Wall Street Journal
By Gerald F. Seib
March 14, 2016
Regardless of the outcome of Tuesday’s crucial big-state primaries, Campaign 2016 already has produced one big change: It is winding down the two big coalitions that have dominated American political life for the last three decades.
Those are the Reagan coalition and the Clinton coalition, crafted and ridden into the White House by Ronald Reagan and Bill Clinton, respectively. Mr. Reagan’s conservative coalition formed the core of the Republican Party from 1980 on, and Mr. Clinton’s center-left coalition has represented the Democratic center of gravity, even in more-liberal era of Barack Obama.
Until this year. Now both of those coalitions are splintering in plain view. “The coalitions that have represented the parties for the last few decades are over,” says Rahm Emanuel, the mayor of Chicago, who worked for Mr. Clinton and whose state is home to a big primary on Tuesday. “This is a major election that will be a realignment of not just the coalitions, but of the two parties.”
Let us consider the two long-lived coalitions in turn. Before Mr. Reagan won the presidency in 1980, the core of the Republican Party consisted of moderate, center-right politicians well personified by the two GOP presidents who preceded him, Richard Nixon and Gerald Ford. Mr. Nixon took a series of steps that would be anathema to conservative Republicans today. He created the Environmental Protection Agency, instituted wage and price controls and supported affirmative action.
Mr. Reagan campaigned as a true conservative, and built a new coalition to win and then govern that way. He brought in so-called Reagan Democrats—blue-collar voters drawn to his culturally conservative views—as well as the so-called neo-conservative national-security thinkers, who bolted from the Democratic Party in search of a more muscular foreign policy. Supply-side economic thinkers loved his tax cuts, while the business community loved his support for free trade. Hispanics liked his odes to the virtues of immigration.
In his 1980 victory, Mr. Reagan won 73% of conservatives but also 56% of independents. Significantly, he won 37% of Hispanics. Moderate Rep. John Anderson bailed out of the GOP and ran as an independent, but got less than 7% of the national vote. The party had been recast.
Now, though, that Reagan coalition is being splintered, largely by the forces of Donald Trump. Neoconservatives are aghast at Mr. Trump’s inconsistent positions on asserting American power; many of them were among 117 GOP national-policy figures who recently signed a letter opposing his nomination. Fiscal conservatives are afraid his tax and spending plans will explode the deficit.
But it isn’t just Mr. Trump. Sens. Ted Cruz and Marco Rubio are also helping shred the party’s support for free trade, much to the chagrin of the business wing of the party. And the GOP field’s tough lines on immigration risk driving away Hispanics Mr. Reagan attracted. Meantime, blue-collar voters are moving back into the party as Wall Street backers drift away.
Equally dramatic shifts are under way on the Democratic side. Mr. Clinton won the White House in 1992 by consciously pushing his party away from its leftist moorings and toward the middle. He was an apostle of fiscal discipline, made Democrats tougher on crime, put the party on the side of welfare reform, backed free-trade agreements and made the party more business-friendly.
In the process, Mr. Clinton reclaimed some of those Reagan Democrats. He won the presidency in 1992 with almost 40% of the white vote and 48% of the moderate vote in a three-way race against President George H.W. Bush and independent Ross Perot.
Now, though, that Clinton profile, as well as the coalition it attracted, are fading away. Instead, the course the party took under Mr. Clinton is under sustained attack, particularly from Sen. Bernie Sanders.
“When you go back to the 1990s, let’s remember, that’s when Wall Street deregulation took place,” Mr. Sanders said in the most recent presidential debate against Mr. Clinton’s spouse, Hillary Clinton. “That’s when disastrous trade policies took place. Yes, good things happened, but some dangerous mistakes were made that laid the groundwork for some of the problems we’re having with a disappearing middle class today.”
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