Ten Miles Square

Blog

January 25, 2013 12:02 PM Reagan/Obama

By Jonathan Bernstein

I have a column up over at TAP arguing that it’s a mistake for Barack Obama to aspire to being a “liberal Reagan” — because, well, because politics doesn’t work like that. And with some advise on what Obama should do going forward. I think it’s a good one, so maybe you will too.

Meanwhile, since I wrote it the “liberal Reagan” pieces keep on coming — two smart observers, E.J. Dionne and Greg Sargent, each pick up the theme. I’ll note a couple of things that go a bit beyond the TAP piece in response.

Dionne says that “Like Reagan, Obama hopes to usher in a long-term electoral realignment.” It’s very, very hard to see a Reagan realignment. Republicans won the presidency in 1968, 1972, 1980, 1984, and 1988; I can’t really see 1980 as anything special in that sequence. Or, to put it another way, after Reagan Republicans have won the national presidential vote only in 1988 and 2004. Reagan did come into office with basically a conservative coalition majority in the House, the first one in a while…but it disappeared rapidly in 1982, and didn’t reappear until 1994, which was also when Republicans recaptured the Senate after loosing it in 1986. To me, the Congressional story seems more like continuity through 1994, especially on the House side. To put it yet another way: I’m aware of no election study — or anything else, for that matter — that gets any explanatory power by using 1980 to help explain things. That is, if you’re studying the 1968 election and the 1988 election, you toss in the same things — economic fundamentals, presidential approval, perhaps candidate factors — and the results work fine. You don’t need to add “oh, and this one was after Reagan” to the 1988 analysis. It won’t help.

(I am aware of one similar variable that’s been used — David Mayhew, in his book about divided government, included a variable for a liberal era which, he found, predicted more significant legislation. However, his “activist mood” begins in 1961 and ends in 1976; it’s over four years before Reagan wins the White House. Hey, political scientists: if there’s anything I’m missing, please let me know).

There has been, to be sure, one development that could be called long-term electoral realignment: the conversion of the bulk of Anglo southerners from conservative Democrats to conservative Republicans. But if anything, Reagan stalled that conversion; at the congressional level, it wound up taking place in one big and fairly permanent surge in 1994. Not in 1980. At the presidential level, meanwhile, it was an ongoing process from the 1940s forward. Reagan didn’t delay it as far as I can tell, but he didn’t accelerate it, either.

In my view, there’s just very little evidence for claiming, as Greg does, that Reagan’s presidency was a “turning point in American history” (indeed, Greg says that Reagan’s Inaugural speech was the turning point, which is an even harder sell).

There’s more of this in the TAP piece, but also, as I said, more on what Obama should actually do rather than trying to be a liberal Reagan (or, in Greg’s version, an anti-Reagan).

[Cross-posted at A plain blog about politics]

Back to Home page

Jonathan Bernstein is a political scientist who writes about American politics, especially the presidency, Congress, parties, and elections.