The Almanac Introductions: 1982-1990|
By Michael Barone
© National Journal Group Inc.
The Almanac of American Politics 1982
This is the first Almanac to provide a long Introduction, with separate sections on the Presidency, the Reagan government, the Senate, the House and the Governors and Big City Mayors. Let's consider them in turn.
The Presidency. I noted that only two men had been nominated five times for national office by one of the two major parties, and both set the tone of our public life: Franklin Roosevelt and Richard Nixon. Not a bad trope. I noted that "no one expected that he [Jimmy Carter] would be beaten by 10% a 69-year-old former governor." Perhaps that's right for most of the campaign period, but pollsters for both candidates expected it on the day before the election, and a critic might argue that I was trying to give myself a pass for not anticipating Ronald Reagan's strength in the Introduction to the 1980 Almanac.
This Introduction includes summaries of the battles for the Democratic and Republican nominations which I think stand up very well. It has a neat summary of John Anderson's candidacy which also stands up well, but is a bit too snide; and it ends by noting that Anderson emerged with a mailing list three times larger than that of the Democratic party and that therefore "Anderson has the potential of reviving his candidacy in 1984 and may be an important political factor in the years in between." Nothing like that happened at all, and I should have had the good judgment to see that it wouldn't. The summary of the general election reads well, and I wouldn't change it today. The crux: "Voters wanted to reject Carter and were looking for reassurance that Reagan was acceptable. In the debate they got it. Reagan made no obvious mistakes; he stressed convincingly his desire for peace. He presented himself as an amiable and knowledgeable man, and one capable of inspiration." But I didn't mention his famous words, "Are you better off than you were four years ago" (they are mentioned later in the Introduction) and "There you go again." I did note that Jimmy Carter "paid the price for making the hostages [in Iran] the central focus of American politics." Voters' support of Carter in the hostage crisis -- typical rallying around the flag -- buoyed up his overall job rating during most of the year from November 1979 to November 1980. But when the hostages were still in captivity on Election Day, his low job ratings on other foreign issues and on domestic issues were more important.
Conventional wisdom going into the 1980 election was that Americans would never elect a president as conservative as Reagan. Some conservative strategists argued otherwise, that the nation had become more conservative because most voters thought liberal policies hadn't worked well. I addressed this in just a few words, but I think accurately. "Reagan's victory was not just a personal one; it was a victory of ideas. The Republicans captured 12 Democratic Senate seats and won control of the Senate [today I would say won a majority of seats in the Senate; no one controls the Senate] for the first time since 1952, and they made substantial gains in the House as well. They were running, moreover, all on roughly the same issues and the same philosophy -- in vivid contrast to the Democrats, who tend to adapt their politics to the local terrain."
My regional analysis of the vote follows the contours of the regional analysis in the Introduction to the 1980 Almanac: proof that it was pretty sound. I find the analysis of the South the most interesting. Looking back over the preceding 20 years, I wrote, "The civil rights movement and national civil rights legislation have changed the way southerners of both races behave and, against the predictions of conservatives [I might have added, "and the fears of many liberals"], changed the way white southerners feel. There is no parallel in the history of advanced nations to the change in attitude among white southerners -- from a determined and even violent resistance to any form of integration to a calm, sometimes casual, often pleased acceptance of contact with blacks and equal opportunity. For that the black civil rights leaders, who pressed their cause when more prudent people urged caution, deserve the greatest measure of credit, but white southerners deserve some as well. They are proud of how they have changed and entitled to that pride." Today I would not be so sure that there have been no similar changes of attitude, among Germans after World War II, for example. But I still think that the rest of it is right, and too little appreciated then and now.
What follows is the first historical analysis of election returns in Almanac Introductions. It noted that in the four presidential elections from 1968 to 1980 Democratic nominees averaged 43% of the vote and Republicans 51%. Many analysts were still writing as if the country had a natural Democratic majority. I wrote, "It would be going too far to say that the Republicans have become a natural majority party; their average is a bare majority and only once in four times did they exceed it. But it seems pretty clear that the Democrats no longer have a natural majority in presidential elections. Only once -- after the Republicans produced the worst scandal in American history -- were the Democrats able to win even a bare majority," Jimmy Carter's 51% in 1976. Today I would add that the Democrats have never reached 51% again: Bill Clinton was elected with 43% and 49% of the vote and Al Gore lost with 48%. I went on to argue that Democrats have lost strength in their traditional bases -- big metropolitan areas, blue collar voters, Catholics. I did note that Democrats were making some gains and stood to make more among liberal Baby Boomers on cultural issues; I underestimated the growing size of religious conservatives in the electorate. But I did say that Reagan's ideas of limiting the growth of government and pursuing a more assertive foreign policy "have a chance of working." And I made the point that, "in 1981, for the first time in 15 years, the basic idea of the nation's surface political dialogue and the basic ideas of the administration in office seem to be in accord rather than in counterpoint." As I see it, one of the things these Introductions should do is to indicate the future potential of things that are in the process of happening. Here, in foreseeing the possible success of the Reagan administration, I think I did that, though a bit clumsily.
The Reagan government. This is a series of thumbnail sketches of leading Reagan appointees. They hold up only moderately well; it is a section that could have been omitted. I identified OMB Director David Stockman as the most important domestic appointee, a defensible choice. But I failed to see that Stockman would soon turn against the tax cuts he had helped pass in 1981. I might have guessed that he would: I had known him since the middle 1970s, when he was a staffer for liberal Republican Congressman John Anderson; he was already a conservative then, and was busy ridiculing and undermining Anderson's policies as he would Reagan's for four of the five years he served as OMB Director. The section ends with a tribute to Walter Mondale and Jimmy Carter for making the vice presidency a useful office and to George H. W. Bush and Ronald Reagan for apparently following their example: something I still believe today, and which I think should be extended to Dan Quayle, Al Gore, Dick Cheney and their presidents as well.
