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The Incredible Shrinking Dems

From the January 1, 2005 Wall Street Journal: It was an annus horribilis for America's minority party.

11:00 PM, Jan 6, 2005 • By FRED BARNES
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GEORGE W. BUSH got more votes in winning re-election than the entire population of France. He improved his share of the vote among Latinos, women, African-Americans, Jews and Catholics. Winning a plurality of states along the Mississippi River has guaranteed presidential victory since 1912. Bush won a majority. This year, says Democratic pollster Peter Hart, "a sense of Republicanism crept up the river. The president won Missouri, which was always a tossup state, by more than 7%. Iowa flipped his direction, and in Minnesota and Wisconsin, we waited all night to find out that Kerry had just barely carried those states." So the Upper Midwest, following the South, Southwest, Plains, and Rocky Mountains, is now trending Republican.

There's another measure of Republican (and Bush) success in 2004. For the first time in more than a century, a Republican president won re-election as his party improved its hold on the House and Senate while increasing its majority of governorships (28 now) and maintaining control of a plurality of state legislatures (20). At the same time, Republicans held a majority of state legislators--a feat they initially achieved in 2002 after a half-century in the minority.

And don't forget what Democrats insisted for decades was their path to sure victory. If Democrats could match Republican campaign spending, energize their base, dramatically increase voter turnout, and provoke a robust debate on big issues, they'd win the White House and probably a whole lot more. Well, they managed all of that in 2004. The result: A Republican won with the first presidential majority since 1988. Bush touted an agenda of bold conservative reform. The last time a Democrat won as an unalloyed liberal was 1964.

Democrats and the media have been reluctant to spotlight the breadth and depth of Republican strength in 2004. Strangely, so have Republicans. It's almost as if they don't believe their own good fortune. "We're no longer a 49% nation," says Ken Mehlman, Bush's campaign manager in 2004 and now the Republican national chairman, in a breathtaking understatement. And Mehlman warns that the Republican majority is "not overwhelming" and won't produce "automatic victories." True, but Republicans have the presidency and the most senators (55) since 1931, and are near their modern peak in the House (232). They have all but completed the sweeping political realignment they could only dream about a generation ago. In the dark days after the 1964 rout, those dreams seemed quixotic, farfetched, even crazed. Now, they've been realized.

Today, Republicans are in position to pursue a conservative agenda more sweeping than even Reagan's. Bush is preparing to propose the partial privatization of Social Security. That's ground on which Reagan feared to tread. Then Bush plans to seek simplification of the tax code far beyond what Reagan achieved in 1986. And from there, the agenda turns to curbing trial lawyers, expanding faith-based programs, filling Supreme Court vacancies with conservatives, and more.

Where are Democrats? They're desperately seeking to preserve every government program and benefit enacted since the days of the New Deal. The problem for them is that the New Deal paradigm--the belief that Washington could endlessly improve people's lives--has lost its appeal. Bush discovered this the hard way. He pushed a Medicare prescription drug benefit through Congress in 2003, expecting it to boost his popularity. It didn't. The program drew disapproving poll numbers. His newer idea of an "ownership society" hasn't quite replaced the New Deal paradigm, but it has a chance.

Meanwhile, Republicans and Democrats are experiencing an extraordinary reversal of roles. Democrats were once the inclusive party of the "big tent." Republicans now have a bigger tent. Social liberals like Rudy Giuliani and Arnold Schwarzenegger were prominent speakers at the GOP convention. Social conservatives were virtually nonexistent at the Democratic convention. Democrats have embraced a series of ideological litmus tests on abortion, gay rights, and embryonic stem-cell research. Republicans haven't.

What's more damaging politically, Democrats have become the party of higher taxes. The debate among Democratic presidential contenders this year was over whether to repeal all or just some of Bush's tax cuts. More recently, Republican Senator Lindsey Graham of South Carolina has sought to win Democratic support for Social Security reform by promising to pay for it with a huge increase in payroll taxes.