IF THE LAST 180 YEARS of American politics are any guide, the 2004 election will see one of the two major parties become dominant in presidential politics for 36 years.
If that seems a bit deterministic, consider these facts. In 1824, Andrew Jackson won a strong plurality in the popular vote and in the Electoral College. Though Jackson was denied the presidency by the House of Representatives, his showing was the harbinger of a 36-year period in which the mass-based Democratic party he and his followers fashioned lost only two subsequent presidential races.
In 1860, Abraham Lincoln became the first Republican president. In the subsequent 36 years, Grover Cleveland's two non-consecutive terms were the only exceptions to Republican control of the White House.
In 1896, rural-based populist forces led by William Jennings Bryan crushed Cleveland's followers at the national convention and took over the Democratic party. Republican nominee William McKinley took advantage of the rupture, scoring a breakthrough in the rapidly growing cities of the Northeast and Midwest. For 36 years, only Woodrow Wilson's two terms interrupted a GOP hegemony significantly more one-sided than the regionally based Civil War alignment of 1860-96.
In 1932, Franklin Roosevelt scored a colossal landslide, which inaugurated the New Deal era. In the subsequent 36 years, Republicans held the presidency for only the two terms of war hero Dwight Eisenhower.
In 1968, the upheavals of the 1960s shattered the New Deal coalition and made Richard Nixon president. Even though Nixon's was a failed presidency and Democrats retained predominance in Congress until 1994, they still managed only three victories in the nine presidential elections of the post-New Deal era. The allotted 36 years are up year after next.
If there is one reason why 2004 may not see a realignment, it is, paradoxically, the strong political hand enjoyed by President Bush in the wake of the surprising GOP gains of 2002. The pattern of strong presidents seeking reelection is that they tend not to risk running on the kind of defining issues that make for realignments. In fact, a long-term partisan realignment has never been triggered by a sitting president successfully seeking reelection.
Recent presidents who won their second election--Eisenhower, Nixon, Reagan, and Clinton--started ahead, or pulled ahead early in the cycle, and played not to lose. They largely avoided mistakes and won handily, but provided little in the way of coattails to their party. Remarkably, the parties of these winners all suffered net losses in the U.S. Senate, and none scored a gain of even 15 seats in the House. Since the rise of split-ticket voting after World War II, a successful presidential reelection has invariably turned into a "lonely landslide."
What would have to happen for George W. Bush to break this pattern and trigger a decisive Republican trend in the middle of a two-term presidency? Something similar to the phenomenon that enabled him to break all the rules and make gains in both the House and Senate in his first midterm: a continuation and acceleration of the significant breach between the Democratic party and the electorate that began to be obvious this fall.
The Democrats' 2002 campaign involved little more than a series of constituent-group attacks on the Republicans. According to the Democrats, Republicans were opposed to seniors' interests, women's rights, and the economic well-being of workers.
President Bush countered with an appeal to the larger national purpose. The events of September 11 called for a direct response to terror abroad and a coordinated response at home through the formation of a Department of Homeland Security. He personally challenged the Democrats' division and incoherence on Iraq and their seeming placement of labor-union interests above homeland security.
Reacting to their setback, Democratic elites seem to have concluded that they were too tepid in their attacks on Republicans, that they failed to make an aggressive enough case against Bush's interventionism abroad and his conservative economic and social policies at home. The fault lines, they believe, need to be sharpened.
It is in this context that Bush now has an opportunity to forge Republican majorities for the next generation. On the foreign policy front, the president continues to make the case that Islamic terrorism is an enormous, worldwide threat to our way of life. America must rise to this danger by confronting outlaw regimes, with military force if necessary, to deprive them and their terrorist allies of weapons of mass destruction. It is at root a simple and direct moral argument. Democratic counterarguments all rest, at least implicitly, on minimizing the implications of the devastation and loss of life that occurred in the orchestrated attacks of September 11, 2001.
On the domestic front, Bush in his first two years has begun a line of argument that also appeals to the collective strength of the nation. He has called for a renewed commitment to citizenship through volunteer service. In a speech at Notre Dame University in the spring of 2001 he outlined a war on poverty and drug addiction designed to replace failed top-down bureaucracies with community and faith-based healing. He has endorsed fatherhood initiatives and efforts to strengthen marriage. He continues to articulate the view that immigrants bring economic strength and vitality to our national life. He has endorsed a ban on human cloning that respects the fundamental sanctity of the person. He has condemned failed education policies as perpetuating a "soft bigotry" that expects too little of young Americans in minority communities.
In response, Democrats have returned again and again, perhaps at times unconsciously, to their view of America as a collection of interest groups. They oppose the faith-based initiative at the behest of the gay rights lobby and educational choice on behalf of the teachers' unions. They defend sexual freedom and individual expression as unqualified goods. In contrast, President Bush is attempting to set forth a domestic agenda of national purpose founded on service to others and collective responsibility to address the social pathologies brought on by drug addiction, poverty, the dissolution of families, and the failed education system.
No one would be surprised, and few Republicans would complain, if the president and his team decided that winning a world war was enough to focus on in the coming two years. Our guess is that in normal circumstances the outcome of such a decision would be an Eisenhower-Reagan-style "lonely landslide" that would continue to see the nation closely divided in Congress and at the state and local level, perhaps with the mild Republican edge that emerged in 2002.
But the circumstances are not normal, and the decision is not exclusively in the hands of the president and his party. There is a compulsion among top Democrats to take their various disagreements with Bush to their logical conclusions, and an implacability in their desire to deny Bush even limited victories, particularly on domestic issues related to his vision of America.
Thus the bizarre self-remaking of Al Gore from the pro-growth, pro-defense New Democrat of the 1990s into the antiwar, anti-capitalist, anti-traditional-family Al Gore of his 2002 book tour may prove to be, for Democrats, not aberrational but central. If it is, and if the president responds by defending his vision and his program without apology, 2004 may after all be remembered as the Bush realignment.
Jeffrey Bell and Frank Cannon are principals of Capital City Partners, a Washington consulting firm.