Changing the Tune : The Fall of the House of Reagan

<i> William Schneider is a contributing editor to Opinion</i>

It was the economy, stupid.

The Democrats had one big issue, and they never forgot it. Their answer to every question, as the sign at the Clinton campaign headquarters in Little Rock helpfully reminded them, was “It’s the economy, stupid.”

Tuesday saw a massive vote of no confidence in the Republicans. George Bush’s share of the national vote dropped a catastrophic 16 percentage points from 1988. How bad was Bush’s humiliation? He got 38% of the vote--as George S. McGovern did in 1972.

All the bastions of GOP strength disintegrated. The suburbs deserted the Republicans. The Sun Belt split apart. Seven Southern states went for Bush; four went for Bill Clinton. Five Western states went for Bush; seven for Clinton. Among white men, Bush lost 22 points; among white Southern men, he went down 19 points.


On Tuesday, Nov. 3, 1992, the House of Reagan collapsed. Has a new house been built on the site? Not yet.

Clinton got elected with 43%. That’s actually 3 points less than the Democrats got in 1988. Chiseled on Michael S. Dukakis’ tombstone will be the words, “He did three points better than Bill Clinton.”

As it happens, 43% is exactly what Richard M. Nixon got when he won the three-way 1968 election. Nixon’s election signaled the beginning of a new political era in the United States. Nixon’s 43% was the base upon which the Republicans built a presidential majority that lasted almost 25 years.

How did they do it? George C. Wallace, running as an Independent, got 14% of the vote in 1968. Nixon and Spiro T. Agnew folded the Wallace vote into the GOP base and--presto--the Silent Majority emerged.

Nixon’s worst state in 1968 was Mississippi (14% for Nixon, 64% for Wallace). Nixon’s best state in 1972 was Mississippi (78% for Nixon). Nixon ’68 plus Wallace ’68 equals GOP ’72 and beyond.

Nixon’s Silent Majority became the House of Reagan. And Bush. (Mississippi was the only state where Bush cracked 50% of the vote last week.) After 1968, the Republicans became the ruling force in U.S politics. Until last Tuesday, when it all fell apart.


Could Clinton’s 43% be the beginning of a new Democratic presidential majority? It all depends on what happens to the Ross Perot vote. Perot got an impressive 19%, the best performance by an Independent candidate in 80 years.

Franklin D. Roosevelt created the New Deal coalition by folding the Progressive vote (16.6% for Robert M. LaFollette in 1924) into the Democratic vote. Nixon built the Republican majority by folding the Wallace vote into the GOP vote.

So here’s the most interesting question in U.S. politics for the next four years: Can President Clinton figure out how to fold the Perot vote into the Democratic vote? Most Perot supporters voted for Bush in 1988. If they go back to the GOP in 1996, it will destroy all hope for a new Democratic majority.

Clinton did not win an ideological victory. In that respect, too, he is like Nixon in 1968. Nixon steered the Republican Party back toward the center after the disastrous experience with Barry M. Goldwater in 1964. Clinton did the same thing with the Democrats after the disastrous experiences with Walter F. Mondale in 1984 and Dukakis in 1988.

Clinton’s mandate is far weaker than, say, Ronald Reagan’s was after the 1980 election. Reagan sold conservatism in the 1980 campaign. Clinton did not even try to sell liberalism this year. He sold change. And he succeeded in persuading voters that the Democrats were a safe alternative because the Democratic Party had changed.

Reagan got 51% of the vote--a majority, not a plurality, in yet another three-way race. Reagan had coattails. The Republicans picked up 34 House seats and 12 Senate seats in 1980. Winning control of the Senate that year gave the GOP a tremendous sense of conservative momentum.


Clinton’s coattails were unimpressive. The Democrats lost seats in the House. They gained only one seat in the Senate. Maybe the Democrats won the election, but the Republicans are winning the interpretation. “Considering 57% of the voters voted for somebody else, there’s no mandate here,” Senate minority leader Bob Dole (R-Kan.) remarked churlishly the day after the election.

Clinton certainly doesn’t have a mandate the way Reagan did. Clinton has to carve out his own mandate, the way Nixon did.

That means a battle to define the new Administration. The Perot vote will pull Clinton toward the center. Perot voters are a moderate group, suspicious of taxing, spending and big government.

But the Democratic Party base will pull Clinton to the left. A lot of new Democrats got elected to Congress this year, many of them women and minorities (five new women and minority senators, all Democrats; 42 new women and minority representatives, 36 of them Democrats).

The Democratic majority in Congress, while not much larger than it was, is likely to have a more liberal cast. Example: Carol Moseley Braun, a black woman, replaces “Al the Pal” Dixon, an old-fashioned, courthouse pol, as Democratic senator from Illinois.

The contours of Clinton’s vote on Tuesday were decidedly liberal. The Democrats may have nominated two Southern white Baptists, but the ticket did worst in the South. Clinton and Gore did best in the nation’s liberal belt--the East Coast (New York), West Coast (California) and upper Midwest (Illinois).


McGovern and Dukakis got the same kind of vote. But this is the first time the Democrats have won with that vote.

Clinton drew enormous support from blacks (82%), Jews (78%), gays (72%), liberals (68%), Latinos (62%), poor people (59%), union voters (56%) and big-city voters (53%). Those voters expect, and deserve, some kind of payoff for their loyalty.

Set against these liberal pressures is Clinton himself. He campaigned as “a new kind of Democrat.” He denounced the “brain-dead policies” of both political parties. He rejected liberalism and conservatism as “false choices.” He said his policies represent a “third way,” different from discredited Republican trickle-down economics and discredited Democratic tax-and-spend economics. He called it “invest and grow” economics.

There seem to be two sides of Clinton. One is the liberal/anti-war/Rhodes Scholar/Hillary side. The other is the moderate/Southern/governor/Democratic Leadership Council side. It will be interesting to see which one of them becomes President next year.

It will be even more interesting if both become President. If Clinton is as skillful a politician as he seems, he may be able to keep his liberal base while reaching out to moderates and Perot voters.

Perot voters want action, not ideology. Perot attracted voters because he was not a conventional politician, he promised to fix the economy and he said he would make deficit reduction a top priority. Clinton says he favors political reform. And he will make economic growth his top priority.


On both these issues, he can expect cooperation from Congress. There will be a lot of new faces in Congress, and almost all of them ran on a platform of cleaning up government and ending the gridlock. They want to prove to the voters that they can make government work.

What about the deficit? Neither Clinton nor the new Democrats in Congress promised to make deficit reduction a top priority. But it may not matter too much if they can get the economy growing. A booming economy alleviates the deficit. Why? Because if people are making more money, they pay more taxes. As Perot would say, it’s just that simple.

Clinton will be judged by his ability to turn the economy around. Once he does that, he can move in any direction he wants. Roosevelt sold the New Deal, a vast expansion of federal spending and power, because it brought prosperity. Reagan sold Reaganomics, a retrenchment of federal spending and power, because it produced economic recovery.

Bush and Jimmy Carter had major foreign-policy achievements, but they couldn’t sell the voters anything because they allowed the economy to deteriorate. Carter and Bush were defeated for reelection, and their parties paid a heavy price. The big lesson of Bush’s defeat is: Don’t ignore the economy, stupid.