
A new Democratic Party under the Clinton-Gore ticket has emerged from over a decade of self-examination and self-analysis, a party that stands for racially neutral economic growth and opportunity as its first priority, through increased private and public investment; that believes in the concept of individual responsibility as well as governmental obligations; that proposes a new role for the federal government as a catalyst and partner with the private sector; that on crime has moved from an empathy for
the social circumstances of the perpetrator to a concern about the devastation to the victim and the fear crime breeds; and that has shed its post-Vietnam isolationism and is willing to use the full panoply of US power to protect American interests and values, regaining its internationalist vision.
The mantle of power is about to pass from one party to the other, and this is a healthy development for an American political system badly in need of rejuvenation.