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Ken Mehlman speaks: on "Realignment" of U.S. Politics

The WP has an article speculating on whether 2004 represents a year of “political realignment” for the country to the GOP for the next several election cycles. There’s disagreement about this theory, but of course we get the best of all possible spin below, by someone quite familiar to those surfing the Blend.

Writer John Harris taps RNC-head-to-be Ken Mehlman for his political wisdom:

“Something fundamental and significant happened in this election that creates an opportunity for” the Republicans to remake national politics over the long term, said Ken Mehlman, who managed Bush’s reelection campaign and was tapped by the president after the election to be the next chairman of the Republican National Committee. “The Republican Party is in a stronger position today than at any time since the Great Depression.”

…The post-election realignment debate is in some ways an echo of the debate among political analysts during the campaign about whether independent-minded “swing voters” still hold the key to electoral success, or whether politics has entered a new phase that places a greater premium on “the base” — building party loyalty, and ensuring that these activists vote in higher percentages than the opposition loyalists. Bush and Mehlman pursued a strategy that put an emphasis on expanding the base, and it paid off.

…”I’m not seeing that enduring majority,” said Lawrence R. Jacobs, a political scientist at the University of Minnesota’s Hubert H. Humphrey Institute of Public Affairs. “The Republicans have won a series of close elections, but independents are not with them. I just don’t see how you can have a realignment if you have swing voters turning against you.”

Larry M. Bartels of Princeton University agreed, saying that Bush’s victory was less likely evidence of a new realignment than the “last gasp” of an old one that long ago sent the South and culturally conservative whites into the GOP column.

Among political scholars, there is an entire academic sub-specialty to the argument about realignments. The concept developed to describe long-term shifts, such as the labor-driven, urban-dominated coalition that Franklin D. Roosevelt assembled during the New Deal, and helped Democrats dominate national politics for several decades. More recently, the dramatic migration of Southern states from solidly Democratic to overwhelmingly Republican in presidential and most congressional elections is an oft-cited example of realignment.

A preeminent scholar of realignment is Walter Dean Burnham at the University of Texas at Austin, the author 33 years ago of “Critical Elections and the Mainsprings of American Politics.” He was out of the office and did not return messages during the week before Thanksgiving, but he recently told the Weekly Standard magazine that long-term trends favoring Republicans among culturally conservative and hawkish voters came to full flower in 2004, and he predicted, “If Republicans keep playing the religious card along with the terrorism card, this could last a long time.”

I don’t think there is a permanent shift going on here; it is a strategy built on people’s fears and ignorance, and thus it has proven to be effective. Dems need to learn how to frame an argument successfully to counter the spoon-fed, easily digestible pablum the GOP dispenses to the voters. The GOP/Mehlman figured out how to appeal to the base emotions and psychological vulnerabilities of people extremely well. Dems assumed the vast majority of voters really do think out the issues and vote with logic in mind. Survey after survey has proven this not to be the case. Simplistic negative ads do work, repeating a message over and over ad nauseum works — as long as it is consistent, it clearly doesn’t have to be true. The Swift Boat crap proved that. The race was close; it really shouldn’t have been, given Bush’s litany of failures during his term. But knew who to hire to run a successful, if not ethical, campaign.

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Pam Spaulding

Pam Spaulding