- The Washington Times - Tuesday, August 20, 2002

Deep-thinking Democrats have come up with a new theory about why their party is on the side of history after all.
The Reagan coalition experienced its final victory in 1994, argue New Republic senior editor John B. Judis and Century Foundation senior fellow Ruy Teixeira in a New Republic article based on their forthcoming book, "The Emerging Democratic Majority" (Scribner). "American politics has been turning slowly, but inexorably, toward a new Democratic majority," they say, at the heart of which are "professionals, women and minorities rather than blue-collar workers."
The emerging majority, they add, sees itself as part of the progressive center rather than the Great Society left or the laissez-faire right. It shares much in common with the Progressive Republicans of the early 20th century Teddy Roosevelt Republicans to whom Reagan Republicans turned a cold shoulder and it is growing most rapidly in "post-industrial metropolitan areas" of the sort Republicans have long taken for granted.
One might be tempted to see evidence for this in suburban Detroit's Oakland County, whose population of 1.1 million is the fourth-richest in the nation. Oakland County was once a Republican bastion, but now it is considered a battleground. Its voters opted for Bill Clinton in 1996 and Al Gore in 2000. In the Aug. 6 Michigan gubernatorial primary, the winning Democrat, state Attorney General Jennifer Granholm, managed to attract more votes than Republican Lt. Gov. Dick Posthumus.
All of which has Republican leaders in such places sounding the alarm. Oakland County Executive Brooks Patterson, once a fire-breathing leader of the antibusing and pro-capital punishment forces of the Detroit suburbs, two years ago took direct control of the county's Republican apparatus. He has promised to reduce the influence of religious right-wingers, publicly expressed sympathy for gay rights and called on fellow Republicans to de-escalate their rhetoric about abortion.
But are Mr. Judis, Mr. Teixeira and Mr. Patterson right? Are the suburbs, newly infused with migrants from the cities and repulsed by supposed Republican extremism, ripe for Democratic pickings?
Certainly Democrats appear to be more competitive in older suburban areas, though Republicans dominated the smaller, faster-growing exurbs in the 2000 elections. But much revolves around particular personalities and particular issues. It remains to be seen, for example, whether Mrs. Granholm can convert her primary win into a general election victory. The record Democratic primary turnout in Oakland County may have had more to do with an exciting contest among three Democratic heavyweights than with a real loss of Republican strength.
And to the degree Democrats are gaining ground, it may only reflect the degree to which Democrats are moving in the direction of Republicans philosophically. Mrs. Granholm's opponents, former Gov. James Blanchard and Rep. David Bonior, repeatedly stressed that Mrs. Granholm was little different than the dread John Engler, Michigan's term-limited Republican governor. This may have reassured fiscally conservative Oakland Democrats and independents that it would be safe to vote for her.
And not for nothing did Jennifer Granholm perform a major flip-flop on Michigan's newly liberalized concealed weapons law. A year ago, as attorney general, she was openly leading the charge for a referendum to overturn the law. Now, as a would-be governor, she says it's a "complex" issue.
Until Democrats can make a more convincing pitch on such bread-and-butter issues as jobs, tax cuts, education and economic opportunity, their "majority" is likely to remain "emerging," particularly in such places as Oakland County. There is only so far Democrats can stray from orthodoxy. They are still highly dependent on Big Labor and other liberal interest groups for their support.
The recession and stock market decline may have blunted enthusiasm for such Republican nostrums as privatization of Social Security and deregulation of markets, but Democrats haven't mustered much of an alternative vision beyond claiming that all Republicans are "extreme." So long as that's the case, they will be playing the role played for so long by Republicans in the pre-Reagan era: standing athwart history, yelling stop.

Tom Bray is a Detroit News columnist.

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