Generation Dem

Beyond the failure of Karl Rove, the momentous 2006 elections signaled the emergence of a younger, bluer America that could reshape politics for years to come.

Published November 30, 2006 12:02PM (EST)

The midterm elections of 2006 may be among the most momentous in two generations -- if their trends carry through the 2008 presidential election and beyond. These changes include a Democratic Congress that reflects a more politically cohesive national majority than any previous one; shifts of crucial constituencies that may represent a decisive repudiation of the Republican Party in its current incarnation; and the emergence of a younger generation that is overwhelmingly Democratic. In retrospect, it is conceivable that the 2006 results will be revealed to be just one movement of a rapidly swinging pendulum whose internal mechanism is a fickle electorate of no discernible loyalties or commitments but propelled by constant and uncontrollable moods of discontent. Or it may be that the long conservative ascendancy has merely encountered a slight stumbling block that will soon be overcome once the difficulties associated with Iraq are neatly squared away. Or it may be that the Democrats are as incorrigibly self-destructive as they were when the Republican era began. Or it may that the newly elected Democrats are really conservative Republicans operating under another party label. But these possibilities are not foretold by the 2006 results.

As in elections past, President Bush's chief strategist, Karl Rove, predicted that his fabled 72-hour get-out-the-vote mobilization would churn the Republicans to victory. In the end, he was not proved wrong that this effort managed to produce a large Republican turnout at the polls, as big as in the midterm elections of 2002, when the Republicans made stunning gains. White evangelicals, who constitute 35 percent of all Republican voters, massed for Republican candidates at levels close to those in 2004 -- this year's 72 percent was just 3 points off the prior 75 percent. Once again, evangelicals, by a share of 59 percent, insisted that social issues such as gay marriage were "extremely important." Rove's problem was that only 29 percent of other voters shared that view and that the other side turned out in greater numbers. What he did was his unmaking.

The numbers are both conclusive and suggestive. Exit polls showed that the Democrats won the popular vote by 52 to 46 percent. Given that Bush won the popular vote by 3 points in 2004, this was a reversal of not 6 but 9 points. An analysis of the actual popular vote for the Senate, however, reveals an even greater Democratic margin of 55 to 42.4 percent. That number also coincidentally corresponds to the margin by which Democrats won women, the greatest margin since 1988. Yet Democrats won independents by an even bigger margin, 18 points, the greatest spread in House races in 25 years. The profile of independents on issue after issue now mostly resembles the profile of Democrats.

One of the largest shifts appeared among Hispanics, the group that Rove targeted most intensively for six years. In 2006, Hispanics went for the Democrats 69 to 30 percent, a 10-point increase in the spread from two years ago. Unpopular as Bush may be today, he has been the most accessible Republican to Hispanics ever, a Spanish speaker from a state with a large Hispanic population. Next time, in 2008, the Republicans do not have a potential candidate who can remotely approach Bush's appeal.

Democrats' gains among Hispanics paralleled and overlapped their gains among Roman Catholics, whom they carried by 55 percent, a 10-point increase over 2004, when Bush defeated liberal Catholic Sen. John Kerry in a campaign that enlisted conservative Catholic bishops as allies. Winning back Catholics was a feat exceeded by the gains among white Protestants, where Democrats captured 47 percent, a 14-point increase over 2004 and their greatest share since Bill Clinton won in 1992, achieving nearly a draw with Republicans. But the composition of the white Protestant vote this time is different. Clinton, a Southern Baptist, won a sizable percentage of evangelicals, though not a majority, in 1992 and 31 percent in 1996. The white Protestant vote that went Democratic in 2006 was largely mainline non-evangelical Protestant, previously aligned as traditional Republican. White Protestants' break with the GOP came in great part as a recoil from the overbearing evangelical influence.

