There's a lot of memage zipping around the InterTubz on how Obama's run for the White House is or is not going to be "another 1968." I've done some analysis on that point myself, and as far as Democratic Party history goes, the parallels are not good. There is even a group (no I won't link to them or give them more publicity) that intends to protest at the Democratic convention in mimicry of the protests of 1968.
There is another election parallel going on here that the spousal unit and me have been discussing since the Drexel debate, which is 1976. And I don't mean the Democrats. As we've been watching the ebb and flow of the campaign, who is aligning with whom, where support is coming from, how the rhetoric is deployed, we're seeing a tectonic shift in the organization of the party that resembles nothing so much as Reagan and the Movement Conservatives' capture of the Republican Party.
This post is going to be willfully misunderstood by a lot of people because they will think I am comparing policy when I am comparing structure. I'm also going to say things neither Obama nor Clinton supporters will want to hear, but which need attention and thought. What I am seeing over the course of the campaign is that a disdained and mocked politician backed by a somewhat patchwork coalition has consolidated message and support to become the insurgent opponent to the establishment, business-as-usual candidate.
Yes, you heard me right. Hillary is to the current Democratic Party as Reagan was to the Republicans in 1976. Which puts Obama in the position of Gerry Ford, the person who was supposed to present a change for the Republicans, but who ended up being the muddled choice of unsatisfied party regulars who had nothing new to offer and who could see the danger presented by the Movement Conservatives. OK, I can hear Paul Krugman passing out in the back row, but stay with me on this. Remember, I'm talking about the structure of party power relationships, not the content of policy. While there are key points on which this breaks down (mostly with the money machine backing the conservatives), I want to draw attention to the party electoral dynamics.
People talk about Reagan in the 80s, but they tend to forget his much longer build up to that point. This is someone who was the butt of jokes (Tom Lehrer "Hollywood's often to tried to mix/Show business with politics/From Helen Gahagan/to...Ronald Reagan?") part of general amusement in pop culture (I remember a Monster Squad episode where someone used a "Ronald Ray Gun"), but who was also an unrelenting party stalwart and workhorse (never speak ill of another Republican). His governorship of California tended to get dismissed by his critics as somehow not quite a real position though it was a major coup for the Republicans after Pat Brown's tenure.
In 1976, Reagan ran against Ford and it was a highly competitive contest. It went all the way to the convention and Reagan very nearly pulled off the nomination. His campaign was condemned by the party leaders as divisive, though Ford was little more than an accidental incumbent. Ford had the backing of the east coast party power brokers, had the money people behind him, and was seen as a moderate and centrist who would not polarize the electorate. Except, he had pardoned Nixon and this pissed off so many people that he simply could not summon an electoral majority. The party split and the Republicans lost. Four years later, the insurgent of 1976 swept the field, buoyed by a voter coalition based in the South and West, but which tapped into deep pools of political dissatisfaction and economic anxiety in the opposing party. Whether or not you like the cultural mix represented by that coalition, it was a winning one and completely reorganized the traditional sources of power in the Republican Party.
Reagan was not an outsider to the party, though he was not taken seriously by the party leaders or by the press. He knew how to campaign and he built his support the hard way. You can detest what he appealed to in voters and loathe what he did when he gained power, but people need to recognize that he built a very effective coalition that is only now losing steam nearly thirty years later.
On the Left, people want to identify what Obama is doing with the 1980s Reagan (not the least Obama himself), both to praise Obama's strategy and to condemn it, but the comparison doesn't hold water, because Reagan's realignment work was done in the 70s, laying the foundation for the success of 1980. Obama may have the rhetoric down pat, but he is not restructuring the electoral map. His backers are part of the usual coalition the northeast liberal elite has relied on since, well, Hubert Humphrey to try to gain power - AAs, Stevensonians, and a contracting pool of New Deal style working class party loyalists. There is no new message or new promise being delivered, just the same abstract, reform the system, clean up bad government, the know-it-alls will manage the machine, yadda-yadda, that's been around since Adlai bombed in 1952. It appeals to the intellectual part of progressivism, but arguments about process just don't move people. He is running a priestly campaign complete with exhortations to have a politico-religious conversion. Under the hood, we can see it’s mostly about the Benjamins, and I will have a post on that topic soon enough.
Wherever these two candidates began their campaigns, they have ended up in very different places. The Conventional Wisdom was that HRC was the Establishment candidate, the ultimate insider, but those who have been watching the cracks in the party since Big Dog battled the Village in the 90s knew this wasn't so. Obama is completely the choice of the party power elite.
Over the course of the campaign, as much from the defeats as from the victories, Hillary has taken on the mantle of the progressive warrior in a way that Edwards never managed to secure. Hers is not progressivism in the mode of the saints; it is of the Jacksonian persuasion. Regardless of her starting point, which I think exists more in the minds of her detractors than anywhere else, Hillary has become the candidate of concrete progressivism, just as Obama has become the ultimate establishment insider. She is building on the base that is under-represented in practical policy terms though necessary for electoral success, working class voters (And, yes, she would have the Black working class in there, too, save for Obama.), and then she has both realigned and expanded that base - women voters are more radicalized, Hispanic voters are looking to her and not to the right, Asian voters are entering the electorate for her, pocketbook voters are lining up behind her. Geographically, she is bringing out a new set of voters in the Southern tier, replacements for the well-off white voters who used to vote Democratic and who used to be the electoral majorities in those areas. Latin@s gave her Texas, New Mexico, Arizona, Nevada and California, and contributed to the Florida win, for example. Best of all, she is reclaiming the "Reagan Democrats" as specifically Clinton Democrats. They are not transferrable to the old Democratic school of Kennedy, Kerry and Daschle.
Of course, the comparison to Reagan in 1976 holds a bitter pill - he lost the nomination. My point here is that even with that loss, Reagan ended the electoral cycle with a stronger base than the old guard Republicans which set him up for the final transformation of the party in 1980. Key to the transformation was the conversion of voters into partisans. The blogosphere amplifies and distorts things, but it is not my imagination that more people are explaining that they have been won over by her in a way that other candidates have not done. (I also remind readers of a poll - can't find link - done by Gallup late last year that shows her supporters were already more likely to be strongly partisan in her favor than those of other candidates.) They want the kind of champion who will not surrender, who will defend the party and the voters from all assaults, who is dedicated to ensuring that the needs of individuals are placed above the abstract theories of procedural reform. Why reform procedure if you can deliver the goods directly? Of course, since Hillary, like Bill, is equal parts Stevenson and Truman, she will do both. Her partisans see a savvy political actor who is squarely on their side, speaks their language, and will never stop fighting because she is in it precisely to fight. She does not have the technocratic aversion to political battle.
Thus, the fear of the old guard Democrats, just like their Republican counterparts of 1976, is that she can complete consolidation of her new coalition in time to take the nomination. The juxtaposition of the low-turnout red state caucuses versus the over whelming turnouts of the blue state primaries shows how weak the establishment candidate is this round, the delegate margins due to depressing Democratic votes rather than bringing in new people.
The key to creating Democratic dominance is breaking the hold Republicans have on the Southern tier, which you will get through direct appeals to concrete issues by a candidate who is dedicated to the interests of those voters.
Her name is Hillary Rodham Clinton.