The Magazine

Can the GOP Come Back?

Yes, it can.

Mar 16, 2009, Vol. 14, No. 25 • By JAY COST
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American politics is cruelly unforgiving. Political parties work assiduously to take control of the country's governing institutions. The task of governance, however, is an awful one: Eventually, the majority party is overwhelmed by our unruly system and is unceremoniously tossed from power. The party's initial triumph heralds its inevitable defeat. Republicans are learning this the hard way, and many are asking what the party should do now.

It is easy to overthink this question, as the answer is quite simple. The GOP must now be the loyal opposition, whose job it is to energetically, unapologetically pursue the majority, though never at the expense of the public good. That is how the GOP fulfills its continued responsibility to the country. The only way the people can hold the Democratic party accountable is if there is a robust opposition working tirelessly to become the people's first choice.

This means no whining, no complaining, no cursing the cruelty of American politics. There's too much work for the party to do.

As the GOP gets on with this process, here are five suggestions:

(1) Ignore the determinists. Both political parties have within their ranks oracles whose job is to use the last election to predict that their party will win all future ones. Now that the Democrats have finally triumphed, their oracles are patting themselves on the back and proclaiming that this Democratic majority will be permanent.

I have looked at my fair share of vote returns over the years--and I have never seen what the oracles see. Old victories don't imply future ones. The prophets always overlook a key factor: The parties respond. When a party in the majority is reduced to minority status--it retools, reinvents, and revives. It actively works to undermine whatever seemingly permanent voting coalition the other side has created.

For instance, Ronald Reagan stole rural southern whites from the Democrats to win in 1980 and 1984. Bill Clinton stole them back in 1992 and 1996, only to have George W. Bush steal them again in 2000 and 2004. That's what parties do--they scheme to pick off the marginal voters in the opposition's coalition. Given the fact that control of at least one chamber of Congress or the presidency has changed hands six times in the last nine election cycles, I'd say that both parties have been pretty successful at this. The smart bet is for continued competitiveness.

(2) Think beyond Bush. To listen to some Democrats, you'd think that George W. Bush has destroyed the Republican party, American conservatism, or both. Please. The fact is that the Republican party was around long before George W. Bush, and will be around long after him. Simply put, the GOP is bigger than Bush.

Consider the Republican platform of 1860. That document couched its demand for free soil in the language of individual liberty. It demanded frugal governance. It called for the protection of settlers against the government and the expansion of private property via the Homestead Act. It advocated high tariffs to advance American business, and government support for a transcontinental railroad to facilitate the development of the nation.

Obviously, specific policies have changed since then, but contemplate them from a broader perspective: individual liberty, opposition to wasteful spending, protection of private property, pro-business policies, and the development of infrastructure to enhance economic growth. This sounds a lot like 21st-century Republicanism, and it is helpful to remember that the party of today has a connection to the party of the past.

Republicanism is bigger than any one individual. The GOP has prospered for more than 150 years because the country has had use for its principles. The party will prosper in the future because the country will have use for them once again. This is despite the fact that the GOP has had its share of unpopular leaders. The same goes for the Democrats. The country has had continued use for the Democratic party despite the unpopularity of Presidents Wilson, Johnson, and Carter.

(3) Be creative. There is value to the conversation now happening among intellectuals about where the GOP should go from here. But I'd suggest Republicans discuss their future with greater confidence in the party's core principles. There is no need to redefine them, or indulge in an existential "crisis of conservatism." Instead, now is the time for Republicans to use their principles creatively--to generate new and compelling solutions to public problems.

But that's not all. The GOP needs creative strategies to market those ideas. The biggest political problem the party faces is that the Democrats are fully in control of the national agenda. Nancy Pelosi and Harry Reid decide what is and is not considered in Congress, and Barack Obama can use the bully pulpit to guide public discussion. If Republicans are not inventive in how they promote themselves, they are bound to end up on the backpage.

(4) Don't be intimidated. After two rough election cycles, the Republican party is now standing in opposition to a president whose job approval rating is in the low 60s. A little wobbliness is understandable--especially given that Barack Obama is a man whose rise has been so meteoric he seems unstoppable.

However, Republicans should not allow that to distract them from the job of the opposition. To that end, it is helpful to remember the lowlights of Obama's time on the national stage. Many have already forgotten how messy the Democratic primary was. Between Jeremiah Wright, "bitterness," defeats in key primaries, and some horrid debate performances--Obama at times looked downright unimpressive last year. He is, in short, a politician like any other. His approval numbers right now are strong--but that is why this is called the honeymoon period. Eventually, he will be judged on the performance of his government. If Republican skepticism about his economic policies turns out to be prescient, President Obama will be held accountable, and his numbers will drop.

(5) Look to the House. For decades, the House of Representatives was essentially inert. Democrats held commanding majorities for 40 years. All that changed in 1994 when the GOP netted 52 seats and control of the chamber. Twelve years later Republicans comforted themselves by thinking that the inherent stability of the House would ultimately save their majority. But it wasn't to be. In the last two cycles, the Democrats have netted 54 seats, and taken back control.

The last 15 years, control of the House has changed hands two more times than it did in the previous 40. Since 1992, a whopping 40 percent of all House seats have switched hands at least once. It might be that the House has moved closer to the Framers' original intent--as the body with "an immediate dependence on, and an intimate sympathy with, the people" (Federalist 52). If so, we should not expect Nancy Pelosi to be a "permanent" speaker.

It is too soon, of course, to say whether retaking the majority in 2010 is a feasible goal--but it is not too soon for the party to act like it is. The better prepared the GOP is, the better able it will be to capitalize on its opportunities. Practically speaking, this means GOP leaders should focus on developing a compelling public message, and recruiting attractive, high quality candidates.

How long will the GOP be in the minority? This is politics, so who can say? I would suggest, though, that Republicans should not dwell on the timetable. The party's job now is to be the loyal opposition, which implies an indefatigable pursuit of the majority. Rather than bemoan its current lowly state--which, in the grand scheme of American politics, was inevitable--the party should focus on reclaiming the power that it has lost. For consolation, they can always indulge in a little bit of advance Schadenfreude--the awful task of governance will eventually overwhelm the Democrats, too!

Jay Cost writes the Horse Race blog at RealClearPolitics.com.