The Magazine

Can the GOP Come Back?

Yes, it can.

Mar 16, 2009, Vol. 14, No. 25 • By JAY COST
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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