What if we're completely wrong about the impact of think tanks and the right-wing policy process over the last 30+ years? What if the success of the right-wing is more about political geography than anything else?
Our discussion seemed to be premised on the idea that the Democratic Party is on the wane, and that conservative Republican dominance is due in large part to the think tanks' strategies. However, I'm not sure the numbers really bear this out. We tend to use party control of government as a proxy for public opinion. However:
- As noted, George Bush got only 51% of the vote in 2004 (on less than 60% turnout), and only 49% in 2000 (on roughly 50% turnout).
- While Republicans hold 55 Senate seats, the Democratic caucus actually represents more people than the Republican caucus does.
- In either the Senate or House elections of 2004 (I can't find the data now, so I'm not sure which), the Democratic candidates drew 3,000,000 more votes than their Republican opponents.
- Democrats lost four seats (net) in the House, the same number they lost in Texas after redistricting.
- The power of incumbency is at an all-time high.
I see two outcomes from this data. First, the nature of the Senate -- two popularly elected Senators from each state -- gives more per-voter representation to less populous states, which are trending conservative. Second, the redistricting following the 2000 census (and subsequent re-redistricting) has produced districts so safe for incumbents, that challengers -- who are more likely than not Democrat, given the make-up of the House in the 107th Congress -- have less chance than ever of winning. Democrats who are already in the House are relatively safe; those who are not face electorates which tend to be staunchly conservative, and not very susceptible to any kind of ideological marketing from the left.
This sets up a situation in which conservatives' primary objective is simply not to screw up (see Delay, Tom, blatant and public ethical problems of). The think tank aristocracy is still an important part of policy-making in this model, but they don't really have to do much to sell anything to the public; their publics have already been bought.