John Kerry can win, given George W. Bush’s incompetence, and White House strategists realize that. All the Democrats need to do is to peel away some of the Republican “unbase”–the most wobbly members of the GOP coalition. The caveat is that not many Democrats understand that coalition or why it has beaten the Democrats most of the time since 1968. Nor do most understand the convoluted but related role of Bill Clinton in aborting what could have been a 1992-2004 (or 2008) mini-cycle of Democratic White House dominance and in paving the way for George W.
Elements of this shortsightedness are visible in both the party and the Kerry campaign. While attempts to harness “Anybody but Bush” psychologies and to attract voters without saying much that is controversial might win Kerry a narrow victory, this strategy would be unlikely to create a framework for successful four- or eight-year governance. Deconstructing the Republican coalition is a better long-term bet, and could be done. The result, however, might be to uncage serious progressive reform.
Republicans, in contrast, have been successful in thinking strategically since the late 1960s. From 1968 until Bill Clinton’s triumph in 1992, Republicans won five of the six presidential elections, and even Jimmy Carter’s narrow victory in 1976 was in many respects a post-Watergate fluke. The two main coalitional milestones were Richard Nixon’s 61 percent in 1972 and Ronald Reagan’s 59 percent in 1984.
The two Bushes, notwithstanding their dynastic achievement, represent the later-stage weakness of the coalition, which would have been more obvious without the moral rebukes of Clinton that were critical in the 1994 and 2000 elections. In the three presidential elections the Bushes have fought to date, their percentages of the total national vote have been 53.9 percent (1988), 37.7 percent (1992) and 47.9 percent (2000)–an average of 46.5 percent. Keep in mind that in 1992, Bush Senior got the smallest vote share of any President seeking re-election since William Howard Taft in 1912, while in 2000, the younger Bush became the first President to be elected without winning a plurality of the popular vote since Benjamin Harrison in 1888. The aftermath of 9/11 created transient strength, but the essential weakness of the Bushes was palpable again by mid-2004.
Strategizing on behalf of a family with more luck and lineage than gravitas, the principal strategists for each Bush President–Lee Atwater for number 41 and Karl Rove for number 43–have necessarily been Machiavellian students of the Republican presidential coalition and how to maintain it. After helping to elect 41 in 1988 because Democratic nominee Michael Dukakis was an Ivy League technocrat unconvincing as an occasional populist, Atwater observed that “the way to win a presidential election against the Republicans is to develop the class-warfare issue, as Dukakis did at the end. To divide up the have and have-nots.” Since then, the focus on keeping Republicans together has evolved and intensified.
Despite the Republican weakness evident in 1992 and Bush’s second-place finish in 2000, Rove is notable for his preoccupation with the GOP “base,” which he presumably thinks of in normal majoritarian terms. However, in the case of Bush’s running for election or re-election, it is also useful–and the Democrats of 2004 would find it particularly worthwhile–to focus on the GOP’s “unbase.” This, in essence, is the 20-25 percent of the party electorate that has been won at various points by three national anti-Bush primary and general election candidates with Republican origins: Ross Perot (1992), John McCain (2000) and, in a lesser vein, Patrick Buchanan (1992). Most of the shared Perot-McCain issues–campaign and election reform, opposition to the religious right, distaste for Washington lobbyists, opposition to upper-bracket tax biases and runaway deficits, criticism of corporations and CEOs–are salient today and more compatible with the mainstream moderate reformist Democratic viewpoint than with the lobbyist-driven Bush Administration. Perot and Buchanan’s economic nationalism (anti-outsourcing, anti-NAFTA) and criticism of Iraq policy under the two Bushes is also shared by many Democrats.