The Senate. The Republican majority in the Senate, I noted correctly, owed something to luck: winning most of the close races. I saw the Republican senators as more cohesive than the Democrats, and as having a leader more presentable on television -- Howard Baker rather than Robert Byrd. I thought the Republicans' stands on issues -- "a srong defense, stricter control of government spending, a more positive cultural attitude toward America" -- more coherent and more popular than those of the Democrats. I made much, perhaps a bit too much, of the fact that the Republican majority meant the dispersal of many Democratic staffers. I made a list of the 12 senators most likely to be influential -- kind of a silly thing to do. In looking ahead to 1982, I said it was not inevitable that Republicans would pick up Senate seats two years after Reagan's victory; Democrats had picked up four seats in 1962, two years after John Kennedy's victory. That turned out to be prescient; despite the recessionary economy, Republicans gained one seat in 1982 as compared to 1980.
The House. No one in the press and not many in the political science departments pay much attention to the popular vote for members of the House, even though these are some of the most revealing numbers in American politics. In 1980 Democrats won the popular vote for the House by only 50%-48%. That gave them a House majority of 243-192. Democrats carried the House vote in the South by 56%-43%; 46 House Democrats were members of the Conservative Democratic Forum, mostly Southerners. Without their votes, Democrats were far short of a 218-vote majority. Outside the South, Republicans carried the popular vote for the House, as they had in 1966 and 1968, other years when unpopular Democratic administrations were in office. I argued, persuasively I think, that the advantages of incumbency were eroding somewhat and that the Republican gains were not due to Reagan's coattails; I set out a table showing that in many of the seats Republicans picked up their candidates had higher percentages than Reagan.
Who would control the House? I pointed out that with only 243 Democrats, many of them conservative, the Democratic leadership could not count on a 218-vote majority. "The Republicans have the votes and the power to prevail on most substantive issues (although many will be closely contested), while the Democrats have control of most of the major committees and the power to prevail on most procedural matters." Is that clear? I had much to say here about how the election of committee chairmen by the Democratic Caucus made Democrats, even Southerners, more cooperative with liberals -- an excellent point -- and nothing to say here about the considerable legislative skills of Speaker Tip O'Neill -- an unwise omission.
On redistricting, I predicted that Republicans would not make gains even though Sun Belt states carried by Reagan had gained new seats because of reapportionment. I pointed out that Republicans had control of redistricting in only six states with 53 districts, while Democrats had control in 22 states with 223 districts. I estimated that reapportionment and redistricting together would result in a net gain for five to 10 seats for the Republicans. Wrong! After the 1982 election, I estimated (these judgments are necessarily subjective) that reapportionment and redistricting resulted in a gain of 15 seats for the Democrats. Why I estimated a gain for the Republicans in the Introduction to the 1982 Almanac I cannot imagine.
The Governors and Big-City Mayors. This is pretty humdrum stuff: some basic narrative, a few tables of seats coming up and per capita spending.
The People and the Regions. This Introduction used the 1980 Census to show the big demographic changes that had occurred since the first Almanac. One story was the big population increases in the South and West and the small population increases in the East and Midwest: the move toward the Sun Belt. But as I noted, some of this was not movement but staying in place: the end of black outmigration from the South. I looked also not at big city, but at metropolitan area population growth and loss: metro New York lost nearly 1 million people in the 1970s, and I noted that the high cost of state and local government was a drag on many big Eastern and Midwestern metro areas. I also noted smaller trends: the move toward the north woods of New England and Michigan, Wisconsin and Minnesota, the move toward nonmetropolitan areas (the most pronounced since the 1930s), the fact that most of the West's population is in big metro areas. This was the first Almanac Introduction to mention the new wave of immigration that started in the late 1960s and early 1970s and predicted optimistically that immigrants would assimilate and rise in America; I was unduly optimistic about the demise of so-called bilingual education programs. On Hispanics I wrote, "The come here to work, not collect welfare; they contribute to our economy; they are young, eager, hard-working, family-oriented -- just the kind of people any country should want." On Asians I wrote, "In early 1981 some Californians were concerned because Asian-Americans formed 20% of the student body of the University of California at Berkeley and because they were doing so well in mathematics and computer sciences. This is the kind of problem every part of the country should be so fortunate to have." All this is much the same as what I wrote in my book "The New Americans," published in May 2001, 20 years after these words were written. One doesn't have as many new ideas as one sometimes thinks.
Finally, I took a look at the aging of the Baby Boom generation and the as-yet-unnamed generation beyond (now often referred to as Generation X). Correctly I noted that the Boomers were not replicas of their G.I. generation parents; they were culturally more liberal and economically more conservative. And I ventured the guess -- how valid it is I am still not sure -- that Generation X would be culturally more conservative. And I constructed a matrix to show where I thought voters stood on both economic and cultural issues. Only 10%, I thought, were liberal on both, while 35% were conservative on both -- an obvious advantage for Reagan Republicans. I estimated that 30% were economic liberals and cultural conservatives, call them populists -- poorer white Southerners, urban ethnics, mining town and north woods populists. I estimated that 25% were economic conservatives and cultural liberals; libertarians, some might say. These were no more than guesses, and I have no idea how close to being right they were. Today I would guess that there are fewer populists and more libertarians and perhaps not as many consistent conservatives and a few more consistent liberals. But I am pretty sure that, as the Introduction to the 2002 Almanac argues, party lines are determined more by cultural issues than by economics, something that was less true in 1981.
