Post-1984 Political Landscape

January 11, 1985

A document from the CQ Researcher archives:

Report Outline
Liberalism's Decline
The Turning Point
Conservative Challenge
Ideology and the Parties

Liberalism's Decline

Liberal Crisis and Conservative Gains

On Jan. 21, Americans will witness the second inauguration of Republican President Ronald Reagan. Many of his supporters view Reagan's landslide victory last November as the ratification of a conservative political philosophy, out of vogue since the New Deal days of the 1930s but redeemed by Reagan's first election in 1980. In addition, many political pundits describe Reagan's triumph over Walter F. Mondale as another body blow, perhaps a fatal one, to the liberalism that has dominated the Democratic Party for the past half-century.

Obituaries for liberalism have been written before but seldom with such good reason. Mondale, who regarded himself as the bearer of a torch passed to him by Franklin D. Roosevelt, Harry S Truman, John F. Kennedy, Lyndon Johnson and Hubert H. Humphrey, received only 41 percent of the popular vote. The former vice president's performance continued a long and unhappy pattern for liberal Democrats. Since the brief heyday of post-New Deal liberalism in the early 1960s, no Democratic presidential candidate generally identified as a liberal has mustered as much as 43 percent of the total vote.1

Many traditional Democrats—white Southerners, white laborers, Catholics, religious fundamentalists, even “baby boomers” with roots in the anti-Vietnam War movement—are indicating their dissatifaction with the Democrats' “drift to the left” by voting against the party. In a Gallup survey released Dec. 2, four-fifths of the respondents described themselves as “right-of-center” or “middle-of-the-road,” while only 18 percent called themselves “left-of-center.” However, 44 percent saw the national Democratic Party as left-of-center.

Liberal Democrats deny that Reagan's landslide means that conservatism will soon become the dominant political philosophy in America. They attribute the president's big win to his personal popularity and the economic recovery and note that Reagan's coattails were short. Republicans gained only 14 U.S. House seats and lost two Senate seats.2 But veteran liberal observers admit that Mondale's poor showing likely marks the end of an era in the national Democratic Party. “There is indeed a centrist move” within the Democratic Party, said Leon Shull, retiring president of the liberal Americans for Democratic Action (ADA). Shull said the move was “entirely understandable” in light of the election results.

Some of the impetus for the party's glacial move to the right comes from Sunbelt conservatives. These Southern and Western Democrats blame the party's woes on its inability to appeal to voters in their regions. But the officials most likely to edge the Democratic Party from its New Deal-Great Society positions are those who describe themselves as neo—liberals. These Democrats emphasize economic growth and development of new technology over redistribution of wealth and protection of traditional industries. Sen. Gary Hart of Colorado, who described himself as the candidate of “new ideas” and attacked the ties of Mondale and the party establishment to “special interests,” nearly stole the Democratic nomination in 1984.

Many conservatives see the Democratic turmoil as an opportunity for the Republican Party to end the 20th century as it began it: as the majority party. But others contend that the situation within the party is really a truce that will dissolve into a divisive turf fight as Reagan's second term winds down. Some schisms are already obvious: between members of the New Right, with their “pro-family”—anti-abortion, pro-school prayer, anti-gay rights—agenda, and libertarian conservatives, who do not believe in “legislating morality”; between supply-siders who emphasize tax cuts and traditional economic conservatives who advocate deficit reduction above other economic goals. Moderate Republicans cannot be counted out; several recently won posts in the GOP Senate leadership.

Development of American Liberalism

The basis for American liberal philosophy began with the colonists who opted for popular sovereignty over autocracy. The Declaration of Independence is often described as a liberal document. It declares that “all men are created equal” and defends the citizens' rights to “life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.” But whether the nation's first leaders were liberals, in the modern sense, has been much debated. Unlike European revolutions, the American Revolution did not seek to overturn individual property rights, but defended them, including the right to own slaves.3

Opposition to slavery became the defining issue for many American “liberals” before and during the Civil War. Belief in equality also led liberals of the time to identify with the women's suffrage movement. Liberals initially supported laissezfaire capitalism but in the early 20th century fought big business to improve wages and working conditions, guarantee labor rights, reduce poverty and break up the monopolies.

The Great Depression discredited the prevailing conservative, “hands-off” philosophy toward the economy. Although Franklin Roosevelt's New Deal was just a vague slogan during his 1932 campaign, his presidency was a period of unprecedented experimentation in social engineering. The federal government set up programs to aid the elderly and poor, create jobs, build housing, guarantee collective bargaining rights, revitalize agriculture, bring water and power projects to rural areas and regulate many economic sectors.

