Balkinization  

Sunday, December 31, 2006

Gerald Ford and the Transformation of the American Party System

JB

People today may be surprised to learn that Gerald Ford supported affirmative action and was a moderate on abortion rights. But that's because they have forgotten what the Republican Party was until Ronald Reagan and the New Right effectively remade the Republican coalition in 1980.

The Republican Party post-World War II was primarily the party of business (as it still is today) but it included many people that we would today call social liberals. In foreign policy it was strongly anti-communist. But there were many ways to oppose communism. The Republican Party had its fair share of isolationists, but especially after the Eisenhower years, it had a significant number of internationalists, of whom Gerald Ford and Richard Nixon were examples. These internationalists often agreed on many issues with Democratic Cold Warriors like John Kennedy and Lyndon Johnson.

The Republican Party in Congress, which was mostly in the minority during these years, was nevertheless able to form alliances across the aisle: with conservative Democrats on some policies, and with liberal Democrats on others. The 1964 Civil Rights Act (which both Goldwater and Reagan opposed for libertarian and federalist reasons) would not have been possible without a bi-partisan coalition of Democratic and Republican moderates and liberals. The Republican Party was still the party of Lincoln. Had Nixon been elected in 1960 instead of Kennedy-- and he actually may have won that election-- it is quite possible that Nixon would be remembered today not for Watergate but for having pushed through the key civil rights bills of the 1960's rather than Kennedy or Johnson.

Indeed, had Nixon won the 1960 election, and pushed through the Civil Rights Acts, there probably would have been no Southern Strategy in 1968. Instead, conservative Republicans might have moved into the Democratic Party with its political base still largely in the South; and many liberals might have found themselves drawn into the party of Richard Nixon, Nelson Rockefeller, and Gerald Ford.

The modern Republican Party as we know it arose because Kennedy, and not Nixon, entered the White House in 1960. Nixon, who was a moderate on many social issues, devised his Southern Strategy in part to take advantage of the widening chasm between the two halves of the Democratic coalition, which had been split by the civil rights revolution. He chose a position between the liberal Democrats and George Wallace, supporting Brown v. Board of Education and the Civil Rights Acts but opposing forced busing. He predicted, correctly, that this position would marginalize Wallace and bring Southern Democrats (and a few Northern Democrats upset with busing) into the Republican Party. But Nixon's position on race was moderate. Even as he opposed busing, he promoted affirmative action, in part to discomfit organized labor.

During the period between 1968 and 1980, there was still plenty of room in the Republican Party for fiscal conservatives who were social moderates-to-liberals like Gerald Ford. Indeed, the struggle for the soul of the Republican Party continued throughout the Reagan years, and we have seen the last vestiges of that struggle in the all but complete wipeout of Republican moderates in the 2006 Congressional elections.

Gerald Ford represents the declining power of the fiscal conservative/social moderate to liberal wing of the Republican Party. He is the last member of that wing to become President, and his defeat in 1976, along with Nixon's resignation in 1974, spurred on that decline. Nixon's disgrace and Ford's loss opened a path for Ronald Reagan to embrace the New Right and create a new, successful coalition that combined the traditional business constituencies of the Republican party with religious conservatives.

Consider, for a moment, what would have happened if Ford had won in 1976, an election that he in fact almost did win, coming back from a 30 point deficit. Between 1976 and 1980, Ford would have inherited most if not all of the problems that Jimmy Carter faced, including inflation, unemployment, the gas crisis, and quite possibly the Iranian revolution and the hostage crisis that followed it.

These problems, taken as a whole would have been daunting to anyone, and by 1980, Ford would most likely not have been a very popular president. Reagan might well have won the Republican nomination in 1980, but he would be running in the wake of an unpopular Ford Presidency rather than an unpopular Carter Presidency. He would not have been able to portray himself as an agent of necessary change in the way he did in his race against the Democratic incumbent, Jimmy Carter. And even if Ford had done better in a second term than Carter did, the state of the economy would have made the public anxious for change by 1980. Hence the public might have turned to the Democrats for the first time since 1968, either to a traditional liberal like Walter Mondale or Teddy Kennedy, or perhaps a Scoop Jackson-style moderate.

If Reagan had run and lost in 1980, there probably would have been no Reagan Revolution. By 1984 he probably would have been judged too old to run for a first term. A successful conservative coalition might still have formed, but it would be a shadow of what Reagan actually produced, and it would not have been as successful at displacing the moderate wing of the Republican Party. A Ford victory in 1976 would probably have produced a Republican Party quite different from the one we see today, still the party of business, but far more evenly split on social and cultural issues.

Thus, Gerald Ford was truly a pivotal figure in American politics, not merely for helping the country through the trauma of Watergate, but because he narrowly lost the 1976 election. By losing that election, he helped set in motion the gradual extinction of the moderate wing of the party he represented, and made possible the transition to the party system we know today.

But everything cycles, and it is possible that, just as Ford passed away, the country may be ready for a new version of moderate Republicanism, a combination of fiscal conservativism and social liberalism. Indeed, in one sense, this combination already resurfaced and already succeeded in the 1990s: Bill Clinton, although nominally a Democrat, governed in many respects like a liberal Republican. We don't normally think of Ford and Clinton together-- they were very different personalities-- but the combination of Clinton plus a Republican Congress produced pretty much what moderate Republicans of Ford's stripe stood for: balanced budgets, low inflation, and moderate liberalism on social issues. The last of these Clinton always tried to package as a combination of tolerance, equal opportunity, and just plain common sense; this was, of course, part and parcel of his triangulation strategy. The country liked Clinton well enough when he stuck to that formula, and it liked him far less when he strayed from it. There might be a lesson here for both political parties.

