Bipartisanship and the new Parliamentary Era Part Three: The Reagan Era
As the Carter Administration dawned, it seemed that the momentum had stalled. 1974 was the Watergate backlash, and in 1976, regional pride in Jimmy Carter overcame the long-term trend to the GOP. It even seemed that within the Republican Party, after a hard-fought convention, conservatism was on the decline.
We all know what happened next. In retrospect, Carter was a historic aberration after Watergate, a speed bump on the road to the partisan alignment into two parliamentary style, more policy consistent parties than America has ever seen before. That realignment was fully, finally realized in the debate and vote on the Obama stimulus plan, with near-unanimous Democratic support and unanimous Republican opposition. Today in part three of the series, I look at the Reagan years.
Ronald Reagan's 1976 convention loss is easily explained. Republicans have a long tradition, from Dewey through McCain, of nominating the guy whose turn it is next. That tradition is so strong that, hard as it is to imagine now, Jerry Ford is the only person who ever beat Ronald Reagan. Why? Because it was Ford's turn. In fact, the remarkable thing is that the conservative movement was so strong that Reagan came so close.
And it's the movement that matters. 1980 marked the first time that the Republican Party was electorally successful when it defined itself prominently, indeed almost exclusively, as a conservative party.
Some of the key players, like Reagan and Senator Jesse Helms, were candidates. But the 1980 era also saw the rise to prominence of high profile movement conservatives like direct mail fundraising guru Richard Viguere, Terry Dolan of the National Conservative Political Action Committee (NCPAC or "Nik-pac") Jerry Falwell of the Moral Majority, and Equal Rights Amendment opponent Phyllis Schlafly.
ERA, and its sister issue of abortion, were the first of the modern cluster of non-race social issues to become electoral wedges. ERA fell from the near-consensus bipartisan support in 1972 (it was in the GOP platform as late as that) to a hot button by 1978.
1978 saw some important set-up for 1980 and the future. Here in Iowa, the social issues helped defeat Senator Dick Clark, who lost to the inept Roger Jepsen. In Mississippi, one of the last old-time segregation era Democrats, James Eastland, retired, and Trent Lott won a 45% win over a moderate Democrat and a black independent to became Mississippi's first Republican Senator since Reconstruction era African-American Blanche Bruce.
The first African-American senator since Bruce, liberal Massacusetts Republican Ed Brooke, tinged by a money scandal. lost to Rep. Paul Tsongas. Another northeast liberal Republican, Clifford Case of New Jersey, was knocked off in the primary by conservative activist Jeffrey Bell. But Bell lost the general election to basketball star Bill Bradley. (New Jersey Republicans haven't won a Senate race since.)
And Republicans won their first House race in Georgia since the 1964 Goldwater landslide. Some college professor named Gingrich.
So conservatives were on the march into 1980, and the party's ideological struggle played out in the primaries. It was Reagan's turn, but just enough Republicans were worried about age and electability that he was challenged from the center by walking resume George Bush (no H.W. back then) and from the left by Illinois Congressman John Anderson.
Anderson is the forgotten story of 1980. After a flurry of media attention as a novelty (by 1980, a liberal Republican was a novelty) and some very close second places, Anderson quit the party and ran as an independent. He built no lasting party or movement, not even in the pathetic sense that Ross Perot did. But Anderson is more than a footnote that his 6 percent of the November vote would indicate. He was the counter-trend that indicated a true realignment, the point of final exit for the liberal wing of the Republican Party. Only the ineptitude of Mondale, Dukakis and Kerry, and the triangulation of Clinton and Gore, kept the Democrats from capitalizing on the split and fully claiming those voters until the Obama era.
Another point of exit was the New York Senate primary, where conservative Al D'Amato beat aging liberal Jacob Javits. Javits carried the battle into the general election on the Liberal Party ballot line, which Anderson also had, but both Reagan and D'Amato won with under 50%.
Anderson ran best in New England and the Northwest, bulwarks of old-school Republican moderation, and foreshadowed the trends we saw in 2006 and 2008. He was over 10 percent in all of New England, which paradoxically masked the long-range trend to the Democrats in the Northeast. Reagan carried Massachusetts, Maine, Vermont and Connecticut with less than 50 percent, while Carter won only Rhode Island. (Reagan had a clear majority in New Hampshire, which lagged behind the rest of the region in its Democratic trend and stayed Republican as late as 2000.)
So the liberal Republicans left, but the moderates sold out. Bush, who ran as a pro-choice, pro-ERA moderate George Bush (no H.W. back then) made his deal, changed his positions, and wound up as a fall-back Veep when the great Reagan-Ford "co-presidency" deal tanked at the convention.
Carter almost swept the South in 1976, losing only Virginia. But Reagan did just as well in the South in 1980, with Carter holding only his native Georgia. There was no appetite for a moderate Republican in the deep South; in sharp contrast to their love for the segregationist third party candidates, Louisiana, South Carolina, Mississippi and Alabama each gave Anderson less than 2 percent.
1980 was the beginning of the era of the "Republican lock" on the Electoral College; the math supposedly indicated that so many states were so securely and permanently Republican, like California and New Jersey, that no Democrat could ever get to 270.
And unlike the lonely Nixon landslide of 1972, Reagan had coattails. 1974 had been an unusually good Democratic year, but in `80 the tide was flowing the other way. Republicans gained a dozen Senate seats, sometimes by defeating incumbents, sometimes by beating the winners of an unusually high number of fratricidal Democratic primaries. The effect was stunning in part because of the prominence of those defeated, including former presidential candidates Birch Bayh, Frank Church, and most symbolic of all George McGovern. Ironically, the only Republican to face a tough general election race in 1980 was Barry Goldwater.
The Class of 1980 had some spectacular mediocrities -- Mack Mattingly, Paula Hawkins, James Abdnor, Jeremiah Denton, and of course Dan Quayle. Today, only two of the 1980 GOP freshmen still serve: Pennsylvania's throwback moderate Arlen Specter and Iowa's own Chuck Grassley.
The 1981-82 Congress saw the agenda set by Republicans and conservative Democrats. The big tax cut and spending cut bills were Gramm-Rudman and Gramm-Latta, and Gramm was Phil Gramm, elected as a conservative Democrat from Texas in 1978 (the same year Republican George W. Bush lost a West Texas House race.)
Gramm worked both sides of the street, sitting in on Democratic caucus strategy sessions and then reporting back to the GOP. Just after his 1982 re-election, he resigned and ran successfully for his own vacancy as a Republican--a high profile stepping stone to his 1984 Senate win.
The backlash hit in 1986 as Democrats took back the Senate. The landslide brought in some fresh Southerners: Bob Graham, Terry Sanford, Wyche Fowler, and the lamentable Richard Shelby. These Senators were certainly moderates by national standards, but not hard-line, old-fashouned conservatives. Even Shelby's record before his 1994 party change was relatively moderate and certainly more liberal than one term Republican Jeremiah Denton.
More in tune with the long term trend was Mississippi in 1988, when John Stennis, last of the old-time Democratic segregationists (Republican Thurmond would last another 14 years) retired and Trent Lott took his place.
Thus we reached the end of the Reagan years with more of the modern system in place. Voting behavior settled down from the wild swings of the civil rights era into more consistent patterns, and though there were still moderates in both parties, the Republican Party was clearly the place for the conservatives. The Republican Senate of 1980-86 seemed like a short-term trend, and the long-range pattern of nominal Democratic control had returned.
The Bush 41 era was a holding pattern of low turnover. But in our next chapter, the face of Congress changes drastically.