The Magazine

Pathetic Republicans . . .

A self-help plan for the GOP.

Nov 20, 2006, Vol. 12, No. 10 • By TOD LINDBERG
Widget tooltip
Single Page Print Larger Text Smaller Text Alerts

PATHETIC REPUBLICANS, who can save you now? With all due respect to Ming the Merciless and all due deference to Sen. John McCain's pending arrival on a Hawk-man rocket cycle in 2008, the answer is that Republicans can, and are going to have to, save themselves. To do that, what's required is frank acknowledgment that the national majority that brought them to congressional power in 1994 is a thing of the past--no longer there, or no longer theirs.

The wave that gave Republicans control of Congress for the first time in 40 years was truly national in reach and scope. You could see its effect in every region of the country, though of course it was at its strongest in the South, where the last redoubts of the yellow-dog Democrats were being overrun.

The GOP, under the minority leadership of Newt Gingrich and his chief lieutenant, Dick Armey, sought to "nationalize" the '94 election around its Contract With America, a 10-point plan for legislative action in the first 100 days of GOP control of the House. It gave Republican activists something to be for--in addition to what they were against, a government in which Democrats controlled both chambers of Congress and the White House.

The suddenly embattled Democrats portrayed the Contract With America as a document of political radicalism, and their charge gained plausibility thanks to the GOP's own hype celebrating a "Republican Revolution." But the contract was actually a shrewd exercise in coalition politics. Its designers hoped to attract new voters to the GOP by offering a menu of policy proposals that presented a clear alternative to the Democrats and already tested well in polling and focus groups. Moreover, it was decidedly silent on abortion and offered little to nothing explicitly addressing the concerns of social conservatives in the "culture wars." The expectation was that social conservatives would be satisfied with more space for their private gardens thanks to a less intrusive, less taxing federal government.

The GOP victory in 1994 had other important sources. It was a product of the arrogant culture of longtime one-party rule in the House; a Democratic administration more interested in tax hikes, a government takeover of health care, and gays in the military than the centrist agenda Bill Clinton had campaigned on; and a favorable electoral environment featuring numerous open seats, a large freshman class upon which the full advantages of incumbency had yet to settle, and Voting Rights Act-influenced gerrymanders that made suburban districts more GOP-friendly. Still, the contract was the unifying document of the early years of GOP majority: where to look for the answer to the question of what to do next.

The electoral strategy the 1994 results invited was the one Karl Rove successfully exploited in three elections before stumbling badly in the fourth this year: The way to win elections is to find your people and get them to the polls. The premise is that "your people" are out there in sufficient numbers to produce victories, given a technically competent effort to turn them out. You win elections not through conspicuous efforts to reach out to the middle to persuade undecided voters, who probably don't pay much attention to politics anyway. Rather, you focus your efforts on "your people."

The 2004 GOP success with this strategy took Democrats by surprise and delivered George W. Bush a second term. In the run-up to the 2006 election, by contrast, Rove and other GOP optimists spent a lot of time talking about the importance of the coming get-out-the-vote mobilization. Whether they actually believed it or were just blowing smoke in an attempt to keep "bad" from turning to "worse" is an open question. What is not in doubt is that "your people" weren't there, at least not in sufficient numbers. Nancy Johnson, a 12-term moderate from Connecticut, got about 20,000 fewer votes in 2006 than she did in the previous off-year election. Could be a turnout problem, no? But her winning opponent this time got 32,000 more votes than the Democrat Johnson beat in 2002. Johnson lost by more in 2006 than she won by in 2002. That is a problem of which turnout is at most a small part.

In New Mexico, Heather Wilson, whose fate at this writing is undecided, got 10,000 more votes in 2006 than she did in 2002. That's an indication of a superb turnout operation. But her Democratic opponent got about 25,000 more votes this year than her unsuccessful challenger in 2002. If getting out all your voters doesn't amount to 50 percent or more, there are limits to a strategy based on that premise.