President Trump is eager to frame this year's election as another 1968, when chaos sent voters fleeing to the candidate who promised law and order. That's far-fetched, given 2020's fundamentals. More than any other recent presidential race, this campaign looks like a repeat of 1980. That's when Republicans wooed the "Reagan Democrats" out of FDR's New Deal coalition and into the GOP fold. This year, Democrats have an opportunity to chisel off a demographic that will come to be known as "Biden Republicans." The question is whether Democrats will let these voters migrate back to the GOP after November, or whether our party will become their permanent safe harbor.
First, let's be clear about 1968. Two wings of the Democratic Party went to war with each other, essentially upending the progressive movement until Bill Clinton pieced things back together a quarter-century later. Today, by contrast, even if Democrats disagree on the path forward, we share the same objectives: expanding health coverage, curtailing climate change, and promoting economic equality and social justice. For that reason alone, the 1968 analogy doesn't hold.
This year, Democrats have the chance to achieve a generational transformation. Beyond broadening the coalition to include moderate voters who oppose President Trump, we could deepen our base by turning disaffected Republicans into Democrats. Voters in places that were once beyond our reach—suburban parts of Maricopa County, Ariz.; Mecklenburg County, N.C.; and Bucks County, Pa., for example—are open to conversion. So beyond thinking about the outcome this November, Democrats need to focus on what happens after Mr. Trump has been ushered off the stage.
The 1980 election was a touchstone because it offered clear evidence that, in politics, culture counts. Reagan Democrats in places like Macomb County, Mich., walked away from the New Deal coalition not because Democrats had abandoned progressive economics or organized labor. Rather, Reagan used crime and welfare to argue that the left had turned its back on working-class values. Most important, these voters stuck with the GOP even as Reagan championed tax cuts for the wealthy, revealing that cultural concerns tied corporate leaders and unionized rank-and-file workers—an unlikely coalition that's lasted for decades.
The GOP long relied on wedge issues—God, guns, gays—to bury Democratic candidates running in competitive states and districts. But the country has evolved, and more voters are seeking candidates who embody diversity, openness and compassion. Louie Gohmert-style responses to the pandemic and stupefying denials of climate change have betrayed the GOP's cultural aversion to science. The Black Lives Matter signs in windows across suburban the U.S. reveal what so many Americans think of Mr. Trump's divisiveness. Set the underlying merits aside—these issues reveal a cultural shift that cuts against the Republican Party. Culture now works in the Democratic Party's favor.
The issue isn't whether college-educated suburban voters will help us beat Mr. Trump—they will. The challenge is to get them to stick with us beyond 2020. We don't want these voters simply to "rent" the Democrat Party to remove Mr. Trump from the Oval Office. We want them to "buy" into our agenda so that they fuel legislative victories through the next decade on our core issues. To enact our agenda, we'll need a coalition broad enough to withstand the electoral blowback that inevitably comes from leading big reforms. To do that, we need these voters to stay blue even in the lean years.
I understand the impulse to marginalize voters who weren't with us in 2016—to castigate them for ignoring all the warning signs about Mr. Trump. I'm hardly known for being a "forgive and forget" kind of guy. But vengeance would be shortsighted and self-defeating. Cultivating their support won't muddle our resolve so much as it will empower us to enact our agenda. While we may not always agree on every item, they'll be invaluable allies and coalition partners when we're working to protect the environment, expand economic opportunity to all parts of society, and reform the justice system.
Much like in 2018, voters in 1978 were disappointed in the sitting president. Two years into President Carter's only term, Republicans claimed three additional Senate seats, and 15 seats in the House. In 1980, President Reagan turned what could have been a transactional arrangement with Reagan Democrats into a transformational moment. Joe Biden and the Democrats are now poised to do something similar. If in 2028 the Democratic nominee sees Biden Republicans as part of the Democratic Party's base, we will have made the most of this year's electoral opportunity.
Mr. Emanuel was a senior adviser to President Clinton and chief of staff to Barack Obama. He represented Illinois's Fifth Congressional District, 2003-09, and served as mayor of Chicago, 2011-19.
Wall Street Journal, August 15, 2020
August 17, 2020
Voices4America Post Script. Rahm Emanuel is convinced that we should think big: Republicans for Biden can permanently be turned Blue. Maybe he is right but I take one day at a time. What I care about is #VoteBidenHarris 2020.