The President, winning by a convincing margin just two years ago, has lost a great deal of popularity since those elections that gave the party not only the White House, but also solid working majorities in both houses of Congress. Abuse is hurled at the president daily, and his approval ratings are sagging. The public is angry about government spending and the culture of Washington. The opposition, previously divided and in the political wilderness, has made a comeback and throttled the president’s party in the midterm elections. While one side celebrates, the other, in a state of shock and confusion, retires to lick its wounds.
It wasn’t pleasant being a Republican after the elections of 2006. In November 2008, the Republicans were further trounced by President Obama and the Democrats. At that time, I recall many confident predictions that this was going to be a “permanent Democratic majority,” that the Republicans were condemned to become a rump party. Nobody supported them, we were told: Latinos, women, young folks, old folks, middle-aged folks were all voting Democrat. The Economist said the Republicans had lost the West, a large base of support, and were going to be relegated to being a Southern regional party. This meant possible extinction — the Federalists were a similar regional rump party out of touch with the American public.
But that’s not what happened. Four short years after 2006, the situation has reversed itself, with the Republicans ascending and the Democrats in disarray. These last elections saw Republicans gain the most House seats the party has had since the 1940s, and a lot of these gains occurred in the Midwest, where Republicans were largely written off just four years ago. Massachusetts elected a Republican to the Senate in an earlier by-election.
Much as I am glad that the Republicans won a smashing triumph in the House elections on Nov. 2nd and did quite well in other races too, I am careful to note that political power tends to be a temporary thing in this country.
When Republicans celebrate the inauguration of a new Congress and a Republican speaker, they should keep this in mind. The GOP still isn’t popular, and the GOP establishment is disliked by Tea Party groups, the very groups that helped the Republican sweep occur. A similar electoral triumph for the Republicans in 1994 ended with … Bill Clinton’s re-election in 1996. I hope somebody whispers in the Speaker’s ear “Remember, Caesar, thou art mortal.”
The Republicans need to get it right if they hope to pick up more seats in 2012. First, they should push a legislative agenda of their own, not just act in opposition to the president. Finding popular bills to pass through the House and forcing the Democratic Senate and president to either stand with or against them should be a priority, as it would allow the Republicans to throw the inevitable charge of “obstructionism” back at the Democrats making it.
The Republicans also must not allow themselves to be distracted with issues that, although pressing, are not what they were primarily elected on. A knock-down, drag-out fight over something like Don’t Ask Don’t Tell would be bad as it would distract from more pressing work that needs to be done on the economy. Similarly, arguments over things like school prayer wouldn’t be good. Social issues in general did not figure largely in the 2010 elections, with the exception of health care. In the words of Bill Clinton’s 1992 campaign: “It’s the economy, stupid.”
A major peril the Republicans will have to deal with is the very real possibility that the Tea Party movement will be hijacked by the GOP establishment. When some of the candidates upon which the hope of Change in Washington was resting turn out to be typical politicians, those who put them there, the energized Republican base and independents, might very well turn on them. This would have bad consequences for 2012. Independents might shift yet again, and Tea Partiers might just stay home and sit out the next election, leading not only to a reduced or vanished House majority, but a second Obama term. Long, protracted, primary fights that might be mounted by these semi-independent Tea Party groups that would sap GOP funds, time, effort and enthusiasm would be no less significant a prospect.
Republicans also have to make sure to act like Republicans. That means make an effort to cut spending and taxes, pursue a policy of peace through strength and turn away from the sirens’ song of protectionism. When they turn away from this brand name, engage in massive spending, backroom deals and pork-barrel projects, people get disgusted and wonder what they’re voting for when they vote Republican. And then the catastrophe of 2006 repeats itself.