Tuesday, October 02, 2007

Republicans Losing Grip on Business Vote

Today's Wall Street Journal reports that the GOP is losing support among business groups, a trend that could prove to be one of the most important developments in partisan identification in generations:

The Republican Party, known since the late 19th century as the party of business, is losing its lock on that title.

New evidence suggests a potentially historic shift in the Republican Party's identity -- what strategists call its "brand." The votes of many disgruntled fiscal conservatives and other lapsed Republicans are now up for grabs, which could alter U.S. politics in the 2008 elections and beyond.

Some business leaders are drifting away from the party because of the war in Iraq, the growing federal debt and a conservative social agenda they don't share. In manufacturing sectors such as the auto industry, some Republicans want direct government help with soaring health-care costs, which Republicans in Washington have been reluctant to provide. And some business people want more government action on global warming, arguing that a bolder plan is not only inevitable, but could spur new industries.

Already, economic conservatives who favor balanced federal budgets have become a much smaller part of the party's base. That's partly because other groups, especially social conservatives, have grown more dominant. But it's also the result of defections by other fiscal conservatives angered by the growth of government spending during the six years that Republicans controlled both the White House and Congress.

The article cites polling data indicating a decline in business professionals identifying as Republican (down about 7 points since 2004). But business interests aren't the only groups defecting from the Republican fold. The GOP is facing major divides across various voter constituencies, not just on Iraq and fiscal policy, but also on immigration and social issues such as abortion and gay rights.

Also key is the appearance of Republican incompetence - for many partisans the GOP can't seem to get things right, like on the Justice Department's firing of U.S. attorneys under Alberto Gonzales, or on veteran's medical care and the Walter Reed disaster (see also Time's cover story from May, How The Right Went Wrong, which argues that conservatives have achieved much of their Reagan-era agenda, and may need a time out of power for recuperation).

Some of the criticisms are unfounded, for example, on fiscal policy, where the Bush tax cuts have resulted in increased federal tax receipts since 2005, and have contributed to the post-9/11 economic expansion.

But I do think overall that the GOP will be spending some time in the political wilderness. The Journal story concludes with some references to Pew Research Center polling data on public support for traditional values. According to Pew, Americans are less attached to "old-fashioned values about family and marriage" and the public's backing for international policies of "peace through strength" have declined as well.

In my view I see the changing partisan tides as reflecting not so much deep cultural or ideological shifts in the American electorate, but rather a yearning for something new, a willingness to give the other side a shot, for example, by electing a Democrat to the White House. In other words, we're simply seeing a natural swing of the political pendulum away from the dominant mode of politics represented by the party in power this last few years.

Recent polling data confirms the point, with Gallup finding last week that Americans are looking for some decisive policy leadership, governmental competence, integrity, and performance, and less partisan animosity. It's still some time until November 2008, and I wouldn't write off the GOP altogether, but the current period augurs better for the Democratic Party than in any time in the last few decades.

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