This was an ambitious Introduction, flawed in some ways, compensating for the failure to give much attention to Ronald Reagan and the conservative movement in the previous Introduction. We were, as I argued, getting Vietnam and Watergate behind us. The success of the Reagan policies was uncertain, but at least I, as a former Democratic campaign consultant (I left Peter Hart's firm in early 1981) was open to the possibility. America had been in such trouble; now it was possible that things would get better.
Click here for a printable PDF copy of the complete 1982 Introduction.
The Almanac of American Politics 1984
The Politics of Cultural Variety.
Quite a change of mood here from the Introduction to the 1980 Almanac: it is morning in America, a year before the appearance of the Reagan ad. And quite a change from the discussion of the importance of ethnicity in politics in the Introductions to the 1972 and 1974 Almanacs. My argument was that Americans had grown more alike economically, ethnically and regionally, but more different culturally. As a result, "we have developed a politics of cultural variety, a politics in which cultural and social characteristics which used to be thought irrelevant to politics are increasingly determining political attitudes."
Overall, I think this thesis was right and, as I recall the political analysis of the time, well ahead of the conventional wisdom. Much of the political coverage of the 1982 election focused on the travails of people in heavy manufacturing towns where plants were closing, places like Youngstown, Ohio, and Flint, Michigan. But that focused on exceptional places in a brief period, and the political results were not earthshaking: Democrats gained 26 seats in the House but 15 of those gains, by my estimate, were due to redistricting. I took a longer view, focusing on the fact that real per capita income in 1980 was 2½ times what it was in 1940. Most Americans in 1940 had incomes below the 1980 poverty level. Most Americans in 1980 had incomes that the Americans of the 1940s would have regarded as affluent. Standards of living had risen vastly, and by the 1980s few Americans lived on the brink of ruin as so many Americans in 1940 did or thought they did. Another neat point: in an era of economic growth, upward social mobility results in spectacular increases in affluence and downward social mobility results in little or no decrease in income.
Moreover, regional differences in income had become very much less. In 1940 per capita income in New York was 147% of the national average and in Mississippi it was 36% of the national average: utterly different economies. In 1980 the per capita income in New York was 108% of the national average and in Mississippi it was 69% of the national average: given the differences in the local cost of living, not so great a difference. In the 1940s political preference was highly correlated with income: the East, the most affluent part of the country, was the most Republican; the South, the least affluent part of the country, was the most Democratic. By the 1980s this correlation was very low. I think I pretty well proved the point, though many people still wanted, and want, to see political differences as the product of economic differences.I think I was mostly correct in arguing that ethnic and regional differences were lessening, though not of course down to zero.
I argued that in an affluent America people were increasingly able to choose their cultural identities and lifestyles, and that the choices they made shaped their political attitudes. This helped to explain the gender gap and the related marriage gap, with women and unmarried people voting significantly more for Democrats than men and married people. This gap had first shown up in the 1980 election; before that, there was very little difference between men and women. I think this is still one of the best explanations of the gender gap, and that it still pretty much applies -- except that all of us are 20 years older and some who were with us in 1983 no longer are.
I took note of two trends that, some Democrats predicted, would bring voters back to their party. One was a continuation of the economic doldrums of 1979-83. But the economy was starting to grow rapidly again as I was writing. And I discounted the effect of immigration, pointing out that few Hispanics were voting as yet and that Asians seemed only a little more Democratic than average. I think the part of immigration didn't do justice to its subject.
The Presidency. The preview of the 1984 Democratic primaries did not mention two of the final three contenders for the nomination, Gary Hart and Jesse Jackson. As I recall, there was no talk of a Jackson candidacy when this was set in type, but I don't think I had the same excuse about Hart. And, after all, he had run a successful primary campaign for George McGovern in 1972. I did say that the Democrats' process and schedule had "no necessary bias toward the political left or toward insurgents." I'm not sure that's right. I also said that voters choosing McGovern and Jimmy Carter in early contests in 1972 and 1976 wanted to give them a chance and didn't necessarily want them to be president, though their voters in later contests did want them to be president, at least as compared to the other candidate or candidates still in the race. An interesting distinction, based on the observation that those candidates and their activist supporters made a lot of contact with individual caucus attenders and primary voters in Iowa and New Hampshire. And that may have been true of Hart in 1984. But by 1988 I think the give-him-a-chance factor faded from politics, because almost all the active candidates of both parties put plenty of time and effort into Iowa and New Hampshire.
I also took a look at the path to the Republican nomination, because at the time I was writing Ronald Reagan was 72 and had not said whether he would run for reelection.
As for third candidates, I once again wrote that John Anderson was a likely candidate; why I can't recall. I speculated that if George Bush or Howard Baker was the Republican nominee, there might be a "New Right" candidate, with support ginned up by conservative mailing lists. Today that sounds like a fantasy. Was there any possibility then? I doubt it.
Once again, as in the Introduction to the 1982 Almanac, I wrote that the New Deal Democratic majority had disappeared but that there was no warrant to say that the Republicans were a majority party. The surface dialogue -- more defense, control spending, American values -- but underneath there was a liberal consensus that we should not cut government too much.
The Senate. I called it Howard Baker's Senate, which probably overemphasized the role of Baker, though he evidently did do a good job of keeping Republicans united, while Democrats were less inclined to filibuster than in more recent times. The descriptions of the committees are interesting, though I doubt today that Appropriations was "eclipsed" by Budget.
I noted that almost all senators who ran got reelected -- a big difference from the 1976-80 cycles. Looking ahead, I said the Republicans would have trouble holding their 54-46 because they had so many vulnerable incumbents; they lost two seats in 1984. In passing I noted that "the South is becoming increasingly Democratic, as its black percentages rise and its blue collar whites rejecting what they increasingly regard as the country club economics of Ronald Reagan's Republicans" -- an exaggeration at best, though Democrats have remained competitive in many Senate races in the South.
