The Return of Reagan Democrats?

Discussion in 'Politics & Religion' started by JamesL, Oct 13, 2010.

  1. JamesL


    We’ve heard of Tea Party voters, Wal-Mart moms, soccer moms and NASCAR dads. But in the beginning, there were Reagan Democrats.

    The Reagan Dems of the 1980s were ethnic Catholics - mostly Irish, Italian or Polish. They were blue-collar union members or first-generation white-collar workers. Anti-communist hawks in a party of doves, the Reagan Dems were values voters who felt alienated by the increasingly leftward drift of the Democrats.

    Although conservative in nature, Republicans they were not. They were uncomfortable with the GOP’s two predominant wings: the Wall Street bankers and the Southern born-agains. And so, the Democratic Party - the party of FDR and JFK - remained their default position.

    Peter M. Sheehan was a classic example. Born in 1937, Pete grew up Irish, Catholic and working class. He spent two years in the seminary, joined the Marines and married the former Peggy Quinn. The Sheehans had three daughters and worked hard to support them - Pete as a salesman for a chemical company; Peggy as a teacher’s aide.

    Active in the Lions Club and his parish church, Pete could be found on weekends drinking beer on his breezeway and talking politics.

    Pete was, of course, a Democrat. But after double-digit inflation and four years of Jimmy Carter, he crossed party lines to vote for Ronald Reagan. Pete never gave up his “D” membership, serving as a delegate to the Democratic State Convention on several occasions. But from 1980 until his death in 2009, Pete remained a “swing-voter.”

    In 2008, war-weary and stunned by the pre-election financial collapse, many working- and middle-class ethnic Catholics (many of whom were not even born when Reagan took office) voted for Barack Obama. In the aftermath of that election, some pundits declared the Reagan Dems politically irrelevant.

    But reports of their death were greatly exaggerated.

    Fourteen months later, voters in communities like Chicopee, Fitchburg, Lowell and Quincy (towns that voted overwhelmingly for Obama) helped elect Republican Sen. Scott Brown. They had turned on Obama for focusing on health care before jobs, for apologizing for America to the world and for constantly blaming George Bush for his own failings. And Brown, touting jobs and tax relief, was able to connect with Reagan Dems in a way that his foe (herself Irish Catholic, but highly critical of the church) could not.

    The take-away for Republican gubernatorial candidate Charlie Baker?

    It’s the American Dream, stupid.

    Reagan Democrats, still a vital bloc, want a candidate who will protect their jobs, homes and retirement savings. Like Pete Sheehan before them, today’s Reagan Dems believe that America should reward those who work hard and play by the rules. As the children or grandchildren of immigrants, they embrace the American melting pot but worry about the crippling economic effect of illegal immigration.

    Baker may not drive a pickup truck or wear a barn coat like Brown, but with his message of job-creation, reducing illegal immigration and government reform, he is well-positioned to garner the Reagan-Dem vote.

    Unfortunately for Baker, however, the single-digit candidacy of independent (yet self-proclaimed Reagan Democrat) Tim Cahill could peel off a fragment of this constituency, just enough to tip the election to liberal Gov. Deval Patrick.

    But when faced with the prospect of downward mobility and another four years of Patrick, Reagan Dems tempted to vote for Cahill just may choose Baker as the man best able to defend their American Dream.