The stimulative effects of federal spending carried the nation out of the Depression and through World War II. Liberal economic philosophy prevailed during the post-war boom, culminating in the 1960s with the enactment of President Johnson's Great Society programs. In a few short years the Democratic president and Congress broadened the welfare system and provided federal funding for job training, public service employment, health care, education, and housing.

The vigorous, and often violent, opposition to some liberal causes—racial desegregation of public schools and other public facilities and an end to overt discrimination against blacks, other minorities and women in employment and housing—was eventually defused and converted into general acceptance. But once these broad objectives were achieved, liberals found it increasingly difficult to win support for affirmative action, the Equal Rights Amendment, gay rights and similar causes that many citizens viewed as too liberal. Rather than advance these causes, liberals found themselves warding off attacks on issues they thought they had already won, such as a woman's right to have an abortion and an end to prescribed prayer in public schools.

The liberal position on U.S. military intervention has undergone a controversial metamorphosis. During the first half of the century, liberals believed that democracy should be implemented or protected around the world and so supported American involvement in the two world wars and Korea and the anti-Communist Truman Doctrine.4 But the Bay of Pigs fiasco in 1961 and the intractable Vietnam conflict caused many liberals to rethink their position. The nomination of George McGovern, one of the early Senate “doves,” signaled the primacy of a non-interventionist foreign policy among liberal Democrats.

Dissolution of the New Deal Coalition

The economic benefits of the New Deal programs attracted laborers, blacks, white Southerners, ethnic Catholics and Jews to the Democratic Party. But this coalition was fragile; differences between the groups led to constant tension. White Southerners were the first to splinter off in large numbers, following the national party's commitment to the civil rights cause in 1948.

By the 1970s, conservative Democrats were beginning to view liberal support for “lifestyle” issues as attacks on the family, religion and other traditional values. Calls for reduced defense spending exasperated a number of influential Democratic intellectuals, including Jeane Kirkpatrick who serves as Reagan's ambassador to the United Nations.5 And the anti-America rhetoric of Vietnam War-era radicals angered many blue-collar workers.6 Advocates of affirmative action and forced busing were denigrated as “limousine liberals” who sought social justice at the expense of the middle-class working man.

Support for the war on poverty also waned. Conservatives blamed welfare programs for the burgeoning federal deficit, rising taxes and the breakup of the family. Some said the anti-poverty programs bred complacency and dulled the initiative that had set millions of earlier Americans on the road to upward mobility. The economic vagaries of the 1970s—stagnation, inflation, high interest rates—and the Democratic leadership's apparent inability to promote economic growth turned even more Americans from liberalism. By the end of the decade many Democrats said their party and its dominant liberal wing represented economic decline, high taxation, inflation, permissiveness and military weakness.

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The Turning Point

Liberals Lose More Ground in Elections

Reagan Capitalized on the conservative trend and Democratic disaffection with its liberal wing both during his 1980 campaign and in his first term.7 In the first months of his presidency he won an unprecedented tax cut, an enormous increase in defense spending and substantial cuts in spending for domestic programs. This reversal of nearly 50 years of federal spending policy, coupled with Reagan's conservative stands on affirmative action and abortion and what many described as his callousness toward the needs of the poor and minorities, revitalized liberal efforts to assure that one of their own would face Reagan in the 1984 election.

Walter Mondale embodied most of the liberal principles of the last half-century. He campaigned for civil and women's rights and said the government should strengthen, not weaken, efforts to aid the poor. Mondale called for restraint in the exercise of American might and reductions in the rate of defense spending growth. And he attacked Reagan's coziness with the religious right as symbolic of an attempt to establish Christianity as a state religion.

Mondale tried to weave the conservative themes of fiscal responsibility, family values, patriotism and military strength into his campaign speeches. But voters skeptical of or hostile to liberalism saw him as just another liberal disciple of New Deal and Great Society programs that had neither ended poverty nor promoted economic growth. Many white males and others with a stake in the status quo did not share Mondale's enthusiasm for equalizing opportunity for minorities and women. And on foreign policy issues, Mondale was accused of being part of a clique that always “blames America first.”8

Mondale also seemed to take on all the image problems that liberals developed in the late 1970s. Despite his persistent references to growth, the future and the flag, Mondale was tagged as the candidate of gloom. Reagan said a Mondale government would be one of “pessimism, fear and limits,” and Vice President George Bush urged voters again to reject “the malaise days of Carter and Mondale.” Mondale may have been Hubert Humphrey's protégé, but Reagan acted more like the “happy warrior.”

Mondale Burdened by Special Interests

In his campaign, Mondale appealed for and received the endorsements of many constituency groups traditionally linked with the Democratic Party: unions, feminists, blacks, Hispanics, Jews, gays. In doing so, he opened himself to the charge that he was the candidate of “special interests.” The charge came not only from the Republicans, but from the Democratic opposition as well. Gary Hart referred to Mondale's program as “a collection of old, tired ideas, held together by paralyzing commitments to special interest and constituency groups.”