The House. This section was something of a paean to Speaker Tip O'Neill, the first in an Almanac Introduction, and perhaps overdue. It recounted briefly how rules changes and O'Neill had changed the way the House operated in the preceding decade. It noted how O'Neill sought only Democratic votes, unlike liberal leaders in the past, and that Democratic defections were significantly fewer than in the days of the supposedly all-powerful Sam Rayburn. It presented a table showing the regional origin of House Democrats in the five most recent Congresses, showing how in 1983 there were fewer from the Northeast and the Industrial Heartland than in 1975, but just as many from the South. The point was that O'Neill had to make some concessions to moderate Democrats to hold the House together, and did.
The Governors and Big-City Mayors. The big story here was the Democrats' takeover of several big states: something that usually happens when you have a new Republican president. Unaccountably, I listed Detroit's Coleman Young among the mayors who had "done outstanding jobs." It was evidently not clear to me yet how Young's policies were bringing ruin to Detroit: I should have known since I visit the city several times a year. The second to last paragraph measures my irritation with the fact that the election of Mayor Harold Washington in Chicago in early 1983 was treated as if he were the first black mayor elected in the nation. I tried to set the record straight: there were examples of black politicians winning elections and winning many white votes going back nearly 20 years then -- nearly 40 years now.
The People and the Regions. This is largely a reprise of the same section in the Introduction to the 1982 Almanac, with data from 1982 Census estimates added. Here, as there, I noted the 1970s "consumption-oriented migration," people moving to the north woods, Florida and other leisure sites. This kind of migration was less marked in the economic boom years of the 1980s, as people, perhaps remembering the economic troubles of 1979-83, worked longer hours than they had in the 1970s. I didn't predict this, but I did ask the question.
I give this Introduction good marks for introducing the idea of the politics of cultural variety -- not the standard explanation for what was going on at the time. That idea obviously grew out of my earlier conviction that ethnicity was more important more often in American politics than economics. But I feel pretty pleased today that I was as alert as I was to changing cultural trends.
Click here for a printable PDF copy of the complete 1984 Introduction.
The Almanac of American Politics 1986
A Nation at Peace.
From 1982 to 1989 I worked on the editorial page staff of the Washington Post -- not as consistently liberal an editorial page as many people suppose. I was the junior member of the staff; my colleagues were people full of knowledge and wisdom about all kinds of issues, and I learned a lot from them. My own political views were drifting rightward: I had noticed that the liberal policies I had believed in so strongly in the late 1960s and early 1970s had not worked out so well. But most of my contacts were still among Democrats. Editorial page editor Meg Greenfield came by my office one day and said that I needed to get to know more Republicans; I should draw up a list of interesting Republicans and invite them to lunch. I found a lot to appreciate in Ronald Reagan and in Tip O'Neill, in many Republican and Democratic politicians and thinkers. And I think that is reflected in this almost obsessively bipartisan Introduction. "We are a nation at peace," I insisted, not only at peace abroad but at peace at home. "Beneath the turmoil and clash of everyday American politics, beneath the sometimes apocalyptic rhetoric, we have been approaching something like a consensus about basic values and policies, and something resembling a consensus on the differences we are willing to tolerate in each other."
This was perhaps too rosy, but there was something to it. The culture wars would start up again with the fight over the nomination of Robert Bork to the Supreme Court in 1987, but I was writing this in 1985. We would have sharp reactions against incumbents of both parties in 1990-92. But for the moment many things seemed settled. The Reagan revolution had gone so far, and seemed unlikely to go farther. The 1986 tax reform, bipartisan and revenue-neutral, was emblematic of the times. The religious right was now accepted as part of the political firmament, but was not carrying all before it; the culture in some ways was getting more liberal. Seemingly impossible problems like stagflation seemed to have been solved. In 1984 the incumbent president had been reelected with 59% of the vote, and big margins in every region, and 390 of the 435 House members had been reelected, just one less than in the record year of 1968. This was the first extended period since the question was invented in the early 1970s that most voters told pollsters the nation was going in the right direction and was not pretty much off on the wrong track.
Being at peace had consequences. War is the great friend of the state: wartime brings bigger government. We were at peace, and didn't want that. In what I regard now as a very interesting paragraph, I noted that we had a volunteer military, "in effect a free enterprise military, filled by young men and women motivated by a mixture of economic incentives (job training as well as pay [the big education benefits would come later]) and by the spirit of national pride that even Mondale admitted Reagan had helped to inspire. The quality of recruits, which improved during the Reagan recession years, also improved during the Reagan recovery; the military disasters of Lebanon and dangers of Grenada seemed not to have discouraged enlistments, as some predicted, but to have increased their number." In war time the nation is, literally, in uniform; it is conformism. In the peace of the middle 1980s we were more tolerant of diversity than we had been in post-World War II (then we still called it postwar) America.
At that point I segued into the politics of cultural variety, a reprise of the theme of the Introduction to the 1984 Almanac. I noted that the gender gap had not defeated Reagan in 1984, and that there was something of a backlash against feminism -- the latter a point on which many might disagree. I also noticed that young voters were voting for Reagan and Republicans. "The natural rebelliousness of this generation of youth seems to have been directed, not at all the institutions that Americans have been corrosively criticizing for the last dozen years, but at the habit of corrosive criticism itself. They looked around at a country that Democrats and news commentatorsn it went against the grain -- Ronald Reagan." I still like this observation very much. and grownups generally have been saying is in the terminal stages of decay and saw that it was actually a pretty decent place: a nation of widely shared affluence, of tolerance, of achievement. They naturally gravitated to the one politician who has been delivering this message all along, even whe
The Presidency. This section was pretty straightforward: the likely nominees won both nominations and the incumbent president in a time of peace and prosperity was reelected. I did notice that the emergence of Gary Hart and Jesse Jackson as Walter Mondale's chief challengers was a surprise. A surprise to me, anyway; I hadn't mentioned either of them in the Introduction to the 1984 Almanac. Again I made much of the distinction between the winnowing-in phase and the decision phase of the nomination contests. I had some tart comments about Hart's sloppiness in running his campaign and Jesse Jackson's anti-Jewish remarks; some may think them too tart, but I don't.
