Gone but Not Forgotten
Commentary by Michael K. Deaver for The New York Times
In the Republican primary in Michigan today, both John McCain and George W. Bush will be seeking the support of the elusive Reagan Democrat. Mr. McCain, having lost big in South Carolina when conservative Republicans turned out in force to support Mr. Bush, has a particular stake in courting this mythic bloc of voters.
But even as both candidates make their appeal, they must realize that, to a large extent, Reagan Democrats are no longer -- and the Republican Party must change its message to fit the times.
Michigan was once a bastion for such voters. Born in the shadows of Detroit's auto plants, the Reagan Democrats in Macomb County were always uneasy bedfellows of liberal Democrats like George McGovern and Ed Muskie, though they had instinctively voted Democratic since the days of Franklin Roosevelt.
In the 1960's and 70's, as national Democrats moved away from traditional issues like families, neighborhoods and national security, Republicans moved into places like Macomb County to pick up the conservative Democrats left behind.
In 1980, Ronald Reagan cobbled together a coalition of Republicans and disaffected blue-collar workers that propelled him into the White House and changed the face of the G.O.P.
These Democrats were generally blue-collar workers, who had seen their fathers fight and sometimes die in World War II. They were the guys who got drafted in the Vietnam War and who came back without saying a word. They packed their lunches in Igloo coolers and opened their heating bills with trepidation.
The Reagan Democrats lived in a world today's Generation X would hardly recognize. Stagflation. Malaise. Gas lines. Crime waves. The Ayatollah. Voluntary thermostat controls. One percent pay raises. Mujahadeen. WIN buttons. Hollow military. Killer rabbits. Exploding Pintos. Unemployment. Misery index. Billy Beer.
This was the stuff that drove the regular guy into the arms of Ronald Reagan. He spoke in plain language about ways to reinvigorate America, about ending its four-year run as a laughing stock.
But as America has changed since 1980, so have the messages that appeal to the Reagan Democrats.
The auto and steel industries have reinvented themselves, and Joe Sixpack is now Joe Technician. The union guys who once stood with Ronald Reagan are no more. The ones who remain are now the foundation of today's Democratic Party. More than likely, they aren't coming back.
Bill Clinton said recently that he felt sorry for Republicans because they had nothing to run against. The Russians are lambs, the welfare system has been fixed, and the only pessimists are in the bond market.
Life is good, but Republicans still have something to run against. Our current political system is weakened by corruption, complacency and a lack of character.
If Ronald Reagan were running today, he'd focus on these problems and a different audience. He'd be more at home in Silicon Valley than Macomb County. His optimistic message of individuality, distrust of government and reliance on markets would undoubtedly make him a dot-comer.
These people talk an entirely different language: Signing bonus. 401(k). DVD. Lexus. Straight talk. Real time. H1 visas. Profit-sharing. I.P.O.'s. Equity. Venture capital. Angels.
Call these voters the Reagan independents. Republicans can appeal to this new generation of voters, through different, but no less appealing, messages: standing up to Washington insiders, fighting pork-barrel spending and the status quo, and telling the truth.
The candidate who best enunciates where he stands on these new issues has the opportunity to form a governing coalition that will rival the one Ronald Reagan established with those gritty guys from Michigan so long ago.
Michael K. Deaver is vice chairman of Edelman Public Relations Worldwide and served as President Ronald Reagan's deputy chief of staff.
Copyright 2000 The New York Times Company
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