Appealing for support on the basis of group loyalties is nothing new for Democrats. The New Deal coalition was made up of economic, ethnic, religious and racial groups who elevated their common interests and sublimated their differences in their support for Democratic candidates. Party bosses who generally compromised or played down divisive issues dominated the presidential nominating process until 1968. However, the crumbling of political machines and significant changes in the process itself created a system in which interest groups, and often single-issue activists, dominate.9

The results have been evident. In 1984 unions called for protectionism, a number of feminists threatened to bolt the party if Mondale did not pick a woman for vice president, the Rev. Jesse Jackson threatened to withhold his support if Mondale did not take a stronger stand on affirmative action and jobs programs, Hispanic delegates threatened to boycott the first convention ballot unless Mondale expressed his opposition to a then-pending immigration bill, and gay rights advocates demanded and received platform language advocating their cause.10

Mondale's constituency-oriented campaign hurt his image. “Honk if Mondale promised you anything” was a popular bumper sticker. Those who did not regard themselves as members of an interest group—many middle-class whites, for instance—believed they were being given short shrift. Leon Shull said that group demands put Mondale “in the position of bargaining, and I don't think the country likes that.”

Furthermore, rank-and-file voters are not always in accord with the leaders who claim to represent them. According to election day exit polls, only blacks and Jews maintained significant levels of Democratic loyalty. Despite the all-out commitment of the AFL-CIO and most other unions, Mondale carried little more than half of the union vote. Hispanics roughly split their votes between the two candidates. And women gave Reagan a sizable majority, despite Mondale's choice of New York Rep. Geraldine A. Ferraro as his running mate.

“One of the other lessons that has to be learned over and over and over again, by constituent groups and everyone else, is that groups do not deliver people,” Shull said. “What the feminist movement could not sell the women of the country on was that it was in their basic interest to be for Mondale. They didn't think so. They thought it was in their basic interest to be for Ronald Reagan for the same reasons that the men did.”

Rising Support for Neoliberal Policies

Hart, who came within a breath of denying Mondale the nomination, is one of a group of politicians and intellectuals who call themselves “neoliberals.” Other well-known neoliberal figures include Sen. Bill Bradley of New Jersey, Rep. Richard A. Gephardt of Missouri and recently retired Sen. Paul E. Tsongas of Massachusetts. Charles Peters, publisher of The Washington Monthly, is also a leading neoliberal voice.

Peters explained the evolving neoliberal philosophy in the May 1983 issue of his magazine: “We still believe in liberty and justice and a fair chance for all, in mercy for the afflicted and help for the down and out. But we no longer automatically favor unions and big government or oppose the military and big business. Indeed, in our search for solutions that work, we have come to distrust all automatic responses, liberal or conservative.”

The neoliberal hero, Peters wrote, “is the risk-taking entrepreneur who creates new jobs and better products.” Most neoliberals favor some sort of “industrial policy,” in which management, labor and government cooperate on plans to increase productivity, profit and employment. A belief in high-technology as the way to economic growth is probably the most publicly recognized trait of neoliberals—they first gained prominence in the early 1980s with the nickname “Atari Democrats.” Most oppose protectionism and bailouts for corporations in declining industries as counter-productive.

While Mondale was calling for a tax increase, neoliberals were emphasizing the need to simplify taxes. A tax reform plan drawn up by Bradley and Gephardt is similar not only to a Treasury Department proposal but also to a plan developed by New Right Republicans Rep. Jack F. Kemp of New York and Sen. Bob Kasten of Wisconsin. Another issue separating liberals and neoliberals concerns which levels of government are best suited to deal with problems. The typical liberal response is to create a federal program. Neoliberals, especially governors such as Bruce Babbitt of Arizona, Robert Graham of Florida, and Charles S. Robb of Virginia say that greater flexibility and creativity are available at the state and local levels.

Some say that the issue which most separates liberals from neoliberals and from the voters is that of personal values. “The snobbery that is most damaging to liberalism is the liberal intellectuals' contempt for religious, patriotic and family values,” Peters wrote. “Instead of scorning people who value family, country, and religion, neoliberals believe in reaching out to them to make clear that our programs are rooted in the same values.”

Despite accusations that neoliberals are just conservatives in disguise, most are more liberal than “neo” on many social issues. With exceptions, they support environmental protection, health and safety regulation, voting rights and civil rights, reproductive choice and the Equal Rights Amendment. It is thus not surprising that the core of neoliberal support is among those upwardly mobile members of the baby-boom generation sometimes referred to as “yuppies,” or young, urban professionals. The rising economic status of these voters makes them wary of “big government” spending programs, but their social values are in tune with the leading neoliberals.