About the general election there was not much to say. I noted that Reagan's percentages in polls rose sharply in June 1984; it might have been a closer election. I noted that he ran well in all parts of the country -- 54% in the East, 60% in the Midwest, 63% in the West, 62% in the South. At the end of the section I got lazy and repeated pretty much verbatim material from the preceding two Introductions. I should have pitched the story forward.
Looking ahead to the 1988 contest, I noted that defeated Democrats never ran again: "the Democrats' nominating process...seems to go through candidates like a lumber mill goes through logs." I don't remember that phrase ever passing through my mind, and it doesn't sound like something I would make up; perhaps I borrowed it from someone else.
The Senate. I speculated that Bob Dole would not be as masterful a majority leader as Howard Baker, partly because Republican senators were now more experienced and used to wielding power. I said that the new Finance Chairman Bob Packwood thought "the tax code, far from being a disgrace to the human race (as Jimmy Carter called it), is in pretty good shape"; he ended up as one of the main architects of the 1986 tax reform. I said that Foreign Relations Chairman Richard Lugar "seems to be in for the long haul." He did do an outstanding job. But he held the chairmanship only because the more senior Jesse Helms had promised his constituents in 1984 that he would keep the chairmanship of Agriculture and turn down Foreign Relations. After Democrats won a Senate majority in 1986, Helms said his promise did not prevent him from taking the ranking minority member position on Foreign Relations, and did; he held that position or the chairmanship until he retired in 2002. So Lugar had to wait 16 years to become chairman again.
Looking ahead to the 1986 elections, I was not high on the Democrats' chances to win back a majority. But I did note correctly that Republicans had many more seats to defend. I correctly identified Congressman John McCain as a "crackerjack candidate" to succeed Barry Goldwater, but I also said that "even Dale Bumpers could conceivably have trouble in Arkansas" -- way off the mark. I also noted that Republicans had won 15 of the 18 seats decided by 2% or less in the 1980, 1982 and 1984 cycles; luck plays a part here, but so, I argued, may skillful campaign tactics. In 1986 the Republicans' luck ran out and their tactics were evidently not as skillful. They lost eight seats and the Senate had a Democratic majority once again.
The House. Tip O'Neill announced his retirement early in 1985, and this section was a tribute, and I still think a well-deserved one, to "the most effective and accomplished speaker the nation has had for 40 years and maybe more -- and quite possibly for 40 more years as well." Much of this section is straight out of the Introduction to the 1984 Almanac. But I did add the tantalizing statement, "What no one notices is that without Tip O'Neill's deft strategy, the Republican dreams of capturing control of the House -- not just nominal control, but a 218-seat majority -- might have come true by 1984." My first response today is that this goes too far. But think about it: Republicans had 192 seats in 1981, and needed just 26 more for a majority -- half of the gain they made in their breakthrough year of 1994. O'Neill could have taken a more confrontational stand against Reagan than he did and could have brought forward national issues that would damage many Democrats from Southern and rural districts, as the gun control issue did in 1994. He chose not to nationalize the issues, so as to let Democrats run on local issues, and to let them run as incumbents in a time of peace and prosperity. If Speaker Newt Gingrich deserves credit for the Republican takeover in 1994, Speaker Tip O'Neill may well deserve credit for preventing them from doing so 10 years before.
The Governors and Big-City Mayors. I noted that "Republicans made a beginning toward winning control of state legislatures for the redistricting that will follow the 1990 Census." Then I downplayed the importance of redistricting -- quite wrongly, I think now. As it turned out, Democrats got less advantage out of redistricting in the 1990s than they had in the 1980s and 1970s. This was one of the factors that helped the Republicans win control in 1994.
The People and the Regions. With the 1984 Census estimates in hand, this section was altered somewhat. I noted gentrification in the East, outmigration in the Industrial Belt, stagnation in the central states of the South in contrast to growth on the Atlantic Coast and Texas, immigration in the West. And I noted that people were moving to metropolitan areas in the 1980s, not to leisure spots as in the 1970s: the production ethic outweighing the consumption ethic.
In this Introduction I was careful to say that we would not remain a nation at peace forever. Other issues would come forward, new discontents would grow, less skillful political leadership would create demands for change. But I am struck today by how peaceful I thought the nation was then, even as we were pushing the Soviet Empire toward collapse. Things are different now. The nation is in peril in a way that it didn't seem to be in 1985, and the culture wars rage more loudly and with more politcial repercussions. Optimism is not as great -- or perhaps it is, and we haven't noticed it yet. Certainly patriotism is as strong, or stronger: the enlistments to the military remain high even as the troops are in combat and peril.
Click here for a printable PDF copy of the complete 1986 Introduction.
The Almanac of American Politics 1988
Looking for a Formula.
1988 was the first presidential election year since 1960 in which the incumbent president was ineligible to run. In this Introduction I started off by comparing the two years: in 1960 voters knew the candidates pretty well and knew the policies they would likely follow; in 1988 voters didn't know the candidates particularly well and weren't sure what their policies or initiatives would be. Candidates -- and voters -- were looking for a formula. Not perhaps the most felicitous phrase, but a reasonable framing concept to approach the election year.
