Chris Bowers argues that the Democratic agenda today is largely the same as it was in 1984 and is winning because the message 'has simply been repackaged to better conform to the standards of contemporary mass media.' He offers this Mondale/Ferraro campaign video:
It's an interesting question. There's no doubt that the issues remain similar: Social Security, a different approach to international threats, concerns about exporting jobs, etc. Bowers asserts:
Apart from Bill [Clinton], Democrats have not really changed that much in terms of rhetoric, policy, or candidate quality over the past twenty-five years. And yet, despite this, they have moved from regularly being blown out to, in the worst-case scenario, facing very close elections. What has changed has not been the Democratic Party, but rather the country itself. With the contemporary electorate, Dukakis would have probably defeated Bush Sr., Carter would have probably defeated Reagan, and even Mondale would have probably been within single-digits of Reagan.
First, Bowers is getting a little ahead of himself. Democrats haven't won anything on this message -- at least, not yet. It wasn't the message Bill Clinton won on in 1992 (welfare reform, low taxes, economic growth, etc.), and it wasn't the message Democrats won on in 2006 (aren't you angry at George Bush?). We'll see how it flies in 2008 -- if indeed it winds up being the message that Democrats campaign on.
But how much have the messages of either party changed since 1984? Compare the Mondale commercial to this Reagan/Bush commercial from the same campaign:
The messages have changed somewhat, but not much. Reagan harps on the need to keep taxes and regulation low, speaks in favor of a strong defense, and talks about reductions in estate taxes and taxes overall. He also speaks for an 'opportunity society.'
How much has the Republican message changed? Clearly, if Reagan were speaking today, he would have to address immigration, and perhaps speak as well about social issues such as abortion and gay marriage. But -- leaving aside the boosting of his first-term record -- would anything else be different?
Bowers is very smart, but I think he's overthought this. I believe that all that he's demonstrated is that parties change slowly. Is it a surprise that the big themes of the two major parties haven't changed in 20 years? And as for his suggestion that the Democrats will win/are winning with the same message they had in 1984, that has a lot to do with the toxicity of the GOP brand at the end of the Bush administration. How long will it take the GOP to 'fix' that problem? Will it take 12 years -- like it took the Democrats to rebound after Carter? Or will it take two years -- like it took the Republicans after Clinton's 1992 win?
That's just one of many questions that the voters will answer in a year.
Go read the rest of Bowers' post -- I've abbreviated it somewhat to focus solely on what interests me. But I think that all Bowers has proved is that this message can win if you're running against a very unpopular incumbent.