Conservatives approach neoliberals with mixed feelings. Political scientist and theologian Michael Novak of the American Enterprise Institute said neoliberals “have a downhome sense of the way things work and they know that money put into a sinking industry is either being put there through political favoritism or is going to be wasted.” He noted that “there's not too much distance between them and so-called neoconservatives,” but, he added, “the ease with which they use an expression such as ‘industrial policy’ shows that either they still think like the left more than they want to or that they want to keep their credentials on the left.”

New Right leader Paul Weyrich said he had “actually endorsed some of Hart's views on bureaucracy, and the fact that Bradley and Gephardt would work with Kemp and Kasten on the flat tax is an indication that this is a new breed of Democrat.” However, he said neoliberals did not understand the traditional-values issue and that their “weakness” on national defense could cost them blue-collar votes.11

Liberal activists say that neoliberals have some good ideas and that compromise is not impossible. But they note a fundamental difference. “I think the big difference is that I have more confidence that government can be used successfully and constructively in society,” Leon Shull said. “I think government is an absolutely essential instrument of society. We live in a complex society and there's no other instrument at hand to protect the health and welfare of people and to provide the input that can give us a solid economic system.”

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Conservative Challenge

Evolution of American Conservatism

The Division in the liberal community is one result of the conservative revival in American politics. The 1980s appear to be halcyon days for supporters of a philosophy that has, at various times in American history, flourished, faded, then returned to credibility.

American conservative philosophy is grounded in the thoughts of 18th-century English statesman Edmund Burke who emphasized tradition, morality and religious faith and contended that governments could not successfully impose changes in society. Conservatives throughout the nation's history have been distrustful of government action. In the early days of the Republic, what conservatives were trying to “conserve” was an agrarian-based society that supported states' rights over the power of the central government, placed the primacy of the individual over the achievement of social goals, and was slow to accept industrialization and urbanization. Conservatism was particularly strong in the South, where the dogma of property rights and opposition to state interference were used to defend slavery.12

With the rapid industrialization of the late 19th century, American conservatism developed into two branches: the rural, mostly Southern, voters who identified with the Democratic Party, and the business community that, from the “Captains of Industry” to small-town entrepreneurs, dominated the Republican Party. Although divided on economic philosophy both groups favored what they claimed to be gradualism in social change. By and large conservatives opposed women's suffrage, labor rights, the breakup of the big monopolies, health and safety regulation, the progressive income tax and immigration. With some “progressive” exceptions like Theodore Roosevelt, conservatives were also isolationists who opposed U.S. involvement in World War I, blocked U.S. entry into the League of Nations, and supported high tariffs and other legislation to protect American industries. Extreme elements led its opponents to identify conservatism with racism, anti-unionization, religious intolerance and isolationism.

The Great Depression shattered the prevailing beliefs that unregulated capitalism would provide unbroken prosperity and that unemployment and poverty were necessarily the results of individual weakness. The country turned to the liberal Democrats for solutions, and the Republican Party turned to its moderates. The dominant Eastern, or Wall Street, wing of the party spurned conservative presidential candidates in favor of businessman Wendell Willkie in 1940, Gov. Thomas A. Dewey of New York in 1944 and 1948, Dwight D. Eisenhower in 1952 and 1956 and Nixon in 1960.

Conservatism was not dead, however. Its revival began in the early 1950s. Anti-communism, though taken to excess by Sen. Joseph McCarthy, R-Wis., and his followers, gave conservatives an issue to rally around. The creation of the weekly National Review in 1955 by William F. Buckley Jr. and other right-wing intellectuals gave conservatives a public forum. And the threat that Eastern liberals, as personified by Gov. Nelson A. Rockefeller of New York, would dominate the Republican Party gave them a cause.

In 1964 conservative Sen. Barry Goldwater of Arizona won the Republican presidential nomination. Campaigning as the candidate of the “forgotten American, the man who pays his taxes, prays, behaves himself, stays out of trouble, and works for his government,” Goldwater drew Southern conservatives from their century-old alliance with the Democrats. But his opposition to the 1964 Civil Rights Act, attacks on federal programs and aggressive anti-Soviet rhetoric enabled the incumbent Lyndon Johnson to label him as a right-wing extremist and win a landslide victory. The reins of leadership returned to the moderate wing of the party.

It was President Nixon who proposed a guaranteed minimum income program, instituted wage and price controls, expanded food stamp eligibility, withdrew American forces from Vietnam, sought “détente” with the Soviet Union and opened relations with Communist China. President Ford signed the Helsinki agreement on human rights with Soviet premier Leonid Brezhnev and expanded the public employment and job training programs. However, appeals by Nixon and his vice president Spiro T. Agnew to the patriotic “silent Americans,” their advocacy of “law and order,” and their attacks on sexual and social permissiveness helped to wean more Southern conservatives and blue-collar workers from the New Deal coalition.