I noted that "the communitarian spirit has been flagging in both parties. The 1988 Democratic presidential candidates were not proposing big expansions of government or, for the most part, higher taxes. The European welfare state model no longer seemed worth following. The Republicans were acknowledging, if only silently, limits on their ability to move people toward traditional morality. As on the 1986 tax reform, both parties' candidates seemed to be approaching issues and problems ("competitiveness") in the same way. I noted that both parties seemed headed toward supporting "workfare"; indeed, welfare reform was passed by the Republican Congress and signed by Bill Clinton in 1996. I exaggerated the amount of agreement between William Bennett and People for the American Way on what "children should be taught to understand respectfully America's traditions of religious expression and tolerance of diversity. I summoned up the example of "the G.I. Bill of Rights, FHA home mortgage guarantees and the family allowances created by steeply progressive income tax rates combined with generous exemptions for dependents: three policies [I might have said government programs] which helped change the grade-school-educated, renter, economically stagnant America of the 1930s into the college-educated, homeowner, economically dynamic America of the 1960s. I spent much of 1987 writing "Our Country: The Shaping of America from Roosevelt to Reagan," which was published in early 1990, and the success of these programs had impressed me.
This essay was a bit incoherent, struggling to suggest a mix of policies that I thought could gain consensus. But some of the policies adopted in the 1990s tended to work in this direction: the welfare act of 1996 (and the many state reforms that preceded and inspired it), the Earned Income Tax Credit. These were government programs that encouraged upward mobility and, arguably, family stability.
The Regions. I proclaimed that we were in an "age of hustle." In the 1970s, we had looked for security and found we couldn't get it; in the 1980s, we went to work. This built on my earlier observations on the differences in internal migration between the 1970s (toward leisure oriented destinations) and the 1980s (toward work-oriented destinations). In the 1970s the goal was early retirement, in the 1980s more work. This revival of animal spirits, I think, contributed greatly to the economic boom of the 1980s and perhaps to the economic boom of the 1990s as well.
Then I divided the country into eight regions, and looked at how they had been faring economically and identified for each a characteristic politician. Why I went through this exercise I'm not sure: probably because it was fun. The North Atlantic I depicted as moving from dependence on government to gentrification; Bill Bradley I identified as a "consensus politician." I am still puzzled why in 2000 he ran against Al Gore from the left. The Great Lakes states (including Pennsylvania and West Virginia) had gone through a great shakeout; my key politician was Michigan Governor Jim Blanchard, who I still think did a good job for the state. But he was narrowly beaten in 1990 by John Engler, who, following different policies, also did a good job for the state. The Great Plains had been baying for farm aid in the 1980s, but by 1987 realized there were limits on that; the characteristic politician was Senator Charles Grassley, who still thrives as chairman of the Finance Committee. The Pacific Northwest was culturally liberal and beset by economic blows; the politician was Washington Governor Booth Gardner.
The South Atlantic was "the surprise boom region of the United States"; I picked Georgia Governor Joe Frank Harris as the characteristic politician, and pointed also to several former governors in the region. I was on to something: Georgia has been one of the fastest-growing states in the years since. The Mississippi Valley was not doing as well economically as the South Atlantic, and was more Democratic in national elections (as it proved later to be). "The dominant politician here is probably former Tennessee Governor Lamar Alexander, though you could hear some votes for Arkansas's Bill Clinton and Mississippi's William Winter." You can't win 'em all. Alexander came closer to being Clinton's opponent in 1996 than most people realize, and might have run better than Bob Dole; today, Clinton is out of office and Alexander is in the Senate. The Oil Patch had gone through boom and bust in the 1980s, and by 1987 was on the brink of boom again, and committed to free market economics. The characteristic politician I chose, oddly, was just-defeated Texas Governor Mark White; he ran for governor again in 1990 and finished third in the Democratic primary with 19% of the votes. Finally, the Southwest, with California and Hawaii joined with Arizona, Nevada and Utah -- not a combination you would make today. The characteristic politician was California Governor George Deukmejian, not someone who is vividly remembered today.
The Introduction went on to argue that neither party had a natural majority for the presidency. That assumption stands up pretty well: in the next four elections only once did one party win over 50% of the vote for president (the Republicans in 1988). I described "a sort of eerie equipoise in American politics: any advantage you can see for one party or one approach is balanced off by an advantage you can see for the other." I argued that presidential candidates who could "capture the voters' imaginations with their approach to unifying issues" would do better than candidates who staked out sharp positions on unifying issues. Not a bad formula. George H.W. Bush did something like that in 1988 with his "kinder and gentler" theme, even while corralling economic conservatives with his pledge not to raise taxes. Bill Clinton did something like that in 1992 and 1996.
I also took another look at my eight regions. Interestingly, by 1984 there was very little economic disparity between them. In only one, the South Atlantic, were income levels below 93% of the national average. In only one, the North Atlantic, were income levels as much as 113% of the national average. Internal migration and immigration had adjusted to the shocks of 1973-83: markets clear.
The Presidency. Nothing about Ronald Reagan here: this was all about looking ahead to 1988. I wrote several paragraphs describing the appeal of seven Republican and seven Democratic candidates, plus four possible added starters -- Bill Clinton, Mario Cuomo, Sam Nunn and Charles Robb. These are the most detailed descriptions of presidential candidates I have ever written for an Almanac Introduction, and I think they stand up pretty well.