Comments:

I can't say I'm suprised that Democrats would eagerly anticipate the return of a Republican party which was,

1. Much more like the Democratic party,

and,

2. Stuck in the minority for decades at a time.

But why would Republicans have any interest in delivering Democrats such a boon?

The GOP definately took a wrong turn after 1994, but no reasonably objective analysis would conclude that the problem was that it became too conservative. Rather, the leadership saw their ascention to power as an opportunity to toss aside the supposed principles that had brought them to power, and get in some serious rent seeking.

The GOP doesn't need less conservatism, they need less corruption.
 

This analysis of political parties over the last 50 years rings pretty true to me. As a small data point consistent with your post, a couple of years ago I ran across a short book published by the Ripon Society in 1969, after Nixon's election. I have forgotten the name of the book, but it was addressed to Nixon and told him - without a hint of self-consciousness - what "liberal Republicans" thought his policies should be. That the unironic use of that phrase is basically unimaginable today is a sign of the changes that Jack Balkin's post summarizes.
 

Two presidents in the 20th Century brought about fundamental political realignment in the 20th Century - FDR and Reagan.

After FDR and before Reagan, the GOP was a "me too, but less so" party. The GOP during their period in the wilderness really had no fundamental differences with the foreign internationalism, social insurance liberalism of FDR.

During the late 60s and through the 70s, the Dems broke to a EU style left of isolationism, government management of the economy and personal licentiousness. A rebellion against this New Left started among conservative Democrats and Republicans in the 70s. However, the GOP leadership like Nixon, Ford and Rockefeller still talked and governed as big government and social liberals.

Reagan gave voice to this conservative rebellion in 1976 when he almost beat Ford and took power in 1980 with a new governing coalition of foreign policy internationalists (Scoop Jackson Dems who became the infamous neo cons), economic libertarians and social traditionalists. Over the next decade and a half, this new coalition gradually removed the left leaners from the GOP, rejected New Left Dem politicians Carter, Mondale and Dukakis by landslides and took over Congress in 1994 when the Dem conservative changed party affiliation.

Since those shellackings, the Dems have learned to run "me too Reaganauts, but less so" in order to win back power. This move back to the center-right orientation of the country started with Clinton and emerged again with the center-right candidates the Dems ran to win back narrow control of the Congress in 2006.

The Dems in 2007 are where the GOP was in the 50s when the GOP won Congress because of voter fatigue with the Dems. However, just as the country remained committed to FDR liberalism in the 50s, make no mistake that it remains a conservative country now. 60+ members of the Dem caucus in the House are center-right Blue Dog democrats who have far more in common with Bush than with Pelousi. If you have any doubt about the non viability of left candidates, see Dean in 2004 and Lamont in 2006.
 

Two presidents in the 20th Century brought about fundamental political realignment in the 20th Century - FDR and Reagan.

After FDR and before Reagan, the GOP was a "me too, but less so" party. The GOP during their period in the wilderness really had no fundamental differences with the foreign internationalism, social insurance liberalism of FDR.

During the late 60s and through the 70s, the Dems broke to a EU style left of isolationism, government management of the economy and personal licentiousness. A rebellion against this New Left started among conservative Democrats and Republicans in the 70s. However, the GOP leadership like Nixon, Ford and Rockefeller still talked and governed as big government and social liberals.

Reagan gave voice to this conservative rebellion in 1976 when he almost beat Ford and took power in 1980 with a new governing coalition of foreign policy internationalists (Scoop Jackson Dems who became the infamous neo cons), economic libertarians and social traditionalists. Over the next decade and a half, this new coalition gradually removed the left leaners from the GOP, rejected New Left Dem politicians Carter, Mondale and Dukakis by landslides and took over Congress in 1994 when the Dem conservative changed party affiliation.

Since those shellackings, the Dems have learned to run "me too Reaganauts, but less so" in order to win back power. This move back to the center-right orientation of the country started with Clinton and emerged again with the center-right candidates the Dems ran to win back narrow control of the Congress in 2006.

The Dems in 2007 are where the GOP was in the 50s when the GOP won Congress because of voter fatigue with the Dems. However, just as the country remained committed to FDR liberalism in the 50s, make no mistake that it remains a conservative country now. 60+ members of the Dem caucus in the House are center-right Blue Dog democrats who have far more in common with Bush than with Pelousi. If you have any doubt about the non viability of left candidates, see Dean in 2004 and Lamont in 2006.
 

My state of Colorado is a good example of Dem "me too but less so conservatism." In 2004, the Dems won a razor thin majority in the Legislature and then the governorship in 2006. The local papers and some national media had declared that Colorado had gone Blue or at least dark purple.

However, the nominally Dem Governor elect is pro life, has told the left wing of the legislature not to send him a gay partnership bill, has dismissed all talk of tax increases to fund new government programs and has told the teachers unions that student testing will not be rolled back.

To quote the Who: " Meet the new boss, same as the old boss..."
 

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