Reagan, New Right Rise to Prominence

The turmoil of the 1970s provided ammunition for conservatives. They blamed economic stagnation on liberal “big government,” big-spending and high-taxation programs which, they said, drained investment capital out of the economy and caused inflation and high interest rates. Communist advances in Southeast Asia, Africa and Afghanistan, the rise of anti-American regimes in Nicaragua and Iran, the Iran hostage crisis and even oil shortages were attributed to liberal tolerance of American military weakness.

Ronald Reagan, a converted Democrat who campaigned for Goldwater in 1964 and served as governor of California from 1967 to 1975, became the chief conservative spokesman. After he barely lost the Republican nomination to incumbent President Ford in 1976, Reagan began to lay the groundwork for 1980. The motivating force and organization skills for his “conservative revolution” were politicians and groups collectively known as the New Right. Prominent leaders of this movement include Sen. Jesse Helms, R-N.C, Rep. Philip M. Crane, R-Ill., Weyrich, direct-mail fund-raising expert Richard Viguerie and Conservative Caucus director Howard J. Phillips.

The New Right presented an agenda and an image different from that of traditional conservatives. Unlike Buckley and other Ivy League intellectuals, New Right politicians campaign as friends of the put-upon middle class workingman, the overtaxed burden-bearer of liberal social experiments. New Right attacks on big business, as well as big government and big labor, and its advocacy of entrepreneurialism and new technologies, run counter to traditional conservative support of banks and established corporations.

Unlike conventional conservatives, for whom economic issues are paramount, moral issues play a central role for the New Right. The movement's positions on abortion, school prayer, gay rights, pornography and tuition tax credits for religious schools have won the active support of religious fundamentalists who once shunned politics and have attracted to the conservative cause many former New Deal Democratic voting-group members, including a number of Catholics.

Policy Divisions Among Conservatives

Although together they have given conservatism a significance unknown since the 1920s, the New Right and the more traditional conservatives are engaged in ongoing battles over several basic issues. One is the matter of federal deficits amounting to nearly $200 billion annually since 1983. On one side are the moderates, including newly elected Senate Majority Leader Robert Dole of Kansas, who call for cutbacks in all federal programs, including defense, and tax increases to close the deficit. New Right leaders call for even deeper cuts in federal social programs and increased defense spending. They insist that tax decreases are the secret to economic growth. Included in this group are Rep. Newt Gingrich, R-Ga., head of a legislative caucus that calls itself the “Conservative Opportunity Society,” and Rep. Kemp, author with Sen. William V. Roth Jr., R-Del., of the 1981 tax cut bill.

Another dispute is over welfare policy. While nearly all conservatives agree that welfare programs have grown excessively since the Great Society days, there is no consensus on how far they should be rolled back. Charles Murray of the Manhattan Institute for Policy Research, contends that federal programs worsened poverty rather than reduced it and should be eliminated. “We tried to provide more for the poor and produced more poor instead.…We tried to remove the barriers to escape from poverty and inadvertently built a trap,” Murray wrote in 1984.13 Other conservatives disagree, accepting, as have conservatives in other Western nations, that public assistance must be provided for some underprivileged members of society. President Reagan has consistently upheld the need for “safety net” programs for the “truly needy.”

Like the liberals, the conservatives seems to be most divided on social issues. Although they deplore what they view as permissiveness, many conventional conservatives say that the inviolability of personal liberty prevents the state from enforcing a code of morals. However, despite the difficulties it has encountered in translating its moral values into federal law, the New Right persists and believes it will be successful. “There is a religious revival going on in the country, the return to traditional values even among young people is evident, and time is on our side,” Weyrich said.

Many mainline conservatives are concerned that the strong populist strain in the New Right movement will give rise to the same racial and religious intolerance that infected the populist movement of the 1890s and the one led by Alabama Gov. George C. Wallace in the 1960s. New Right leaders deny that there is anything demagogic or exclusionary about their movement. “If I had any say about it, at a White House staff meeting you would see black faces, brown faces, and skirts; you would see a lot more Italians, Poles, Southerners, traditionalist Christians and Jews and many other groups that are under-represented in the power centers of the federal government,” Richard Viguerie told the National Press Club in February 1983. Weyrich cited as an example of their open-mindedness the support given by several New Right congressmen for the protests against apartheid in South Africa, a nation traditionally defended by conservatives as a bastion against Communism.