While voters under 30 were the most favorable age group in 2004 for Kerry, casting 54 percent of their votes for him, Democratic House candidates in 2006 received 60 percent of their votes, compared with 38 percent for Republicans. Nationally, partisan identification breaks 38 percent Democratic to 35 percent Republican, but among those under age 30 the percentages are 43 to 31 in favor of Democrats. This pattern runs as strongly in the West as in the East, the Midwest and the Pacific states, a clear indication that the Western states are heading out of the Republican camp -- out of alliance with the deep South's Republican states and into coalition with the broad majority. In Wyoming and Arizona, where Republicans won elections for the House and Senate, the Democrats would have won by 16 and 15 points, respectively, if the elections had been conducted only among under-30s. In Montana, where Democrat Jon Tester won by 1 percentage point, fewer than 3,000 votes, his margin among under-30s, who were 17 percent of the electorate, was 12 points.

Bush has been the formative political experience for the youngest generation of voters, those 18 to 30. Studies of voting preferences show that the experience imprinted on a generation in its 20s largely determines its future political complexion. This generation is the most Democratic generation ever -- more Democratic than the youngest voting generations of the New Deal and the 1960s. In generational terms, their political alignment is also logical. As the children of the 1960s generation and the grandchildren of the New Deal generation, they have inherited those generations' political genes. The in-between, more conservative generations -- the so-called Silent Generation of the 1950s and their children -- are smaller in numbers and weaker in cultural and political influence.

The dramatic turnover of both the House and the Senate should not obscure the profound transformations going on in the states, where 10 state legislative chambers switched to the Democrats, and, as political analyst Charlie Cook points out in the National Journal, "the Democratic advantage over Republicans in state legislatures went from 15 seats (3,650 versus 3,635) to 662 seats (3,985 versus 3,323), with gains in every region." Democrats control both chambers in 24 states, compared with 16 for Republicans. Democrats also gained six governorships, giving them a majority of 28. These political conditions, assuming they are stable or augmented through 2008, set up the Democrats to dominate the redistricting that will follow the 2010 census -- and thus potentially the patterns of power in the House for the next decade.

The Southern strategy of the Republican Party, accelerated and radicalized under Bush, has finally created a more than equal reaction in the North. Ten years ago, 10 moderate Republican senators, all from the Northeast, met weekly for lunch. After the 2006 election, only three remain, in Pennsylvania and Maine. When they retire they are likely to be replaced by Democrats.

New England was once the bastion of rock-ribbed Republicanism, personified by Sen. Prescott Bush of Connecticut, grandfather of the current president. But now, from six New England states, there is only one Republican left standing in the entire House, Christopher Shays, who barely scraped by in a previously safe Republican district. (Republicans won eight other House seats across the country by less than one point, and 34 by less than five points. Many of these may be at risk in two years.)

The fatal environment for Republicans in New England is exemplified by New Hampshire, by far the most conservative of the New England states. There Democratic Gov. John Lynch won reelection with 74 percent. As Washington Post columnist David Broder wrote: "The Executive Council, which has the power to confirm appointees and approve state contracts, switched from 4-1 Republican to 3-2 Democratic. The state Senate, which Republicans controlled 16-8, is now Democratic by a 14-10 margin. The state House of Representatives, which is dwarfed in size only by the British House of Commons and the U.S. House of Representatives, went from 242-150 Republican, with eight vacancies, to 239-161 Democratic." Both U.S. House seats in New Hampshire fell to the Democrats. In 2008, the Senate seat held by a Republican is suddenly exposed.

In Rhode Island, which has a long history of working-class deference to patrician politicians, Sen. Lincoln Chafee, a moderate, even liberal figure, whose father had been a popular U.S. senator and whose own popularity was above 60 percent on Election Day, was defeated by 6 points. His Republican label alone condemned him.

