Tuesday’s Republican tide wasn’t surprising, but there’s more to be said about it than just the obvious. The obvious is that this class of Senate seats was last up in 2008, a presidential year that was the high-water mark for Democratic turnout going back a generation. There weren’t going to be nearly as many Democrats heading to the polls this year, but what should have alarmed Democrats all the more is that 2008 rather than 2012 remains their high-water mark: Obama is the first president since World War II to be re-elected by a margin smaller than that of his original victory. That can hardly be interpreted as a vote of confidence in the Democratic brand, even if two years ago voters found the Republicans’ “dog food” even more distasteful.
Have the Republicans overcome their 2012 problem? They picked up Senate seats in red states (Arkansas, North Carolina) and historically red purple states (Colorado, Iowa). They held onto the governorships of the two most important large swing states—Florida and Ohio—but lost an incumbent governor in Pennsylvania, which the GOP has dreamed of retaking in presidential contests for more than a decade. Republican governor Scott Walker handily won his third election in Wisconsin.
These are impressive results that probably do not change the 2016 map. Obama, after all, won Florida, Ohio, and Wisconsin in 2012 with the same Republican governors in office, and in two years’ time voters in those states may be as tired of their governors as those nationwide are of the president today. Unfortunately for Democrats, voters are likely to be even more fatigued by their party’s presence in the White House after another two years of Obama, but in any case fatigue can work both ways.
The Republicans’ gains in purple America this year are what could be expected given the contrast of this electorate with 2008 and 2012 presidential turnouts: these states are purple because they are battlegrounds, and if Democrats are not out in force as heavily in midterms as in a presidential year, they stand to lose. (They came close to losing Mark Warner’s Senate seat in Virginia, too, after sweeping the Old Dominion’s statewide elections last year: Virginia is a state on the tipping point, and while it seems to be tipping the Democrats’ way, even a small shudder from voters could tip it back for a time. In this light, Governor McAuliffe won’t necessarily be an asset for Hillary Clinton in 2016.)
Republicans won important victories in several deep blue states’ gubernatorial races: Illinois, Massachusetts, and the surprise of the night, Maryland. These states have all had a penchant for electing Republicans to statewide office while remaining firmly blue in presidential elections, however, and none of these wins heralds the return of moderate “Northeastern” Republicanism to the national stage. Nor, of course, does Scott Brown’s defeat in New Hampshire’s Senate contest.
So is all this just business as usual, an uptick for the opposition party in the dying days of a two-term presidency, with a reversion of many states to their historic—and sometimes quite idiosyncratic—patterns? If that’s the case, then Republicans did very well on Tuesday without changing in the slightest, and facing a less favorable electorate in the future, or with worse luck in selecting candidates, they will be right back to the where they were in 2012: as the less popular of two troubled parties.
There’s a deep problem here. While movement conservatives have always chafed at the assumption that George W. Bush embodied their ideology, he most certainly did: as The Economist‘s John Micklethwait and Adrian Wooldridge noted in The Right Nation, Bush was the first Republican president who had come of age with the conservative movement—Nixon, Reagan, and the elder Bush were products of an earlier environment. Conservatism was an open-ended question in their time, but for the second Bush it was one that had been answered all his life by self-identified conservative institutions: think tanks, magazines, books, and blocs of politicians. Whatever Bush’s personal and opportunistic deviations, his administration’s defining policies—tax cuts, wars, and expansion of executive power in the name of national security—hewed to the movement’s playbook. Movement conservatism’s organs of opinion and policy were happy with Bush overall and eager to silence his critics .
But with Bush’s downfall came a need to redefine the Republican Party’s ideology and brand. After the country as a whole repudiated Bush by turning to Democrats in 2006 and 2008, the GOP also repudiated him by turning in 2010 to the Tea Party and a new brand of liberty-minded Republicans exemplified by Sen. Rand Paul and Rep. Justin Amash. These “liberty movement” Republicans were few in number but represented a qualitative change in tone and policy emphasis for the GOP, particularly on national security and foreign policy. One could easily imagine Republicans of this sort as the wave of the future, if the GOP were to have any future at all: these were the kind of Republicans who might represent a viable conservatism in an increasingly diverse country where marijuana is legal and same-sex marriage commands majority support. Their anti-authoritarianism and commitment to cultural federalism suggested a way forward for the party. Win or lose in years to come, they were certainly not the same Bush brand that voters had rejected in 2006, 2008, and indeed 2010.
Yet now Bush is ancient history, and the un-Bush of 2008, Barack Obama, has begun to exhibit distinctly shrublike characteristics—as Bruce Bartlett has shown , Obama is something between a moderate Republican of the old Rockefeller variety and a direct continuation of George W. Bush. The powerful but ill-defined anti-Bush “brand” that shaped both parties between 2006 and 2012 has given way to a Democratic Party that now defends the Bush-like policies it once defined itself against and a Republican Party that in opposing Obama does so for reasons unrelated to his resemblance to his predecessor. Republicans today can once again employ their familiar decades-old ideological armament against a militarily inept, big-spending, socially liberal Democrat. These weapons have done the trick for decades—until the Bush disaster deprived them of their effectiveness—so who needs new ideas?
The party does have new faces. Joni Ernst is 44, Cory Gardner is 40, Tom Cotton is 37, and many of the GOP’s other new officeholders are also in their 30s and 40s. They are old enough to have been ideologically shaped by movement conservatism as it existed in the ’80s and ’90s—when neoconservatism and the religious right were ascendant—but not young enough to have had Bush’s debacles as a formative childhood experience. They are the Alex P. Keaton  generation.
Can these fortyish idols of a party philosophically defined by Fox News—whose median viewer age is 68 —win over millennial voters and the electorate of the future? They will if there’s no one organized enough to compete against them. The well-oiled machinery of movement conservatism remains fully in the hands of people who think the only trouble with George W. Bush was that he did not go far enough. Heritage and AEI have lately tried to present softer images on a number of domestic issues—prison reform, policies to help the working class—but they are as single-mindedly hawkish as ever when it comes to foreign policy and just as dedicated as the Bush administration to expanding executive power. Young Republicans like Tom Cotton  represent the worst aspects of the movement’s ideology, and none of the new faces appears to represent the best.
On these great issues of war and peace, legislative government or executive prerogative, Republican realists and libertarians have a much weaker infrastructure to begin with, and for most libertarian institutions and their benefactors gutting regulation remains a higher priority than stopping any war. Democrats, meanwhile, are once more terrified of seeming too dovish, as Obama’s botched policies—interventionist but reluctantly so—teach his party anew that McGovernite and Carter-esque weakness is fatal. (This is true: peace in strength is what America’s voters want.) So it’s back to the Democrats’ answer to Bush: Clinton, and the female of the species may soon prove deadlier than the male.
Still, the public does have some say in all this, and it has shown to have no appetite for the decades-long wars that Tom Cotton’s Republican Party appears to portend. The market for realism and non-authoritian politics remains. But can anyone organize the institutions and policy-making cadres to serve this demand? If not, there is little chance of a lone politician or small group of liberty-movement Republicans redirecting their party, much less their country, away from futile wars and executive consolidation: we will be back to the Bush and Clinton era, with Rand Paul as lonely a dissenter as ever his father was. At least, that is, until the Cottons and Clintons lose another, bigger war and plunge the country into something even worse than the Great Recession. Then we’ll get change without the hope.