He was a South Carolina-born, guitar-playing rhythm-and-blues politico who helped start dozens of Red, Hot and Blue Barbecue restaurants around the South. He also happened to help, in his spare time, Ronald Reagan and George H.W. Bush 41 get elected President of the United States along with hundreds of other US Senators, congressmen and governors.
There have been many imitators of the inimitable and sometimes harsh scorched-earth politics of Mr. Atwater but none have come close to commanding the political field like he did in his short 40 years of life on earth. Not Karl Rove. Not James Carville. And certainly not Dick Morris.
In 1986, Lee Atwater was the campaign consultant to former US Congressman Alex McMillan of North Carolina for whom I served as chief of staff for a decade. NC-9 was the #1 targeted congressional race in the nation as designated by the NRCC and the DCCC, the respective national political organizations dedicated to electing a majority of their candidates to the US House of Representatives.
We needed him and the very best campaign talent in the nation to help hold that seat since Mr. McMillan won his first race against formidable foe, D.G. Martin, in 1984 by a mere 321 votes. He won re-election with 4221 votes, a virtual landslide in a terrible year for Republicans nationwide.
We are not going to rehash that long-ago battle here today. It was 'intense', let's just leave it at that.
We do want to point out a very prescient statement Mr. Atwater made back in 1986 while we were walking around the entire circumference of the City of Alexandria one day, mostly because Lee had so much energy coursing through his body that he could not sit still for more than like 5 minutes at a time.
'In 25 years, the predominant majority in American politics will be 'socially libertarian and fiscally conservative'. And neither the Democratic Party or the Republican Party will be able to get in front of that massive parade.'Let's get the obvious math out of the way for effect: 1986+25=2011. So whatever Lee said in 1986 is supposed to be happening right now, correct?
He went on to describe how the political parties were going to be taking increasingly strident positions and tones over the ensuing quarter decade: the Democrats on expanding and maintaining the social welfare state while 'soaking the rich' to pay for it all; the Republicans on cutting taxes, maintaining a strong national defense and ending abortion, just to name one of many social issues that the religious right was just then getting into politics to solve in the 1984/86/88 elections.
The reason why we are bringing all this up today is that we have been struck recently by just how many people are clearly identifying themselves as 'not Republican' and 'not a Democrat' but as an 'Independent' or 'Unaffiliated' for voting registration purposes.
In two of the largest counties in North Carolina alone, the officially registered-to-vote rolls show that 30% or so of the officially registered voters are now registered as 'Independent' or 'Unaffiliated'. Registered Democrats hover around 41% or so and Republican registration ranges between 24-28%. A smattering of Libertarians and Whigs fill out the remainder of the officially registered voters.
We are not sure what the breakdown of the 'unofficial registered voters' in North Carolina are but we heard that 2200 deceased people voted in the 2010 election along party lines as well. Voting illegally is not as hard as you might think it should be.
Here's the real reason why we wanted to bring this to your attention as we come to the close of 2011 and head into what is sure to be one of the most expensive, nasty and yes, vicious, presidential campaigns in American history:
'Where are you on the move to Independent voting status and political affiliation?'
We lost count about 1 year ago as we were talking with people about what party they were a member of anymore. Hundreds of former Republicans we know pretty well long ago went down to the local board of elections and changed their registration from R to I. Dozens of Democrats have done the same thing.
We hear from virtually every person that we speak with that: 1) they are dissatisfied with both political parties (hence, the ridiculously low 8% Congressional approval ratings today); 2) they just want Congress and the President to 'get something done!' on this budget impasse before it swamps us all, rich and poor alike and 3) 'there has to be a better way!'
Almost every single time we speak with a person or group of people nowadays, we hear the following words come out of their mouth, almost eerily as if they were channeling Lee Atwater's predictions of 25 years ago:
'I don't really care so much about whether two men or women are sleeping together as I am about the inability of Congress to balance this budget and end this humongous $14.7 trillion national debt!
'I am for protecting America and defending our borders but we have spent way too much time and money in Iraq and Afghanistan at the same time we have been wrecking our nation's economy!'
'If Congress and the President would focus more on cutting out wasteful spending and reforming entitlements like by raising the retirement age, I would support higher taxes in some form or another like the elimination of special tax loopholes for everyone just so we can finally say we have 'fixed' the budget and move on to fixing our economy.'Sounds like a lot of people are now more socially libertarian in their outlook towards social issues than in the 1980's and '90s when the Christian right joined with traditional small government, low tax, strong national defense hawks like Ronald Reagan to form massive winning majorities at the presidential level. Even President Bill Clinton himself was able to connect with many Bible-believers in the South mainly because of his Southern charm and experience as an Arkansas Governor for 2 terms.
But guess what? This budding majority, if that is what is going on here, has nowhere to go politically in America in 2011. Nowhere. Nada. Zippo.
If you are 'socially libertarian', you are labeled a 'RINO' by many in the Republican Party and the Tea Party. Whatever that means. Ronald Reagan was a 'RINO' by the same definition: he signed bills that contained tax hikes, 2 of them massive tax hikes, 11 times between 1981-1988.
And if you are fiscally conservative, there is no room for you at the inn near the Democrat Party manger either. The last time they proposed any substantial cuts to anything other than defense was, well, never! And to see them fight vehemently against even the most sensible of all spending cuts and entitlement reforms in the recently discarded-to-the-trash-heap-of-history recommendation of the Bowles/Simpson Commission was truly a sickening moment in American political history.
There will be no one from the first decade of the 21st century to write about in a future edition of 'Profiles in Courage', will there?
So, maybe Lee Atwater was a prophet, a soothsayer and a crystal-ball-gazer to boot. If the officially registered percentage of Independents is 32% today, (it was 4% in 1992 when Ross Perot won 19% of the general election vote but no electoral votes), it doesn't seem like too much of a stretch to imagine 10% of now-Democrats and 8.5% of now-Republicans voting for great Independent candidates across this land, if there were any running, now would it?
Successful people like the George Washingtons, Thomas Jeffersons and James Madisons of our day (they didn't 'have to run' back then either you know, but aren't you glad they had the guts to do so for our sakes today?).
You know who they are. They are all around you. The ones with the courage and guts to say:
'I am willing to run for public office and do the right thing and stop signing pledges and listening to unelected people who do not have the guts or kahunas to run for public office themselves!
The only oath I am ever going to sign is the one I will take when I get sworn in as your next Congressman or US Senator:
'I do solemnly swear (or affirm) that I will support and defend the Constitution of the United States against all enemies, foreign and domestic; that I will bear true faith and allegiance to the same; that I take this obligation freely, without any mental reservation or purpose of evasion; and that I will well and faithfully discharge the duties of the office on which I am about to enter: So help me God.'There is nothing in here about never considering any new taxes. Nothing about protecting SS and Medicare 'or else some burly senior citizen is going to come to your office and kick your butt!'
Isn't that the sort of representative you want to send to Congress to solve all these problems these current incumbents have completed swung and whiffed at for these past 10 years? It sorta looks like Romper Room up there nowadays, doesn't it?
It is time to send 536 new people to Washington in 2012. Maybe they will all be part of the 'Lee Atwater Revolution' he predicted in 1986. It can't come a moment too soon.
(Editor's Note: Frank Hill's resumé includes working as chief of staff for Senator Elizabeth Dole and Congressman Alex McMillan, serving on the House Budget Committee and serving on the Commission on Entitlement and Tax Reform. He takes on politics from a fiercely independent perspective at the blog Telemachus).