Republicans will find themselves lost at sea once more if they cannot reconcile independent voters to a conservative policy agenda.
By W. James Antle III
Earlier this year, your humble servant penned a tongue-in-cheek column comparing the Republican Party to the campy 1960s sitcom “Gilligan’s Island.” The series’ hapless cast set sail for a three-hour tour only to be stranded for years on a deserted island. The GOP was beginning to look like Gilligan in reverse: what seemed two years ago like it would be a long Republican hiatus from power more closely resembled a three-hour tour.
A “TV Land”-watching correspondent quickly corrected the analogy. In nearly every episode, the passengers of the S.S. Minnow would come close to escaping the island only to have Gilligan botch their rescue. Thus the Stupid Party and the skipper’s little buddy are not opposites; they are identical.
This is not to trivialize what is in fact a stunning political turnaround. At the beginning of this year, there was a 60-vote Democratic majority in the Senate. Republicans didn’t even hold enough seats to extend debate on legislation, much less reshape it or vote it down. The House of Representatives was almost equally lopsided in favor of the Democrats, after two straight election losses cost Republicans over 50 seats. Even conservative commentators believed Republicans would wander the wilderness for years.
A mere ten months later, the wilderness years are over. So is the Democratic majority in the House and the nation’s governorships. President Barack Obama’s ability to pass meaningful legislation for the remainder of his term may be the next casualty. An energized bloc of conservative voters, awakened from their Bush-era slumber by Obama’s expensive and imprudent domestic policies, joined forces with angry independents to relieve Democrats of their briefly uncontested power.
But the very volatility of the electorate should give pause to those who would make sweeping pronouncements based on these results. The rejection of Obama comes just two years after the repudiation of George W. Bush. Nancy Pelosi’s House has fallen a mere four years after Dennis Hastert and Tom DeLay’s. In fact, the two parties’ seesawing political prospects have been apparent for well over a decade now.
Bill Clinton rang down the curtain on twelve years of Reagan-Bush in 1992, only to see the first Republican congressional majorities in 40 years two years later. Clinton’s reelection chances then seemed remote. Yet another two years passed and the voters had also turned against the ’94 Republican Revolution. Clinton won reelection easily. From 2002 through 2004, we heard loose talk about permanent Republican majorities. From 2006 through 2008, we heard of permanent Democratic ones.
Republicans would do well to remember how Newt Gingrich’s rise set the path for Clinton’s return to power, just as their own restoration was made possible by Obama. Now that the anonymous GOP congressional leaders have real responsibilities and power, expect Obama to immediately begin making them household names as he plots to extend his own lease on the White House by another four years.
The conservative rebellion against Obama is so widely recognized that it even has a name: the Tea Party. The Tea Parties do deserve considerable credit for the Republican revival, but the Democratic majorities were not undone by them alone. The very same independents who elected the Democrats in the first place played a crucial role in turning them from power.
In 2006, 57 percent of independents voted for Democratic congressional candidates while only 39 percent voted for Republicans. That was the biggest margin of victory among unaffiliated voters enjoyed by one party in three decades of exit polling. Two years later, Obama won independents by 52 percent to 44 percent. Joined to unprecedented turnout by the Democrats’ liberal base, this was a potent electoral combination.
By 2009, the swing vote had swung dramatically in the opposite direction. Exit polls showed Chris Christie, the Republican candidate for governor of New Jersey, winning independents by 58 percent to 31 percent. In Virginia, a state Obama had been the first Democrat to carry since 1964, independents gave an even more impressive 65 percent of their votes to Republican gubernatorial nominee Bob McDonnell. But it wasn’t just a Southern phenomenon: although there were not exit polls in the Massachusetts special election for Senate, pre-election surveys showed Republican Scott Brown also taking 65 percent of independents.
This year, independents broke 55 percent for Republican congressional candidates and 40 percent for the Democrats. That’s a shift from an 18-point Democratic advantage to a 15-point Republican one in just four years. No less a Tea Party conservative than Rand Paul carried 58 percent of unaligned voters. In nearby Pennsylvania, former Club for Growth president Pat Toomey won 55 percent of independents in his Senate race. Even losing GOP Senate candidates Carly Fiorina in California and Sharron Angle in Nevada won narrowly among independents.
