One night a few months after President George W. Bush and the Republican Party declared a euphoric victory in the 2004 elections, the new chairman of the GOP drove to the Washington suburb of Largo, Maryland, for his first public speech as party leader. He could have picked any venue for this appearance, and it was not happenstance that on this February night he chose a Black History Month celebration in predominantly black Prince George's County. As recently as the 1970s, PG County, as it's called, had been mostly white and rural, a backwater still marked by the attitudes and customs of the Old South. By the turn of the century, however, it had turned overwhelmingly black, and was home to a large and upwardly ambitious black middle class. Fresh, well-groomed subdivisions had sprung up, more than a few with their own McMansions and stylish shopping plazas. Moreover, one of the county's residents, Michael Steele, had been elected the Republican lieutenant governor of Maryland, making him the highest-ranking elected African American Republican in the country and a favorite to win election to the U.S. Senate in 2006.
All of this was what attracted Chairman Ken Mehlman that night. It was also what led him to talk about President Bush's ideas to help workers invest their money and get rich. One aspect of the Bush plan, letting people put a portion of their social security taxes into investment accounts, would prove a hard sell to Congress and the broader public. But Mehlman had his reasons for focusing on it before this audience, which was predominantly Democratic but eager to hear a new pitch.
"These accounts are the key to the American dream," he said. "If you can't save money, if you can't build wealth, if you're living paycheck to paycheck, for the first time ever you are going to have a nest egg." The audience burst into applause. "Give us a chance," Mehlman said, standing on stage with Steele, "and we'll give you a choice."
A few days later, the equally new chairman of the Democratic National Committee, former Vermont governor Howard Dean, also gave a speech. Appearing in a downtown Washington hotel before an audience that included many African Americans, the head of the Democratic Party all but jeered at the idea of a Republican Party official trying to draw in blacks. "You think the Republican National Committee could get this many people of color in a single room?" he asked. "Only if they had the hotel staff in here." The Democrats responded with laughter and applause.
Considered objectively, it was hard to see what the Democrats had to laugh about. Tears might have been more appropriate. Only a few months before, on Election Day 2004, a seven-percentage point rise in black support for Bush in Ohio had created the cushion he needed to carry that pivotal state and secure reelection. Bush had gained ground among black voters in other states as well—due in part to the work of his so-called faith-based initiative that directed millions of dollars to African American church groups and to appeals like the one delivered by Mehlman during that 2005 speech in Maryland.
Bush had also improved his showing among Latinos, Jews, young people, and blue-collar workers. The Democrats had increased their overall turnout in 2004, but Republicans had increased their turnout by much more. Even in Florida, where Al Gore four years earlier had come within 537 votes and a split decision in the Supreme Court of winning the White House, Republicans stretched their margin to a relative landslide, winning the state by more than 300,000 votes.
How could this have happened? Was it just a fluke? After all, by the spring of 2006, Republicans seemed to be teetering on the precipice. American troops were stuck in a military quagmire in Iraq years after an invasion sold to the public with arguments that ultimately proved false. Government officials bungled the response to a hurricane so devastating it wiped out an entire city. Icons of the ruling Republican Party, such as ousted GOP strongman Tom DeLay, faced criminal investigation, perhaps even jail. Poll ratings plummeted. And, in a perfect metaphor for the GOP's troubles, the vice president, who was once the rock of stability and unflappable competence in the Bush White House, accidentally shot a hunting companion in the face.
Things looked so grim for Republicans that a 1994-style political revolution seemed like a real possibility—this time returning long-suffering Democrats to power in a city dominated for more than a decade by conservatives. Suddenly, Howard Dean's confidence that his party could maintain its old coalitions and build a dominant majority for the future didn't seem so far-fetched. Democrats might well benefit from Republican woes in the immediate future, perhaps taking one or both Houses of Congress in 2006.
But as this book explains, such immediate success will not erase the years of accrued deficiencies that pushed Democrats into backbench marginalization. Instead, Democrats at the start of a new century face steep odds that could well prevent them from turning potential short-term gains into a political revolution that would restore their status as the country's leading political party.
The Republican drive for long-term dominance in national politics was never designed to rest on the short-term fortunes of George W. Bush, Dick Cheney, or Tom DeLay alone. Rather, the conservative vision reached back more than forty years. It had arisen from the ruins of Senator Barry Goldwater's crushing defeat at the hands of President Lyndon B. Johnson. And in the years that followed Goldwater's loss, conservatives had built a political comeback on foundations so fundamental and strong that many believed no short-term success by Democrats could crack them.
The Republican Party of the early twenty-first century may perform poorly in individual elections, but it remains firmly in the lead when it comes to the science and strategy of attaining power—and keeping it. That advantage has been constructed painstakingly over decades and then, using taxpayer dollars and unprecedented politicization of government bureaucracies, strengthened dramatically under the presidency of George W. Bush.
The GOP controls every part of every element of the federal government, from the White House and the executive branch through the Senate and the House of Representatives. Seven of the nine Supreme Court justices were appointed by Republican presidents, and the court is trending increasingly conservative. A majority of governors are Republicans as well, including in the country's four biggest states of California, Texas, Florida, and New York. Conservatives can no longer credibly claim the news media are liberal. As the traditional television networks lose ground to cable, the dependably conservative Fox News routinely tops the cable ratings. And the Democrats have no one to match the likes of Rush Limbaugh, Sean Hannity, Laura Ingraham, Matt Drudge, and other conservative commentators and bloggers who define the issues of the day.
While the numbers of voters who label themselves Democrats and Republicans have remained roughly equal, the results of national elections have told a different story. Since 1994, when Republicans took over the House and the Senate, their control of Congress has rarely been seriously challenged. And by the time George W. Bush's second term ends on January 20, 2009, Republicans will have occupied the White House for twenty of the past twenty-eight years.
So pervasive and durable is the Republicans' strength, it is time to ask: is the United States becoming a one-party country? Will Democrats slip into the status of a permanent, carping minority? Will conservatives achieve their dream of building a lasting majority?
The fortress that has put Republicans within reach of long-term dominance is not made of smoke and mirrors. It is real, built with shrewd design, mountains of money, and decades of hard work and self-discipline. The most important but least understood tenet of the GOP strategy is that its success was never predicated on a utopian notion of converting millions of voters to conservatism in some giant feat of political evangelism. Rather, it rested on structural changes and application of proven techniques that, taken together, subtly tilted the political playing field in their favor. In tangible present-day terms, this means not attempting to win the majority of, say, black voters. Instead, it means wooing enough conservative blacks, like the crowd that applauded Mehlman, to sap Democratic strength and build the conservative majority.