Sometime in the late summer of 2005, the United States entered a period of upheaval. Throughout the preceding decade, America had been about evenly divided between two sparring political camps, represented by the blue and red on election maps. After George W. Bush’s reelection, however, those patterns of color began to change. Red and blue began to mix, swirl, and blur.
Perhaps it started when Bush failed to modernize Social Security. Or perhaps it was when Cindy Sheehan showed up on the front porch of the Western White House, signaling popular discontent with Iraq. Whatever the cause, by the time Hurricane Katrina collided with the Gulf coast, the time of troubles had begun.
It isn’t over. A half-decade of calamity followed Katrina, from which the country has not yet emerged. You remember the headlines. Harriet Miers. Dubai Ports. The bombing of the Golden Mosque. Jack Abramoff. Sectarian war in Iraq. Mark Foley. The battle over immigration. The battle over the surge. The collapse of the housing bubble. Bear Stearns. Bernie Madoff. The onset of the Great Recession. $4 gas. Lehman Brothers. TARP. The auto bailout. All of this shook America to its foundations. “The effect,” Irving Kristol wrote in a different but all too familiar context, “is of disengagement and a sense of powerlessness on the part of the majority, of alienation and irresponsible power on the part of every organized minority, and of purposelessness on the part of both.”
As the bad news piled up, Americans began suffering from a lack of confidence. They felt mistrust toward their institutions. They began to doubt the future. They overwhelmingly believed that the country was headed in the wrong direction. Many of them began to refashion their political identities. Conservative Republicans, angry at their party’s leadership, started calling themselves independents and sat out elections. Most independents swung heavily behind the Democrats, by an 18-point margin in 2006 and an 8-point margin in 2008.
The public rejection of the GOP culminated in the election of Barack Obama. Yet, when it came to the challenge of restoring American growth and confidence in authority, the Obama Democrats proved to be just as inept as those they had replaced. The Democrats used a moment of great opportunity, a moment when the normal rules of American politics had been suspended, to pass a partisan and ideological agenda about which they had dreamed for decades. Their stimulus bill emphasized present consumption over long-term growth. They argued that the only way to restore responsibility was for the government to rack up $3 trillion in new debt.
As Americans felt that their country was slipping away, the president started speaking of a “New Foundation” for America. He championed causes that were not high public priorities, like cap and trade and health care. The Democrats lavished attention on politically connected groups—big banks, Detroit, public sector workers—while doing little to quell uncertainty and promote job creation in the private sector. And when the president encountered resistance to his vision, he attributed the disagreement to irrational fear or craven partisanship. Was it surprising that independents turned away from the Democrats so quickly? Is it remarkable that, in the latest Pew survey, likely independent voters favor Republicans by 19 points?
Over the last half decade, neither party has found itself capable of effective governance in line with the broad contours of American public opinion. In both cases, the agenda of the governing party has been out of whack with the public’s concerns and desires. It took the Bush administration more than three years to settle on an effective strategy for the war in Iraq. The congressional Republicans, in their decadent phase, were besotted by corruption and reckless spending. The Obama Democrats have been no better. And so voters have rocked back and forth between the parties as they try to negotiate a safe course in troubled waters.
The lesson for conservatives and Republicans is that they are about to win an election by default. The public still distrusts the GOP. But it cannot stand the Obama agenda. Look over the names of House Democrats likely to fall on November 2, and you see again and again that they voted for at least part of, and in many cases all of, the Obama policy trifecta: stimulus, cap and trade, and health care. Those votes are why the Democrats are about to lose big. It’s not just that unemployment is high. It’s that the public believes the Democratic program has been unnecessary and counterproductive.
Another thing to remember is that America has been here before. And history suggests that the way out is through bold and creative policy. Our colleague Jay Cost notes that in the early 1890s the electorate swung wildly between the parties before William McKinley’s Republicans married a pro-growth economic program to a strong nationalism that kept their party dominant for three decades. Similarly, starting in the 1960s, major public figures were assassinated, cities burned, a sitting president didn’t run for reelection, a vice president resigned for corruption, another president resigned before being impeached, a Democratic wave produced one of the most left-wing congresses in history, Saigon fell, stagflation reigned, and an unknown, one-term governor of Georgia became a particularly ineffective president. Then Ronald Reagan combined pro-growth tax policy, a strong dollar, and a robust defense of American exceptionalism into one of the most successful presidencies in history.
Republicans who want to build on their coming success at the polls might study McKinley and Reagan. Then they might resolve to be humble—and listen to the American people.