In the 1970s, inflation and the rising taxes that went with it began to make voters more receptive to the Republican message of tax cuts and smaller government. Democrats could not respond without alienating their core constituency of those who benefit from government programs.
At the same time, the liberal wing of the party, flush from a big victory in the 1974 elections, destroyed the seniority system in Congress, pushing many conservative Southerners out of key chairmanships. This broke the deal that had kept Southern conservatives in the Democratic Party even as the party moved left. Without the benefits of seniority, there was no good reason for Southern conservatives to stay in the Democratic Party, opening the door to Republicans at the congressional level in the South.
Republicans were finally able to break the gerrymandering of congressional districts by forcing legislatures to create minority districts. This tended to create safe Democratic seats in the cities, surrounded by Republican seats in the suburbs. Of course, it was Democrats who had pushed through the Voting Rights Act that forced the creation of minority districts.
Concurrently, Republicans benefited from a decades-long effort to elect Republicans in state legislatures. After each decennial census, Democratic gerrymandering eroded, giving Republicans a fair shot.
The final piece of the Republican renaissance came when Republicans stopped giving a pass to conservative Democrats. Instead of allowing them to run unopposed, the party started to put up strong, well-financed candidates against them. This, plus abuse from the liberals who controlled the Democratic Party, led almost all conservative Democrats either to retire or become Republicans.
By 1994, the pieces all came together and Republicans took control of Congress. Now, they benefit from safe Southern seats, get 60 percent of business campaign contributions,and gain as well from the recently passed campaign finance legislation. It raised limits on individual contributors, which Republicans have more of, while restricting soft dollars, which Democrats had depended upon.
Thus we see that Republican control of Congress was the result of 30 years of effort to break down the Democratic advantage. But without Democratic missteps, it would not have worked. Similarly, it will take Republican missteps to give Democrats an opening to recover. The latter may elect a president from time to time, but they will likely remain in the minority in Congress for decades to come.
Bruce Bartlett is a former senior fellow with the National Center for Policy Analysis of Dallas, Texas. Bartlett is a prolific author, having published over 900 articles in national publications, and prominent magazines and published four books, including Reaganomics: Supply-Side Economics in Action.
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