The world will little note nor long remember that a group of urban industrial counties--Baltimore, San Francisco and Albany, N.Y., to name three--gave Jimmy Carter bigger majorities in 1980 than in 1976. Conservative political analyist Kevin Phillips, on the other hand, has noted it and remembered it, and, what's more, he thinks he knows what it means.
It means the first stirrings of "statist-welfarist opposition to conservative stringency and economic Darwinism," or, more simply, a "backlash against Sun Beltism," or still more simply, that Ronald Reagan's election was not motivated by economic duress, since the areas under the most duress tended to cast the most votes for his opponent.
Two-thirds of the 10-point Reagan victory margin, Phillips says, "came from people whose votes were really based on cultural and religious reasons." He concedes that the Republicans profited from certain "specific vocational insurgencies"--in the worlds of agriculture, timber and aerospace, for example--but even these groups, he says, "were not voting for conservative economics."
So it was a horrendous political mistake on Reagan's part, Phillips reasons, to think he had a mandate for supply-side economics and to devote his first year in office to its fulfillment, while downplaying social/cultural/religious issues. In doing so, the Reagan administration failed "to keep its own people in line," says Phillips, "and I don't think the administration knew well enough who its people were."
Ever since he imagined "The Emerging Republican Majority" in 1969, Phillips has been associated with the idea that America, after the liberal ascendancy of the 1960s, was due for a fundamental shift to the right. The 1980 election cemented that thought in many a previously unpersuaded mind. According to the basic "I told you so" principle, Phillips ought to be a confident man these days--confident not only about his own powers of prediction but about America's political future.
But as a political pundit--the author of a syndicated column, a commentator on "CBS Spectrum," and the publisher of "The American Political Report" and "The Business and Public Affairs Fortnightly"--it is his business to be one step ahead of everybody else. And from that forward post, just now, things look bad, very bad, as Phillips explains in his new book, "Post-Conservative America," which forecasts a bleak future for the Reagan administration, compares America in the '80s to Germany in the '20s, and asks the beguiling question: Could there be a quasi-Fu hrer in our future?
At 41, Phillips is a prosperous inhabitant of Bethesda, bespectacled, large of frame, careful of dress--a seeming prototype of Republican majoritarianism. But the great political realignment he envisioned 12 years ago has long since been written off, by him, as a lost opportunity--lost through the "aberration" of Watergate. He believes that a shrewd conservative president might have put the package back together in 1980, but "I just don't see these people pulling it off now," he says. "The trick was always to get the South to change--either to become Republican or to go in a coalition."
Richard Nixon, he recalls, entertained thoughts of a new party to embody that coalition after the 1972 election. But then . . . well, we all know what happened then. As for now, "I just have a feeling that the Republicans have let so many chances go by that if I were a southern Democrat, I don't know if I'd pay attention to anything they said, coalition-wise."
In addition to its overemphasis on economics, the Reagan administration has chosen the wrong economic model, Phillips says. It has pushed a program of "nostalgia" rather than "tough-minded calculation," apparently believing that "you can turn back the clock to Coolidge." And it is nostalgia with a cloudy lens, says Phillips. "My God! Coolidge left the presidency in March 1929, and look what happened six months later."
So what would Phillips recommend for a conservative team in the White House at this juncture? "You've got to come up with something resembling a national industrial policy," he says, citing the European and Japanese examples of intense cooperation between government and favored businesses. Politicians as diverse as John Connally and Jerry Brown have talked in such terms, and "I think that represents to some extent the future," says Phillips.
Or, failing that, he raises two fall-back possibilities for a Reagan resurrection. One is war--a "post-imperial spasm" or "something like the Falklands" to satisfy those among us who feel the country "lacks hormones." These things are not easy to arrange, Phillips acknowledges. "But royal marine commandos are much better than Laffer curves if you want to pursue the politics of nostalgia."
The other possibility is Sen. Edward M. Kennedy. "If the Democrats nominate Teddy," says Phillips, the Republicans may have "one last chance to pull it off."
If, on the other hand, things continue as they are, he expects Ronald Reagan to absent himself from the 1984 election, and he expects the '80s to be a bleak interval across the board--a time of unprecedented disillusion and fragmentation. This may be beyond anybody's control, he adds. "We may be at a point where it doesn't matter what president or party we put in, because we're dealing with a down trend or deterioration that's in the historical cards. There are a lot of people who feel that the western countries have passed their peak."
Phillips has been credited with coining, or popularizing, the phrases "Sun Belt" and "New Right," and in his new book he offers "Balkanization" and "Shadow Empire" as candidates for the political-analysis lingo of the '80s. The Republicans, he says, are not the only party that may have to forget about a majority. In the splintered politics to come, "I'd be surprised if we had, ever again, a majority party."
And amid the tumult, Phillips prophesies, Vietnam could be a "time bomb" for America, much as Versailles was for Germany. The war will be refought rhetorically, he says, by a generation with "no effective memories" of it. This may not happen right away--"it took a while to develop" in post-World-War-I Germany, he notes--but he sees early-warning signals in such developments as the Panama Canal debate of 1976-77. "There are 17 or 18 senators who are no longer in the Senate," Phillips observes, "who voted for the Panama Canal treaties."
The final ingredient in the German analogy--an analogy he offers only in rough form, disavowing any thoughts of "Teutonic-style radical right politics in the U.S."--is the emergence of an attractive charismatic figure mobilizing a "radicalized middle." A candidate with George Wallace's populist appeal but "more than George Wallace's skills," says Phillips, "could probably go a long way . . . Some guy who comes along with a convincing spiel for streamlining the government, for getting rid of a few of the obstructions, could get rid of a lot more than the obstructions."
He imagines these things from the comfortable perspective of the outsider, but it was not always thus. Phillips was Bronx county chairman of Youth for Eisenhower in 1956, while enrolled at the Bronx High School of Science, and he went to work for Rep. Paul Fino (R-N.Y.) fresh out of Harvard Law School in 1964, remaining as Fino's administrative assistant until he signed on with the Nixon presidential campaign in '68.
From there he moved into the Department of Justice as a special assistant to Attorney General John Mitchell. But Phillips' career with the Nixon administration was cut short, he says, when "The Emerging Republican Majority" made him, suddenly, a controversial figure--the supposed architect of the "southern strategy" for which the Nixonians were chastized by party moderates like Sen. Hugh Scott of Pennsylvania.
"I left on rather bad terms with the Nixon administration in early 1970," he says, "because Haldeman and Ehrlichman had been indulging in various ways of cutting my throat." And until then, what did his Justice Department post entail? "Practically nothing. That was one of the ways that Haldeman and Ehrlichman scored. As of the spring of 1969 I had the rare distinction of being one of the few persons in the government who was persona non grata to the government."
Phillips' judgment of Mitchell is that "he was a rotten manager . . . he wasn't the guy to be riding herd over all these two-bit White House gangsters. But I always thought he was a standup guy compared to John Dean and all the other little opportunists who were running around. He did his thing and stuck to his guns and served his time."
He laments "the stupidity" of Watergate "when they had George McGovern handed to them on a platter," and wonders aloud how history might have proceeded "if everything went the way I said it would," if "the better side of Richard Nixon" had had a chance to flower, and if the country had avoided the "abnormal Democratic resurgence" of the Carter years.
He wonders about all this only for a moment, however, and then he checks himself. Would things really have been so splendid, so different? "It's hard to say," Phillips says. "It's too theoretical. I really don't know how seriously I take it."