The Democratic House. For the first time, I wrote about the House before the Senate; the House, after all, does come first in the Constitution. I noted that the new Speaker, Jim Wright, was setting out liberal positions on issues more aggressively than O'Neill had done. I looked at what I called the subcommittee entrepreneurs and the lobbying community. I set out reasons why Democrats had maintained control of the House, and argued that voters also wanted a Democratic House to balance Reagan. Then I made what I think is one of the best predictions I have ever made in an Almanac Introduction. "Does that mean that the Republicans can never capture the House? On the contrary, it means they can." Redistricting probably would not help Democrats as much in the 1990s as it did in the 1980s (that turned out to be true), there would be attrition in the Watergate class of 1974 (true too) and the fundraising advantage developed by Tony Coelho might be reduced (Coelho resigned from the House in June 1989, and I think the Democrats' fundraising advantage did suffer). I might have added that the time might come when the Republicans rather than the Democrats had the lion's share of young politically gifted challenger candidates (it did, in 1992 and 1994). "It is entirely possible, though by no means assured, that we will spend much of the next decade with a Republican House checking and balancing a Democratic President and Senate -- the exact opposite of the situation for most of the 1980s." That's not quite right: the Democrats lost the Senate too in 1994, and for a short time the Republican House was not just checking and balancing the Democratic President but setting the agenda for him.
The Democratic Senate. This is an essay on the changing character of the Senate over the preceding half-century, how it changed from the Southern-dominated Senate of, say, 1939-63 to the liberal-dominated Senate of 1963-81 to what I argued was the leader-dominated Senate since 1981. I forecast that the Republicans had more seats at risk and as it turned out they lost a net two seats.
In the Introductions to the 1990 and 1996 Almanacs I tended to take the Republican presidential victory in 1988 and the Republican House victory in 1994 as signs of a permanent Republican trend: mistakes both times. In this Introduction to the 1988 edition I more wisely left open the possibility that both parties would overturn the others' holds on one branch of the federal government: which is what happened. As I recall, relatively few, if any, other political observers were making such predictions. Some political operators were -- Al From of the Democratic Leadership Council argued that the right kind of Democrat could win the presidency, and Newt Gingrich, narrowly elected minority whip in March 1989, predicted that the right kind of Republicans could win control of the House. I was in touch with both of them at the time and intrigued by their strategies, both of which turned out to be successful. Some time around 1990 I spoke to the House Democratic Caucus (I no longer speak to Democratic or Republican organizations) and predicted that before the 1990s were out the struggle between the executive branch and the legislative branch might be a struggle between President Bill Bradley -- I got the wrong Bill -- and Speaker Newt Gingrich. At which point a loud groan came out of Congressman John Dingell. He can't say I didn't warn him.
Click here for a printable PDF copy of the complete 1988 Introduction.
The Almanac of American Politics 1990
The American Half-Century.
The inspiration for the American Half-Century came from writing "Our Country," published in early 1990. One of my reasons for writing it was to assert the similarities of Ronald Reagan and his first political hero, Franklin Roosevelt. Both had won national majorities and had pursued bold policies; both had set the tone for the times. Those schooled in the tradition of New Deal historians resisted the idea that they had anything in common: Roosevelt was for a larger government, Reagan for a smaller one. But they did have things in common. Roosevelt, at least after 1938, and Reagan backed an expansive foreign policy in which America would seek to increase freedom and democracy in the world. Both were optimistic and believed that America was a special country, with a special mission. Both were disdained by the chattering classes of their day, whom they grandly ignored. The New Deal historians taught us that history always moves left, not steadily but in leftward lurches every generation. But the events of the 1980s taught us that history can move right. "Our Country" presented a narrative which tried to make sense of all this. It was received, to the extent it was noticed at all, hostilely by those still committed to the New Deal tradition.
"Our Country" had gotten me looking at current politics in longer perspectives. And as I was thinking about the 1990 Almanac, I thought that it would appear just half a century after Time publisher Henry Luce had proclaimed -- rather, called for -- an American century in 1941. In the late 1980s, declinists were in full swing, with books arguing that America would decline due to "imperial overstretch" or because of the greater economic strength of Japan. I thought in the half-century after 1941 America had had great successes, not least because of the rather similar foreign policies advocated by Luce, Roosevelt and Reagan. Americans had defeated Nazism and the Axis in 1945 and they had helped produce the fall of Communism in 1989-91 (the Soviet Union was in its last year of existence as I wrote). At home, America had doubled in population and its people's incomes had tripled between 1940 and 1990. It was something to celebrate. So in every state write-up and in the write-ups of many congressional districts, I compared the state or district in 1990 to what it had been like in 1940. Some places -- the anthracite coal counties of northeast Pennsylvania -- had changed very little. Others -- south Florida, Arizona -- were practically empty in 1940 and were heavily populated and prosperous in 1990. I drew heavily on the state WPA Guides, published around 1940, and on circa 1940 descriptions of states and local areas, like Carl Carmer's Stars Fell on Alabama, Robert and Helen Lynd's Middletown and John Gunther's Inside U.S.A. I'm not sure that many readers noticed, but I had fun.
I started off by looking at America's demographic growth in the two quarter-centuries, 1940-65 and 1965-88 (the 1990 Census numbers were not yet out, so I used the 1988 Census estimates). In the 1940-65 period there was robust and similar population growth in the East, Midwest and South (between 35% and 40%) and explosive growth in the West (124%). This reflected growth in old-line heavy industries and growth directed by the federal government to defense industry areas in World War II; growth in the South was reduced by the mass migration of blacks to the North. In the 1965-88 period there was very little growth in the East and Midwest (8% and 10%) and much greater growth in the South (44%) and West (57%). This was growth directed more by the market than the government, more by emerging small business units than by giant industrial corporations. People were leaving high-tax, high-crime metro areas and making their homes in places where they hoped things would be different.
Politically there were similarities but one big difference. In both 1940 and 1988 presidents had been elected with the same bases of regional support: big majorities in the South and West, narrow majorities in the Industrial Belt and Northeast, slightly less than 50% in the Farm Belt. The difference was that the president elected in 1940 was a Democrat and the president elected in 1988, by a similar margin, was a Republican. There were other similarities. The president's party in both cases did not have effective control of Congress and did not govern most of the largest states.
