The crux of the McCarthy argument can be summed up in the proposition that Jimmy Carter, the only Democratic president during the GOP’s twenty-four-year ascendancy, was doomed to failure, irrespective of his own political talents, because his party was neither cohesive nor strong enough to assure his success. Only the party-weakness perception sustains McCarthy’s suggestion that a future GOP president in the current political era will inevitably be a Republican Carter—i.e., one who lacks any chance of success, irrespective of whatever attributes he may bring to the office.
There is no doubt that the next Republican president will be handicapped by his party’s internal chaos and wretched reputation among voters, both products to a significant extent of the party’s foreign-policy missteps. But history tells us that strong presidents can reshape their parties just as their parties can bring down weak presidents.
I don’t know that Dan assumes that the next Republican president must be a Carter-like figure. What I took from his comparison with Democrats in the ’70s was that winning one presidential election in the wake of the other party’s temporary implosion doesn’t ensure that a party has recovered from its “half-party” status. The chances are reasonably good that the Republicans will reap the benefits of voter fatigue with the incumbent party, so their victory in 2016 is not hard to imagine. However, winning one election by itself isn’t going to fix what ails the post-Iraq GOP, and it won’t prove that the party has recovered.
When they were losing almost every presidential election between 1968 and 1992, Democrats almost always controlled the Senate and always controlled the House, and often controlled both by fairly wide margins, but they usually weren’t trusted with the Presidency. This period of Republican success in presidential elections has biased most in the party to think of the Presidency as something that their party is supposed to control, since for a long time the executive was the only branch that Republicans usually did control, so most Republicans aren’t going to be satisfied until they can start winning presidential elections with some regularity again. As long as the GOP and movement conservatism lack a “reputation for competence,” as Dan says, and “the emotional resonances that come with being the party of America,” Republicans will be seen as the less responsible, less trustworthy party, at least when it comes to presidential elections. Republicans may control the House and may win control of the Senate next year, but that could in large part because most Americans don’t want to trust them with the Presidency. That is due mostly to the toxic legacy of the last president, who probably already qualifies as the Republican equivalent of Carter in terms of the political damage he did to his party and the harm his tenure did to the country.