In states that will be crucial in the 2008 presidential race, Democrats made extraordinary gains. Bush won Iowa by 0.67 percentage points in 2004. This year the Democratic candidate for governor, Chet Culver, swept the race by a 10-point margin, both houses of the Iowa Legislature flipped Democratic, and respected, longtime moderate Republican Rep. Jim Leach was ousted. In Colorado, which Bush won by less than 5 points, the Democrat, Bill Ritter, won by 15 points, and a House seat previously held by a Republican went Democratic by 13 points. In Arkansas, which Bush won by 10 points, the Democratic candidate for governor, Mike Beebe, won by 15. Of all the Southern states, Arkansas is the most progressive and Democratic -- the only Confederate Southern state with two Democratic senators. Were a Democratic candidate for president in 2008 to win these states, along with the rest of the states won by Kerry, he or she would comfortably win the White House. This equation does not include Ohio, which Bush won by 2 points, but which saw a Democratic sweep this year of every statewide office, the governorship and a Senate seat.

African-Americans, meanwhile, were unmoved by any and all Republican overtures. Though the Republicans slated African-Americans as candidates for the governorships of Pennsylvania and Ohio, as well as for the Senate in Maryland, not one of the Democrats running against them received less than 75 percent of the African-American vote. The campaign speeches of Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice made not the slightest impression. African-Americans remained the most discerning voters.

The strongest race run by any Republican did more than prove the rule of 2006. Arnold Schwarzenegger won reelection as governor of California by 17 percentage points by openly attacking President Bush, firing his Republican chief of staff and hiring a lesbian activist who had worked for his Democratic predecessor as a replacement, and adopting liberal positions across the board. As major figures from California often demonstrate, Schwarzenegger may represent the future of American politics but not the future of the Republican Party. Any Republican attempting this trick in another state would almost certainly be destroyed by the party's right wing. The sui generis character of an overwhelmingly popular Republican governor of California suggests how deviant the national party has become, even since Ronald Reagan.

The modern Republican rise was first apparent in the midterm elections of 1966, in the wake of early frustrations over Vietnam and racial turmoil after the passage of civil rights legislation. The closely fought presidential contest of 1968, whose outcome was hardly inevitable, in which Richard Nixon was elected, was ratified four years later in his 49-state landslide. Nixon's strategy was to revitalize the Republicans as a party by assimilating Southern Democrats and ethnic suburban white-flight Catholics in reaction to a post-New Deal Democratic Party tainted by antiwar dissent, minority protest and countercultural experimentation -- "amnesty, acid and abortion," as Vice President Spiro Agnew captiously put it.

Nixon's Republican majority was the template for Reagan's consolidation. Reagan's grin replaced Nixon's scowl, but the strategy was basically unaltered. Watergate had only temporarily derailed the project. Reagan's chief innovation was to acknowledge and encourage the nascent religious right as an evolved form of Southern Democrats metamorphosing into Southern Republicans.

Unlike Nixon and Reagan, the native and transplanted Californians, or George H.W. Bush, the Connecticut Yankee with shallow roots in the Texas political soil, George W. Bush was the first elected Southern conservative in American history. (The two previous Southern conservatives, John Tyler and Andrew Johnson, acceded to the presidency by the deaths of presidents and never won election in their own right.) By 2000, California had been lost to the Republican coalition through the party's social conservatism and hostility to Hispanic immigrants. Without California, the Republicans became ever more dependent on their Southern base. As the Southern influence grew, traditional moderates from other parts of the country were assailed as "Republicans in name only," though they were the original Republicans.

George W. Bush became the first Republican ever to become president without winning California. Since Herbert Hoover's election in 1928, every elected Republican had either been a Californian (like Hoover, Nixon and Reagan) or had run with one as vice president (as Dwight Eisenhower did with Nixon). The only Republican in that line to win the presidency on a ticket without a Californian was the elder Bush (with the Indianan Dan Quayle, an ersatz version of one of the Bush sons).

