I had a very interesting discussion in my class on American political parties today. We’ve been reading Byron Shafer’s The Two Majorities and the Puzzle of Modern American Politics. In that book, Shafer argues that since the New Deal the center of American public opinion has become vaguely liberal on economic and social welfare issues and conservative on foreign policy and cultural issues. Democratic elites, he continues, are liberal on both dimensions. Republican elites are conservative on both dimensions. When economic issues loom large, Democrats win. When foreign policy and cultural issues dominate the election, Republicans win. The ideal candidate, however, would seem to be someone who tracks more closely the thrust of public opinion as Shafer understands it, to the left of the Republicans on welfare and economic policy and to the right of the Democrats on foreign policy and cultural issues. Someone, say, like Jedediah Bartlet--Bill Clinton without the scandals--or Senator Joseph Lieberman?
Since the book was written in large part before the 2000 election, I wondered what Shafer was thinking these days. In found this passage in a transcript of event hosted by the Brookings Institution on October 15th, 2004: "Social welfare remains a Democratic issue. It
features Democratic--Tom gave you the phrase "issue
ownership" in the jargon of our business, though George W.
Bush has been willing to address education, which he saw as
"up for grabs;" he’s willing to address Social Security,
which he saw as a bridge to younger voters; and he’s
actually willing to legislate on prescription drugs.
At the same time he’s done tax cuts, the
traditional Republican counterpunch on social welfare, and
we all watched the economic cycle with puzzlement and
anticipation to see what it will do to him.
Foreign affairs remains a Republican issue; it
features Republican issue ownership, though John Kerry did
offer you the only “war convention” among Democrats in my
conscious memory, I have to say. The generals, the
veterans, the bio film that featured Vietnam, all adding up
to a life, if you believe it.
Here we watched the place of Iraq—and I think Ben
will help out a lot on that—in this constellation with real
fascination. Can it be tied to terrorism by the
Republicans, or can it be severed from terrorism by
So, final thought: Does 2004 look like the rest of
the era of divided government? I think so, and the
predictions that follow from that are therefore obvious.
Either you get a Kerry presidency stapled onto a continuing
Republican Congress, or you get a congressional uprising to
go with the Bush reelection.
It has to be said that the two nominees are both
trying very hard to escape the policy strictures of this
extended era. They don’t appear to me to be able to do so.
But if they could, we would be in a new world, and the
Election of 2002 would actually mark its beginning."
Needless to say, Shafer on his own terms is wrong: Bush won with an increased majority in both houses of Congress. Does this mean that he, not Bill Clinton, not Jedediah Bartlet, and certainly not Joe Lieberman, is in a position to change the terms of American politics, pulling public opinion a little further to the right on economic issues and holding the conservative line on foreign policy and cultural issues, thereby perhaps consummating the Reagan revolution? At the Brookings event, Shafer also argued that American opinion was generally moving rightward on the former issues and leftward on the latter. (In other words, opposition to gay marriage may be a big mobilizer now, but not ten or twenty years down the road.) If Shafer is right, then Bush’s accomplishment is evanescent. What do NLT readers think?
I’ll give you my students’ reaction next Monday, after they’ve had time to digest it all.