Although liberals took most of the heat for catering to special interest groups, conservatives have plenty of special interests themselves. Conservatives are criticized as the tools of big business and the wealthy. Today, there are hundreds of political action committees and associations that support conservative causes. Liberals complain that President Reagan and the Republicans were let off easy on the special interest charge. “All parties are made up of constituencies.…The Kemp group came into the Republican Party platform committee and forced them to take a tax plank [barring tax increases] that they didn't want,” Leon Shull said. “That was a constituency, the radical right constituency in the Republican Party….”

Many observers see the upcoming debate on tax reform as a test that will reveal whether conservatives are as beholden to special interests as their liberal counterparts. A Treasury Department plan would lower tax rates, including those for business, but it also would eliminate almost all the loopholes currently enjoyed by traditional conservative support groups, including corporations, oil interests, agribusiness firms, and wealthy individuals. Business lobbies and trade associations have already mobilized to defend their tax breaks. “Believe me, the special interests in this town [Washington] are all over on this issue,” Weyrich said. “They don't care what the public thinks about it, they don't care whether people like it or they don't like it, by golly, their little part of it isn't going to be voided.”

Despite their rhetoric of fiscal responsibility, many conservative legislators also have to answer for their efforts to obtain federal largesse for their home states or districts. “One of the weaknesses of the overall problem today is that everybody is conservative on the other guy's program,” said Rep. Charles W. Stenholm, D-Texas, chairman of a group of conservative House Democrats mainly from the South known formally as the Conservative Democratic Forum and informally as the Boll Weevils. Stenholm added that for conservative legislators to maintain their principles, “it's going to be very difficult on Charlie Stenholm with my constituency groups. But these are some of the bullets that I've got to bite, and the same is going to be true of others.”

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Ideology and the Parties

Democrats; Centrists, Liberals Debate

The Boll Weevils are attempting to reassert themselves in Democratic Party politics. In December Stenholm threatened to challenge the re-election of Thomas P. O'Neill Jr., D-Mass., as House Speaker. He withdrew after receiving assurances that conservatives would have a voice in setting party policy.14 “I feel very confident that we will have the opportunity to have that influence,” Stenholm said.

Conservative Democrats say that only a move to the right can stall a “realignment” that will make the Democrats the minority party. They point to Democratic presidential candidates' lack of success in the South, and the gains made by Republican congressional candidates in the region.15 Many Democrats running in conservative jurisdictions have severed their links with the national party. “Find me one moderate-to-conservative Democrat that ran on the national platform,” Stenholm challenged. As the South loses its aversion to Republicanism, several Democratic officeholders have even switched party allegiance, including Phil Gramm of Texas, who in 1983 resigned from a U.S. House seat he had won as a Democrat, ran and won in a special election as a Republican and then, in 1984, won the U.S. Senate seat vacated by Republican John Tower.

Moderates and neoliberals are determined to move the Democratic Party toward the political center. Stuart Eizenstat, President Carter's chief domestic policy adviser, said after the election that “winning back middle-class voters does not mean rolling back the clock on hard-won gains for black Americans, or adopting a let-them-eat-cake attitude toward the nation's poor.” But, he added, “we cannot resume our dominant position unless we can convince some of those who are part of our party's inner circle that their own agendas are less important than a broadly acceptable program for the party.”16

Early speculation on potential contenders for the Democratic presidential nomination focuses almost entirely on neoliberals, among them Hart, Bradley, Gephardt, Babbitt and Sen. Dale Bumpers of Arkansas. Some observers say New York's Gov. Mario M. Cuomo, though philosophically more allied with the old-school Democrats, may be acceptable because of his battles to balance the state budget and the perception that his political philosophy is value-oriented.

But moderates so far have not raced to grab the party reins. Outgoing Govs. Scott M. Matheson of Utah and James B. Hunt Jr. of North Carolina and former Portland (Ore.) mayor and secretary of transporation Neil Goldschmidt—all moderates—turned down the chairmanship of the Democratic National Committee, making it likely that a party functionary with a liberal background will eventually win the post.

Additionally, many liberals refuse to admit defeat or to make drastic changes in the party's direction. Jesse Jackson, for example, has expressed confidence in the future of his “Rainbow Coalition” of blacks. Hispanics, working women, poor whites, gays and others he regards as underprivileged or under-represented. Taking a similar tack, liberal economist Jeff Faux, president of the Economic Policy Institute in Washington, D.C., wrote: “[The Democrats] already have a base among 41 percent of the electorate; to reverse their misfortunes, all they need is 10 percent more. The way to get at least that margin is to appeal to the lower ranks of the middle class with economic populism linked to growth and jobs.”17

Shull said that liberal activists do have their faults, including a proclivity to make demands on Democratic candidates. The constituent groups have to be reined in to some extent, Shull said, then added, “You can't rein them in by ordering it; Lord knows, you're not going to help the party by driving them out or making them inactive. If they try that, it will lead to a very bitter fight.” Shull also said that liberals must continue their attempts to persuade the party that their ideas are in the country's best interests, and that some positions are more important than electoral success. “We mustn't be terrified of the prospect of losing if we have a reason to lose.…There are certain immutable principles,” he said.

