African-Americans became solid Democrats in the 1960s, rallying behind the party’s commitment to civil rights. Die-hard conservatives made their causes the Republicans’ causes starting around the same time, and by the 1980s, the party was on the record opposed to abortion and the Equal Rights Amendment and in support of school prayer.
Obama’s inaugural speech Jan. 21 helped inflame partisan passions. The meeting the next day of the Democratic National Committee, the party’s governing body, was a celebration of his promises on global warming, equal rights and near-universal health care.
“The president has laid out our vision. We must give him the tools to succeed,” declared party Chairwoman Debbie Wasserman Schultz, a Florida congresswoman.
“I saw Obama as a moderate, but he’s doing good by coming out for those programs,” said Kimberly Metcalfe, a Democratic Party committeewoman from Juneau, Alaska. “How can I be against what I’m for?”
The talk was more circumspect in more conservative areas. Jean Lemire Dahlman laughed as she said that her Montana ranch was the only Democratic outpost for 100 miles, and people out there routinely think that Washington is trying to control their lives.
Republicans, who held their winter meeting last week in Charlotte, N.C., had the same lament, particularly in the Northeast and on the West Coast, where Republicans thrived for years with a message of fiscal conservatism and social tolerance, but no longer.
Bill Powers, the New York State Republican Party chairman throughout the 1990s, recalled how Republican George Pataki won the governorship in 1994 and Rudy Giuliani won two terms as New York’s mayor by emphasizing conservative notions that matter to locals, such as getting tough on crime or lowering taxes.
Can that drown out the daily left-right war in the news media? That depends on who’s doing the talking and what he or she is emphasizing.
“In the end,” veteran Republican activist Saul Anuzis of Michigan said, “the parties are really defined by their candidates.”