On the morning of November 3, 1920 America awoke to discover that Republican Warren Harding had won a landslide victory in the presidential election. A map of how each state had voted on page one of the New York Times confirmed that one of the national parties completely dominated voting in the Northeast, while the other had an electoral stranglehold on the South. But the regional voting patterns were not what a modern observer might expect: every state in the Northeast had backed the Republican candidate, and every state in the South had backed the Democrat.
That reverse image of today’s regional loyalties reflects a little-noticed fact about the national parties. Over time, the parties tend to trade places, both on what they espouse and where they garner support. For example, in the 1860’s the Republican Party led the fight against slavery while the Democratic Party solidified its hold on white reactionaries in the South. A century later, Democrats led the civil rights movement and Republicans embraced a “southern strategy” aimed at appealing to resentful southern whites. In the 1890’s, Republicans were staunch supporters of protectionist tariffs and balanced budgets; by the 1990’s, they had become the party of free trade and budget-busting deficits. Meanwhile, Democrats — who used to be viewed as spendthrifts — increasingly emphasized the dangers of deficit spending and unfettered trade.
These intergenerational shifts in partisan philosophy should be a cautionary note to those who think they can confidently predict where parties will stand on key issues in the future. A case in point is national defense. Although Democrats led the nation into every major war it fought during the 20th Century, they came to be viewed as weak on defense after Vietnam. Meanwhile Republicans, once viewed as isolationists, came to be seen as the party most willing to use force overseas. So a national poll published in the Times on May 10 found that 55% of respondents trust the Republicans to “make sure military defenses are strong,” while only 29% feel that way about the Democrats.
But Democrats have begun to notice that defense is the only major issue where Republicans hold a big lead over their party in the polls, so they are rethinking defense. Senator Hillary Clinton, the likely Democratic presidential nominee in 2008, has consistently supported the military throughout her tenure in the upper chamber. Not only did she back invading Iraq and wade into arcane military issues such as body armor, but defense companies in her state say she has been consistently, effectively supportive. Anyone who listens to her speak on military matters can see that she has become a real expert on issues like readiness and reserve forces.
Meanwhile, the Bush Administration has embraced an academically-driven theory of “military transformation” that is gradually alienating every key defense constituency — Congress, the defense industry, even the officer corps. In his zeal to impose this theory, defense secretary Donald Rumsfeld has micromanaged the Iraq war the same way Robert McNamara micromanaged Vietnam. Add to that Rumsfeld’s determination to close bases and cancel programs, and you have a prescription for the two parties trading places in the loyalties of those who care most about national defense.
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