Remember how the 2004 election was supposed to have demonstrated, once and for all, that conservatism was the future of American politics? I do: early in 2005, some colleagues in the news media urged me, in effect, to give up. "The election settled some things," I was told.
But at this point 2004 looks like an aberration, an election won with fear-and-smear tactics that have passed their sell-by date. Republicans no longer have a perceived edge over Democrats on national security — and without that edge, they stand revealed as ideologues out of step with an increasingly liberal American public.
Right now the talk of the political chattering classes is a report from the Pew Research Center showing a precipitous decline in Republican support. In 2002 equal numbers of Americans identified themselves as Republicans and Democrats, but since then the Democrats have opened up a 15-point advantage.
Part of the Republican collapse surely reflects public disgust with the Bush administration. The gap between the parties will probably get even wider when — not if — more and worse tales of corruption and abuse of power emerge.
But polling data on the issues, from Pew and elsewhere, suggest that the G.O.P.'s problems lie as much with its ideology as with one man's disastrous reign.
For the conservatives who run today's Republican Party are devoted, above all, to the proposition that government is always the problem, never the solution. For a while the American people seemed to agree; but lately they've concluded that sometimes government is the solution, after all, and they'd like to see more of it.
Consider, for example, the question of whether the government should provide fewer services in order to cut spending, or provide more services even if this requires higher spending. According to the American National Election Studies, in 1994, the year the Republicans began their 12-year control of Congress, those who favored smaller government had the edge, by 36 to 27. By 2004, however, those in favor of bigger government had a 43-to-20 lead.
And public opinion seems to have taken a particularly strong turn in favor of universal health care. Gallup reports that 69 percent of the public believes that "it is the responsibility of the federal government to make sure all Americans have health care coverage," up from 59 percent in 2000.
The main force driving this shift to the left is probably rising income inequality. According to Pew, there has recently been a sharp increase in the percentage of Americans who agree with the statement that "the rich get richer while the poor get poorer." Interestingly, the big increase in disgruntlement over rising inequality has come among the relatively well off — those making more than $75,000 a year.
Indeed, even the relatively well off have good reason to feel left behind in today's economy, because the big income gains have been going to a tiny, super-rich minority. It's not surprising, under those circumstances, that most people favor a stronger safety net — which they might need — even at the expense of higher taxes, much of which could be paid by the ever-richer elite.
And in the case of health care, there's also the fact that the traditional system of employer-based coverage is gradually disintegrating. It's no wonder, then, that a bit of socialized medicine is looking good to most Americans.
So what does this say about the political outlook? It's difficult to make predictions, especially about the future. But at this point it looks as if we're seeing an emerging Republican minority.
After all, Democratic priorities — in particular, on health care, where John Edwards has set the standard for all the candidates with a specific proposal to finance universal coverage with higher taxes on the rich — seem to be more or less in line with what the public wants.
Republicans, on the other hand, are still wallowing in nostalgia — nostalgia for the days when people thought they were heroic terrorism-fighters, nostalgia for the days when lots of Americans hated Big Government.
Many Republicans still imagine that what their party needs is a return to the conservative legacy of Ronald Reagan. It will probably take quite a while in the political wilderness before they take on board the message of Arnold Schwarzenegger's comeback in California — which is that what they really need is a return to the moderate legacy of Dwight Eisenhower.
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