Without California, Bush's coalition was invariably narrow and his conservatism a product of his constricted Southern orbit. While Bush presented himself as the true fulfillment of Reagan, resolving the political tensions of his half-breed father, the idea of Reaganism without California was utterly novel. Bush's conservatism was a far more intensified strain than Reagan's, drawing inspiration from the radical Southern Republican-led Congress of the late 1990s that Bush pretended to disavow in the 2000 campaign in order to present himself as "a uniter, not a divider." The absence of California in the Republican coalition was hardly the main factor in fostering Bush's radicalism, but the changed composition of the party contributed to his insularity.

The strategies of Rove were dictated by the felt necessity of operating within cramped political boundaries as much as by arrogance fed by a craven press corps. Bush's loss of the popular vote in 2000 had had a traumatic impact. The revelation of his covered-up drunken-driving arrest near the end of the campaign that cost him some votes on the religious right was taken as a cautionary lesson to pay special heed to get those voters. Never again would Bush run as anything other than a conservative. But without the intervention of the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, there can be little doubt that he would have followed in the footsteps of all his predecessors who had lost the popular vote, by becoming a one-term president. To the extent that he averted that fate, the politics of fear that has sustained him has been unnatural. Barring further terrorist attacks this hysteria was doomed to exhaustion. Rove's frantic effort to revive it in the closing days of the 2006 elections through sheer name-calling was as essential as it was artificial.

In 2006, as in 2004, Bush and Rove subjected Northern states to their Southern strategies. The border state of Missouri and the split-personality state of Ohio were relentlessly treated as one-dimensionally Southern. But the ploys on gay marriage and stem cell research that had worked in 2004 had lost their magic, and Democrats took Senate seats in both states.

In January, when the 110th Congress is sworn in, it will be the first Congress since the 83rd Republican Congress (swept into office on Eisenhower's coattails) in which the majority party in both chambers is a minority party in the South. While there will be Southerners in the Democratic Congress, their presence is not that of a unitary bloc threatening progressive legislation. In the past, Southerners rose through a one-party system (which denied African-Americans voting rights) and, once elected, went unchallenged. The region's political power rested on the seniority of the congressional barons who controlled the chairmanships of the committees. But that Democratic Party is gone with the wind. Now, as the political scientist Thomas Schaller has calculated, the House Republican Conference is 43 percent Southern, more disproportionate than when Dixie ruled the Democrats. As the Democratic majority has become more national than ever, the Republicans are more dominated by their conservative base. Their Southern strategy, perfected by Bush and Rove, has become a downward spiral.

The overriding strategic imperatives for the Democratic Congress, besides restoring the constitutional obligation of oversight of the executive branch, are several-fold. The leaders of the new Congress plan to pass legislation that addresses working- and middle-class economic insecurity. If Bush vetoes it, he will be defined as their antagonist. On domestic policy, therefore, casting Bush as rejectionist works to the Democrats' advantage. On foreign policy, it's more complicated, even treacherous.

In their enthusiasm at finally attaining a measure of power, Democrats have not yet clarified that congressional power is inherently limited in foreign policy. By offering alternative tactics for Iraq that are overly precise, the Democrats may assume a share of the blame for a debacle that properly and solely belongs to Bush. Nonetheless, they can use their powers to illustrate the heedlessness of the president.

Winning Congress does not inevitably lead to winning the White House. Still, it is hard to foresee any single issue deeply dividing the prospective Democratic presidential candidates in 2008, as Vietnam did in the past or even the Iraq war briefly did in 2004 through Howard Dean's campaign. Bush remains president and unrepentant. The impulse for reflection and reform within the Republican Party is nil. From 2004 to 2006, Bush turned victory into dust. What will two more years of Bush bring?

By Sidney Blumenthal

Sidney Blumenthal, a former assistant and senior advisor to President Clinton, writes a column for Salon and the Guardian of London. His new book is titled "How Bush Rules: Chronicles of a Radical Regime." He is a senior fellow at the New York University Center on Law and Security.

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