Yet the fickleness of these voters may also be the Republicans’ undoing. By now it is obvious that the Democrats misread the results of the 2006 and 2008 elections. The American people were reacting against Bush, the Iraq war, and a faltering economy, not embracing the Democrats or giving them a mandate to push the country to the left. Self-described conservatives still significantly outnumbered voters who called themselves liberals. Not long into Obama’s presidency, pollsters began to detect a rightward shift in the electorate’s policy views — from taxation and the size of government to abortion and immigration — to match.
But a big part of the coalition that elected Obama and the Democrats did want to move America to the left. Energized progressive activists were as important to Democratic victories as the Tea Party was to the Republican sweep. And independent voters appeared to broadly agree with them on major policy questions ranging from health care reform to environmental protection — until they were informed they had to foot the bill.
In September, a Gallup/USA Today poll found that Americans believed Republicans in Congress would do a better job than their Democratic counterparts on seven of eight major issues, including terrorism, federal spending, and the war in Afghanistan. The two parties’ positions hadn’t changed much since October 2006, when the same pollsters found the voters preferred the Democrats on every issue. Voters nevertheless swung away from the Democrats by 38 points on health care, 29 points on combating terrorism, 27 points on the economy, and 26 points on handling corruption in government in less than four years. Couldn’t they swing again?
Confronted with the price tag for the $700 billion Wall Street bailout, the $787 billion stimulus package, the $1 trillion healthcare plan, and a potential energy-tax increase in the form of cap and trade, a wedge was driven between the Democrats’ progressive base — which didn’t think any of the above items went far enough — and the independents who made their majority possible. But the independents’ concern about the sagging economy, high unemployment, and runaway deficit spending may not translate into support for moving the country to the right. Look for Democrats to try to drive a wedge between swing voters and the Tea Party.
The polarization that so offends pragmatic independents is likely to increase. Moderate-to-liberal Republicans were disproportionately affected by the 2006 and 2008 elections because they tended to represent swing and Democratic-leaning districts. The GOP centrists who remained were hit hard by conservatives in this year’s primaries. Liberal primary challengers have been less successful against moderate Democrats, but this year’s Republican wave has thinned the pack of Blue Dogs. When the country swings left or right, the middle men in both parties are often the first to go — and the left and right wings are strengthened.
That doesn’t mean conservatives will necessarily be happy with Republican rule. The Tea Party railed against the GOP establishment and defeated at least eight Senate candidates preferred by the national party. Support from a formal party organ was itself viewed as evidence of a Republican’s incipient liberalism. Much of the anti-spending and anti-borrowing rhetoric of these conservatives — who lament that the last Republican majority “lost its way” — is an implicit repudiation of the Bush administration. A few, like Iraq War opponent Rand Paul, make their anti-Bush feelings explicit.
While navigating this minefield, Republicans will also have to do battle with a Democratic White House. Like Clinton before him, Obama will vie for reelection by running against the GOP’s revived congressional wing. He will try to make John Boehner or Mitch McConnell into a demon figure like Newt Gingrich. But there will be some key differences between Obama’s approach and Clinton’s.
The first difference is temperamental. “While Clinton seemed tormented, Obama appears remarkably at peace,” National Journal columnist Ronald Brownstein wrote of the two Democrats’ reactions to their midterm setbacks. The second is ideological: Clinton was more of a centrist and Obama a man of the left. Moreover, Clinton had governed in conservative Arkansas and been forced to move to the center after a 1980 defeat. Obama has never lost to an opponent from the right before, has no experience triangulating, and has an evident distaste for “small ball” policies. “I wasn’t sent here to do school uniforms,” the president cracked, referring to a post-1994 moderate Clinton initiative.
The new Republican majority wasn’t sent to Washington to do school uniforms either. It will need to find a way to satisfy its base’s increasingly high expectations without alienating the swing voters who rounded out the GOP coalition. Otherwise, Republicans may find themselves back on their deserted island as soon as the weather starts getting rough. This episode has aired before.
W. James Antle III is associate editor of The American Spectator.
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