In the past 40 years, the Democrats have won the White House only with a Southern Baptist at the head of the ticket. Some party nominees from outside the region -- Michael S. Dukakis in 1988 and John F. Kerry in 2004 -- tried to balance their tickets with southerners. But the lesson is clear that merely having a southerner on the ticket as the vice presidential candidate does not help to swing this crucial region toward the Democrats.
The once "solid South" that was the bulwark of the Democratic Party in national elections has transformed into the solid Republican South. This fact was plain for all to see well before the entire region rejected the Kerry-Edwards ticket on Nov. 2. And yet the Kerry campaign and many in the party put crucial time and resources into the South in the belief that they could be competitive in the region.
Democrats were encouraged by some early campaign polls in the South and also by voter identification data that showed neither party commanded majority support in any southern state. But the early polls are rarely indicative of true electoral support. Further, the distinctive pattern of southern voting over the past three decades has been one of GOP candidates receiving a much larger share of the vote than the party ID data suggest. Thus, in 1972, Richard Nixon swept the South when only 20 percent of the region identified with the GOP. In 1984, Ronald Reagan swept the South when less than 25 percent of the region was Republican. The gap has narrowed, yet George W. Bush comfortably swept the South even though the GOP does not have a majority of party identifiers there.
There are other telling indicators. No Democrat has won the South since 1976. Even in the 1996 Bill Clinton landslide, with two southerners on the ticket, the hapless GOP candidate Robert Dole won two-thirds of the region's electoral votes. But in his two victories, Clinton changed the conventional wisdom about the region. Election experts used to say that Democrats could not win the presidency without winning the South. Now they say that, like Clinton, a Democrat merely needs to hold down his losses in the South to have a chance nationally.
Without Florida -- perhaps the lone wild card in the region now -- Kerry never had a chance to hold down his losses in the South. Claims by Clinton (of Arkansas) and Gov. Mark R. Warner (of Virginia) that their home states were competitive were pure fiction. In Virginia, many Democrats were encouraged that Fairfax County would lead the way toward making the state competitive. And although Kerry was only the second Democrat to carry the county since 1944, he lost the rest of the state overwhelmingly.
For 2008, the lesson for the Democrats seems clear: In seeking a party nominee, go south. Even more so, go south to a candidate with credibility and appeal among the region's heavy doses of evangelical and pro-military voters. The party's current strategy of trying to sweep a large number of competitive non-southern states has brought them two consecutive losses to an eminently beatable Republican opponent. After they are done licking their wounds and contemplating the reality of the next four years of the Bush era, Democrats need to have a serious debate about their current process of picking party nominees.
When I went to work the day after the election, many of my Democratic-leaning colleagues looked like they had just buried their beloved childhood pet. Understandably, they were forlorn and disappointed with the electoral results and the prospect of four more years of unified Republican government. I'm not a talking head, and my job isn't to spin. But I do see a silver lining for the Democrats if the Republicans aren't careful about their governing strategy.
As I said before the election, a Bush victory could be a blessing in disguise for die-hard Democrats. President Bush's second term could mark the beginning of the end for the Republican regime. We have already observed the early fissures of the coalition. The two dominant factions within the party, the "small government" libertarians and the interventionist "big government" social conservatives, may soon come to blows over emerging policy issues.
Ronald Reagan constructed this amalgam and managed it deftly, but contradictions within the Republican fold are now blatantly obvious. Bush must engage in a balancing act to satisfy divergent voices within his own party. This tension can lead to ambiguous policy judgments, such as the infamous stem cell decision that attempted to please everyone concerned.
On the other hand, unyielding stances on the proposed gay marriage amendment or the prescription drug entitlement could intensify factional strife and lead to irreparable conflict within the GOP itself.
Presidential scholar Stephen Skowronek has argued persuasively that when the governing commitments of a political party are stretched too thin, it falls apart. During his second term, Teddy Roosevelt's forceful leadership and persuasive rhetoric couldn't keep a splintered Republican Party together to pass tariff reform. Democrat Lyndon B. Johnson failed to maintain the pledge of "guns and butter," which subsequently led to the weakening of the New Deal regime.
Early indications suggest that Bush will take a similar approach with Social Security reform and call for partial privatization.
If history is a reliable indicator, Bush's hairsplitting strategy to appease all factions within his party will lead to dissension in the ranks and a political debacle for the Republicans down the road.
My best advice for President Bush is to read a book about James K. Polk's administration. Polk managed to wage the Mexican War and minimize protectionism, thus assuaging both factions of the Jacksonian coalition. Polk provides the best template for Bush to follow. Nonetheless, even with Polk's presidency as a guide, keeping the Republican coalition intact will not be an easy task. The House Republicans have smelled victory and believe it is time for Bush to shift his posturing further to the right. If Bush wants to secure his legacy and ensure a Republican successor in 2008, he should resist this temptation.
The most attractive quality of a president -- either Republican or Democrat -- is a leader who can exercise independence and chart his own course. With congressional Republicans surrounding him, Bush needs to speak softer, and perhaps consider dusting off the veto stick.