In 1967 a little-known conservative congressional aide named Kevin Phillips wrote a book called The Emerging Republican Majority. In it he argued that the Democrats’ liberal causes and free-spending ways had so alienated some of their traditional constituents that the party was in danger of losing the Presidency for the foreseeable future. The prophecy was amply borne out when Republicans went on to win four of the next five presidential elections. Now, in a new book, The Politics of Rich and Poor, Phillips, 49, says that the Republican ascendancy is about to come to an end. In his view the GOP has alienated its middle-class constituents by pandering to the wealthy and condoning, in the name of Reaganomics, an era of unbridled greed and self-indulgence. A score of elections around the country next week will put this latest thesis to the test. Phillips, who was educated at Colgate and Harvard Law School, worked in the Nixon administration before launching a lucrative career as a writer and commentator. He lives with his wife, Martha, 48, a Republican congressional staffer, and their 14-year-old twin sons in Bethesda, Md. Recently, Phillips discussed his best-selling book with correspondent Jane Sims Podesta.
How can you call yourself a conservative Republican yet write so contemptuously about the Reagan and Bush eras?
I’m a Nixon Republican, not a Bush Republican. Nixon is a Middle American Republican, and Bush is a Park Avenue-Palm Beach Republican. In the Nixon years you heard terms like “silent majority” and “Joe Six-Pack.” What you get out of Bush is capital gains and a speedboat off his “cottage” in Kennebunkport. Two different Republican parties.
When did it change its stripes?
During the Reagan Presidency. Like the two previous Republican heydays, in the 1920s and the Gilded Age of the late 19th century, the 1980s were a period when everyone forgot the laws of gravity. They just pumped it up and pumped it up and got carried away with debt and speculation. Now with the budget crisis and the S&L mess, we are seeing parts of the economy implode and things like junk bonds and leveraged buyouts unravel. Republicans were the spiritual architects of the 1980s. They stood for these go-go financial values and told us if we cut taxes it would be magic.
And what happened instead?
We saw vast wealth concentrated in the hands of the top 1 percent of Americans. There is this sense on the part of the public that the richest people have accumulated an awful lot during the 1980s and haven’t used it very well. Gold-plated yachts and $20 million houses haven’t served the larger interests of the country.
So why weren’t the Democrats able to defeat Bush in the last election?
Democrats always lose their bearings during these periods when capitalism becomes fashionable. Democrats aren’t a left-wing party but a middle-class party with a little less enthusiasm about capitalism and the rich than Republicans. My sense is that a good Democrat could have beaten Bush in 1988 by attacking credit-card economics and the failed programs of the ’80s.
Do you see that changing anytime soon?
Well, we’re not exactly dealing with the A-Team when we’re talking about the Democrats. Gov. Mario Cuomo is a strong candidate, and Sen. Bill Bradley is talked about, but he isn’t very charismatic. The joke on Bradley is that if he gave a fireside chat the fire would go out. The Democrats have lost faith in themselves and their ideas. They don’t have clean hands, so it will be confusing for the average person to figure out.
Still, aren’t you predicting that the Republicans will suffer more at the polls in upcoming elections?
Usually if people are angry they tend to be angry at whatever party is in the White House. We don’t have a king or queen, so the President’s party is the one that gets the blame for everything. The Republicans took credit for the prosperity of the 1980s, so now they can take the blame when things go wrong. I would guess a lot of Reagan Democrats and some Republicans are unhappy with the image that Bush developed when he seemed to favor the rich in the recent budget face-off on taxes with Congress.
In fact isn’t there a great deal of resentment toward both parties?
Certainly we have seen that anger in Louisiana with the turnout for U.S. Senate candidate David Duke. You had a former Ku Klux Klan member getting 44 percent of the vote—higher than anybody expected. People are frustrated and they somehow want to take back the political power.
What are some of the symptoms of this “new populism”?
One is the voters’ belief that the rich should pay more taxes—which is being acted out right now in Congress. Another is the attempt to roll back insurance rates, which is going to happen in Arizona this year and happened in California two years ago. There is also great antagonism against oil companies and tremendous anger over the S&L disaster.
What do these voters want?
They want a government in Washington that doesn’t look like it is fumbling around. The budget has been fumbled. The President has created a sense that he is not much of a leader on domestic or budget issues. People were turned off by that “read my hips” ‘ nonsense. There is a growing feeling that George Bush just isn’t doing a good job and neither is Congress. I don’t think I can ever remember a situation where there was no scandal involved and a President’s job approval rating sank like Bush’s in the last month.
You have been attacked as a traitor and a “fraud” by the supporters of present Republican policies. How do you respond?
The fact that I don’t agree with the supply-side squirrel cage at the moment doesn’t affect my definition of what is a Republican. I don’t think it’s Republican to say deficits and debts don’t matter. These think-tank conservative, supply-side hot dogs have been arguing for deregulation and unleashing capitalism in the private sector—without considering that the consequences are concentrated wealth and speculation.
Looking ahead to the next presidential race, what do you see?
I would say there is a 70 to 80 percent chance that a Democrat will be elected President either in 1992 or 1996. You could argue that the Democrats don’t deserve to win, just as the Republicans didn’t deserve to win back in 1968. But in point of fact, the other side was out of gas. Historically in this country we always had to go through darkness before we got to dawn. Before we get new politics, the old politics sputter along.