Then I took a look at the 1984 and 1988 results among the 10 groups of voters defined by both cultural and economic factors by Gallup and Times-Mirror: an interesting thing to look back on.
The Presidential Campaign. Unlike most in the Washington press corps (I left the Washington Post in 1989 and joined U.S. News & World Report), I took a benign view of the 1988 campaign. The parties had chosen competent, well-organized nominees of decent character, there were no appeals to racism and bigotry and the candidate of the party that plausibly claimed its policies had produced peace and prosperity won. (And no, the so-called Willie Horton ads were not racist: it is not racist to believe that a murderer sentenced to life without parole should not be set free on weekends, as Horton was under a Massachusetts law Michael Dukakis defended over a period of 11 years.) Democrats tended to blame Dukakis for their loss, but I made the point that in many respects he had run a good campaign.
Some in the press made the argument that Bush's victory should hardly count since turnout was low, just over 50% of those considered eligible. I took the trouble to show the numbers. Over time, what has happened has not been a steady gradual decline in turnout, but a sharp one-time decline in the early 1970s. From 1950 to 1972, turnout in presidential years hovered in the 60%-63% range and turnout in offyears in the 43%-48% range. Then, from 1974 to 1988, turnout in presidential years hovered in the 50%-55% range and turnout in offyears in the 36%-40% range. There was no overlap between the two periods. What happened in the early 1970s to cause this? The vote was given to 18-to-20-year-olds, whose turnout has always been much lower than among those 21 and over. Prison populations started rising and immigration increased, so that the total adult population -- the denominator in the fraction that determines turnout -- included more and more people not eligible to vote.
Then I went into a long discussion of media bias, which I think was very apparent in the campaign, and why it didn't matter as much as it used to: newspapers and the old-line TV networks' evening newscasts were losing audience share. And anyway, voters can see through media bias. "If the nation had a natural Democratic majority in presidential elections in years [1932-64] in which the media was biased toward Republicans and conservatives, a strong case can be made that it has today something approaching a natural Republican majority in presidential elections at a time when most of the media seemed biased toward Democrats and liberals." I think that something stands up pretty well. But there is a caveat. "Something approaching a natural Republican majority": I was not ready to say flat-out that there was a natural Republican majority, though I did note that Bush's 53%-46% popular vote margin was exactly the same as Franklin Roosevelt's in 1944. But I did not explore the possibility that the Democrats might come up with a formula to win in future elections, as I had in the Introduction to the 1988 Almanac. This was incautious at best, and left my readers without a clue as to how George Bush's 53% in 1988 could turn into his 37% in 1992, as it did.
The 101st Congress. I argued here that Congress in the late 1980s had produced some pretty useful legislation, without much help from the administration, and that if the Republican presidential nominee was entitled to argue that his party's record entitled him to election, Democratic members of Congress could reasonably claim that their party's record entitled them to reelection. The Almanac went to press late enough to report the resignation of Speaker Jim Wright in June 1989. I compared Wright to Lyndon Johnson, whom Wright tried to succeed in a 1961 special election. Wright finished third in the primary, just 2% behind the second place finisher; he probably could have beaten either of the top two candidates, Republican John Tower and conservative Democrat William Blakeley, in the runoff. I think my account of Wright's rise and fall is fair and even sympathetic. I also provided sympathetic accounts of the new House leaders, Speaker Thomas Foley and Majority Leader Dick Gephardt, and of the two "Polish princes," Ways and Means Chairman Dan Rostenkowski and Energy and Commerce Chairman John Dingell. Nothing to regret here.
In the course of recounting the resignations of Wright and Tony Coelho, I wrote two sentences that hinted at the possibility that 1990 would be an anti-incumbent year in House elections, as it turned out to be: "The resignation of two of the top three Democratic leaders did not necessarily prove the charge of Republicans like Whip Newt Gingrich that the Democrats were a corrupt liberal welfare-state majority, but it did cast the Democrats -- and to some extent the whole House -- under a pall that will not easily be dissipated. Disarray seldom works to the benefit of incumbents or leaders -- even if, as seemed likely in late May 1989, that disarray was followed by calm, reassuring leadership." Looking ahead to the 1990s I noted, accurately, that redistricting was unlikely to help the Democrats as it did in the 1970s and 1980s, and that the House Democrats' problems created a more favorable environment for young, politically skillful Republican candidates -- the kind that are needed to oust many incumbents. My last two sentences on the House: "Between 1963 and 1974, the House was transformed from the conservative anchor to the liberal iceboat [iceboat? where did that come from?] of American politics. It is possible that it will be transformed again in a similarly brief period, in the other direction, so that the conflict between executive and legislative branches in the late 1990s will be a conflict between President Bill Bradley and Speaker Newt Gingrich." Not a bad prediction, and I don't think you'll find that many other people, except for Gingrich and his inner circle, were writing or saying the same thing in 1989. There is an advantage in knowing the electoral numbers and being able to use some historical perspective.
On the Senate, I again noted the changes over the years as in the essay in the Introduction to the 1988 Almanac, and I added that the high turnover in Senate seats in the 1980s produced many members who were not, or were at least not yet, very able. I noted also, and I think accurately, that the Senate had become more partisan and cited some of the new senators elected in 1986 -- but not Tom Daschle, who has turned out to be more partisan than those I named (one of them, Richard Shelby, became a Republican in 1994). In passing I noted that rejected nominees Robert Bork and John Tower were replaced by "arguably more obdurate conservatives," Anthony Kennedy and Dick Cheney; right perhaps on Cheney, very wrong on Kennedy. On the 1990 elections I was opaque. "The Republicans profess to have little chance to win control; the Democrats profess to have no hope of making gains: do not believe either side." Close to right: the Democrats gained one seat.
The States and Regions. Not much here.
Click here for a printable PDF copy of the complete 1990 Introduction.
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