Republican Party Peace Endangered

Reagan's presidency has brought unusual unity to a party formerly prone to divisive ideological struggles. The president's electoral success, along with his personal popularity and strong leadership abilities, have enabled Republican conservatives to unite around an agenda of social program cuts, tax limitation, defense spending increases and a return to “traditional morality.”

However, the fault lines within the coalition have been obvious on several occasions. Supply-side conservatives voted against Reagan when he went along with deficit-fearing traditional conservatives in 1982 and rolled back part of the 1981 tax cut. On the other hand, the old-line conservatives balked at White House attempts to cut deeper into domestic programs in the last two years of Reagan's first term, and some have stated that his 1986 budget proposal will be “dead on arrival” unless defense spending increases are restrained and some social program cuts restored.

New Right conservatives are especially perturbed by President Reagan's unwillingness to take the case for their moral issues agenda to the public, as he did with his economic program. They blame this situation on “closet liberals” and “pragmatic” Republicans within Reagan's inner circle of advisers. Most are prepared to close ranks behind one of their own, such as Reps. Kemp and Gingrich, as the next party leader and 1988 presidential nominee.

Moderate conservatives fear that the dogmatic moralism and “Christian nation” rhetoric of the New Right may alienate voters, including those of the “baby boom” generation, who have been willing to overlook Reagan's social issue stands and follow his economic banner. They also are concerned that a move to the far right will further entrench the Republicans' reputation as a white, Christian, middle-class party that excludes the poor and minorities. The moderates are likely to put their support behind Sen, Dole, former Senate Majority Leader Howard H. Baker Jr., R-Tenn., or Vice President George Bush, if he returns rhetorically to the Republican center. Bush lost favor with GOP moderates—but gained points with the New Right—with his enthusiastic endorsement of the New Right's social agenda during the 1984 campaign.

New Right leaders at times have threatened to bolt the Republican Party if their agenda is not pressed. Intermittently during Reagan's first term they even warned that they might form a third party in 1984. Though unfulfilled last year, the threat remains active. During the Republican convention in August, Howard J. Phillips wrote, “The hour is late for the Republican Party. Two decades is a long time to make the antiliberal majority wait.…We may just decide [in 1986] to supplement our strength in Congress by directing resources to anti-establishment candidates who are neither Democrats nor Republicans.”18 Some New Right spokesmen have been more conciliatory of late. “Conservatives have to look at the majority coalition in the country as they would look at life itself,” said Weyrich, who has in the past supported the third-party idea. “You don't bust up a family, you don't bust up a winning team because you have some differences.”

Republican moderates are not without influence. GOP Sens. Lowell P. Weicker Jr., Conn., and Bob Packwood, Ore., have led successful efforts to thwart conservative anti-abortion and anti-busing legislation. John H. Chafee, R.I., and John Heinz, Pa., recently won posts in the Republican Senate leadership over conservative candidates. Dole, a moderate conservative though by no means a liberal, was able to overcome the opposition of senators further to the right, including Ted Stevens, Alaska, and James A. McClure, Idaho.

Many politics-watchers say these victories by moderates are illusory. “The ‘moderate’ has …rendered himself almost completely unsuitable for Republican presidential politics,” Sidney Blumenthal wrote in The New Republic. “He has crafted his appeal too generously; he can't survive among the decidedly conservative GOP primary electorate, where a vibrant constituency can be animated by ideology.”19 For the near future, Republican politics apparently will be dominated by the battle over how conservative the party will be, while Democrats struggle to decide whether they are to be the party of the center or the party of the left.

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Butler, Stuart M., Michael Sanera and W. Bruce Weinrod, Mandate for Leadership II, The Heritage Foundation, 1984.

Diggins, John Patrick, The Lost Soul of American Politics, Basic Books, 1984.

Lowi, Theodore J., The End of Liberalism, W. W. Norton & Co., 1969.

Rothenberg, Randall, The Neoliberals, Simon and Schuster, 1984.

Whitaker, Robert W. (ed.), The New Right Papers, St. Martin's Press, 1982.

Will, George F., Statecraft as Soulcraft: What Government Does, Simon and Schuster, 1983.


“Baby Boomers Push for Power,” Business Week, July 2, 1984.

Johnston, Joseph F. Jr., “Conservative Populism—A Dead End,” National Review, Oct. 19, 1984.

Judis, John B., “Pop-Con Politics,” The New Republic, Sept. 3, 1984.

Maloney, Lawrence D. et al., “Welfare in America: Is It a Flop?” U.S. News & World Report, Dec. 24, 1984.

Reeves, Richard, “Whose Party Is It Anyway?” The New York Times Magazine, Aug. 5, 1984.

Reports and Studies

Editorial Research Reports: “Social Welfare Under Reagan,” 1984 Vol. I, p. 189; “Future of the Democratic Party,” 1980 Vol. II, p. 925; “New Right in American Politics,” 1978 Vol. II, p. 701; “Future of Conservatism,” 1974 Vol. I, p. 1; “The New Populism,” 1972 Vol. I, p. 335; “Future of Liberalism,” 1971 Vol. II, p. 715; “Blue-Collar America,” 1970 Vol. II, p. 627.

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[1] Mondale carried only his home state of Minnesota—by barely more than 50 percent—and the District of Columbia, for a total of 13 electoral votes to Reagan's 525. In 1968 Humphrey received 42.7 percent of the vote, though the strong presence of right-wing Democrat George C. Wallace as a third-party candidate nearly cost Republican Richard M. Nixon the election. In 1972 liberal Sen. George S. McGovern of South Dakota lost to Nixon, 38 to 61 percent. Although Jimmy Carter won in 1976 running as a moderate, Reagan tagged him as a liberal in the 1980 race; Carter received 41 percent of the vote that year.

[2] The GOP could gain an additional House seat in Indiana if a Republican who has been declared the winner in the 8th District survives a recount. In the interim, House Democrats have declared the seat vacant.

[3] For background, see “Future of Liberalism,” E.R.R., 1971 Vol. II, pp. 715–734.

[4] In 1947 President Truman announced that the United States would provide military and financial aid to allies threatened by Communist takeover. This effort to contain Communist expansion, the result of Soviet pressures on Greece and Turkey, came to be known as the Truman Doctrine.

[5] As a group, these intellectuals have come to be known as “neoconservatives.” Other leading neoconservatives include Norman Podhoretz, editor of Commentary magazine, sociologist Nathan Glazer and Irving Kristol, co-editor of The Public Interest magazine.

[6] See “Blue-Collar America,” E.R.R., 1970 Vol. II, pp. 627–646.

[7] The independent candidacy of Rep. John B. Anderson, R-Ill., helped Reagan win the 1980 election over Carter by 10 percentage points. Reagan also won an electoral landslide, carrying 44 states for 489 electoral votes to Carter's 49.

[8] U.N. Ambassador Kirkpatrick used the phrase as a refrain in her speech to the Republican National Convention last August.

[9] See “Choosing Presidential Nominees,” E.R.R., 1984 Vol. I, pp. 85–104.

[10] See “Election 1984: Candidates and Voting Patterns, E.R.R., 1984 Vol. II, pp. 673–696; “Gay Polities,” E.R.R., 1984 Vol. I, pp. 469–488; “Women in Polities,” E.R.R., 1982 Vol. II. pp. 693–716.

[11] Weyrich is founder and president of the Committee for the Survival of a Free Congress in Washington, D.C.

[12] See “Future of Conservatism,” E.R.R., 1974 Vol. I, pp. 1–20.

[13] Charles Murray, Losing Ground: American Social Policy, 1950–1980, Basic Books, 1984. The conservative Institute conducts research on the effect of government programs on the economy.

[14] O'Neill, now serving his 17th term in Congress, was re-elected as Speaker without opposition. He has announced plans to retire after this term.

[15] Beginning in 1964, when Barry Goldwater carried five Southern states, the Democrats have had rough going in the region. In 1968, Humphrey carried only Texas. Nixon swept the region against McGovern in 1972. Although Carter carried every Southern state but Virginia in 1976, he held on to only his home state of Georgia in 1980. Mondale lost by big margins in every Southern state. In Congress, Republicans now hold 11 out of 22 Southern Senate seats and 42 of 116 House seats; in 1961, the figures were 7 of 106 House seats and 1 of 22 Senate seats.

[16] Stuart E. Eizenstat, “To Return to Power, the Democrats Must Win Back the Middle Class,” The Washington Post, Nov. 25, 1984.

[17] The Washington Post, Nov. 25, 1984.

[18] Howard Phillips. “Antiliberal Majority is Waiting,” The New York Times, Aug. 19, 1984.

[19] Sidney Blumenthal, “The Republican Undead,” The New Republic, Jan. 7–14, 1985.

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Document APA Citation
Benenson, R. (1985). Post-1984 political landscape. Editorial research reports 1985 (Vol. I). Washington, DC: CQ Press. Retrieved from
Document ID: cqresrre1985011100
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