The 112th House of Representatives, which convened for the first time last week, is in many respects a historic one. The Republican majority of 242 representatives is larger than any the party enjoyed from 1994 to 2006. Of course, the Republican Revolution of 1994 broke 40 years of Democratic control of the House, but even the GOP’s brief majority of 1952-54, built on Dwight Eisenhower’s coattails, reached just 221 seats. One has to go all the way back to 1946 to find a Republican House majority larger than the current one. In that famed 80th Congress, the GOP held 245 House seats.

Given how closely matched they are in terms of partisan strength, one might even be inclined to compare the new House with that of 1946. Upon closer examination, however, one will notice many important distinctions between the Republican majority of 1946 and that of 2010. Appreciating these differences can help illuminate the nature of the Republican party in the 21st century, and clarify the goals for the GOP in this new Congress.

Prior to the Great Depression, party loyalties in the United States were largely sectional. Sixty years after the end of the Civil War, Americans still basically voted the way they’d shot​—​the North backing Republicans, the South backing Democrats, and the West usually toggling between the two great parties. Franklin Roosevelt’s New Deal transformed northern party alignments into a class-based divide, which left the Republicans at a distinct disadvantage, as working class northerners bolted the Grand Old Party. FDR’s successful coalition reduced Republicans to the party of the Yankee middle class in the Northeast and the small towns of the Midwest​—​far short of a majority.

Roosevelt’s death in 1945, combined with the difficulties of converting from a wartime to a peacetime economy, finally gave the GOP an opening. The results in the 1946 midterms looked like a reversion to the pre-Depression balance of power: Republicans won nearly 75 percent of congressional districts outside the old Confederacy, including many working class enclaves in the big cities. The entire House delegation from Philadelphia, for instance, went Republican, which it had not done since the 1930s.

Unfortunately for the GOP, the New Deal political alignment would not be so easily undone, and the Republican majority of 1946 proved short-lived. Harry Truman’s political advisers astutely urged him to run a campaign in 1948 that would exploit the class cleavages of the New Deal, and thus remind old FDR voters why they had backed the Democrats for so long. The Democrats won 263 House seats, a stunning reversal.

The Republican gains in 2010 do not appear to be nearly as flukish. The GOP surge depended on the consolidation of the Bush vote; districts that had been splitting their ballots​—​voting for Republican presidents and Democratic congressmen​—​stopped doing so in 2010. Thus, most Republican gains last year came in areas where the party has been strong for some time. In the 66 districts the GOP won from the Democrats, George W. Bush carried on average 55 percent of the presidential vote in 2004. Even John McCain carried an average of 51 percent of the vote in those same districts in 2008. This suggests that, unlike in 1946, the GOP sweep in 2010 will have staying power, even if President Obama should be reelected. To hold their majority in 2012, House Republicans will basically have to defend their home turf.

Another crucial difference between the majorities of 1946 and 2010 is the kind of electorate the latter is built on, a distinction that becomes evident when we consider the new speaker of the House, John Boehner. At first blush, one might be inclined to see him as a throwback to the old Republican party. After all, here is a conservative who hails from the Cincinnati area and who has mastered the legislative process. That description conjures up the memory of the great Republican leader of the 1930s and 1940s, Ohio senator Robert Taft, “Mr. Republican,” as he was known.

Yet Boehner’s home is actually in Butler County​—​just north of Cincinnati. The city itself was long a Republican bastion, but neighboring Butler had a decidedly Democratic tilt until the 1950s. Population growth driven by the rise of the postwar suburbs swung it to the GOP, which it has consistently supported for president since 1968. For much of the rest of the GOP House leadership, the story of their home districts is the same. Eric Cantor, Jeb Hensarling, Pete Sessions, Tom Price, and John Carter all come from the South, a region where congressional Democrats dominated until the 1994 midterms, while Vice Conference Chair Cathy McMorris Rodgers comes from Speaker Tom Foley’s old district in Washington. Of the GOP leadership team, just two members​—​Peter Roskam of Illinois and Kevin McCarthy of California​—​have electorates with long memories of supporting Republicans.

The leadership is indicative of the entire caucus. Over the last 60 years, Republican strength has moved southward and westward into territory once controlled by the Democrats. A comparison between the Republican majorities in the 112th and 80th Houses illustrates this point quite succinctly. In the states of the old Confederacy, the GOP holds 94 seats in the 112th House; it held just 2 seats in the 80th House. Meanwhile, in New England the GOP holds just 2 seats in the 112th House; it held 21 in the 80th. And in New York, once a Republican bastion, the GOP holds just 8 seats in the 112th House; it held a whopping 28 seats in the 80th House.

This shift in the Republican coalition, out of the Northeast and into areas once dominated by the Democrats, has its origins in two major trends. The first is the rise of the suburbs, particularly in the Sun Belt cities of the South and West. The growing white collar classes found these places appealing because of air conditioning, interstate highways that made commuting to work a cinch, and the urban unrest and high taxes of the cities. The pro-growth policies of the Republican party made new suburbs a natural home for these voters.

The second trend is the leftward drift of the Democratic party. After the reforms of the Great Society, northern liberals acquired control of the party and pushed it away from the political center, alienating scores of old New Deal voters like culturally conservative Catholics. Once a mainstay of the New Deal coalition, white Catholics actually handed the Republican party a 20-point victory in the 2010 midterm elections.

These trends are fascinating to those of us who love political history, but they are also of relevance for anybody concerned about the future of the Republican party, for they help us understand what the GOP needs to do with this outsized House majority it’s been handed.

For a generation after the FDR presidency, the Democrats credibly claimed to be the party of equitable prosperity​—​that is, they promised to deliver economic growth while implementing popular social welfare programs like Social Security and Medicare. It’s clear from the last two years that today’s Democratic party is no longer capable of accomplishing both goals at the same time.

In the face of a mounting deficit crisis facilitated by an out-of-control entitlement system, the Democratic party of Barack Obama and Nancy Pelosi proceeded to create yet another entitlement. Their farcical claims that it would reduce the deficit depended entirely upon the age-old Washington tradition of gaming the congressional budget process. The reality is that Obamacare will make an already bad fiscal situation much worse. When the time comes finally to deal with the deficit, the Democrats can be expected to offer but one solution: onerous taxes that will surely strangle our fragile economic recovery.

This is a big part of why the Democrats have lost so much of the old New Deal coalition. Once upon a time, the Democrats promised a reasonable social safety net that would not impede growth. Social Security and Medicare were perfectly consistent, they argued, with 3 percent or better increases in annual GDP. Yet those days are long gone. Today’s Democrats might talk a good game about prosperity, fiscal responsibility, and a vibrant and secure middle class, but the proof is in the pudding: The last significant action of the 111th House saw a majority of all House Democrats vote to keep taxes low. But of the Democrats who are returning to the new Congress, a majority of them voted to raise taxes just as the economy is limping out of recession.

What the Republican party​—​supported as it is today by so many former Democrats​—​must do is what the Democrats used to claim to be able to do. The Republicans must find a way to sustain the entitlements that Americans have come to depend on​—​most notably Social Security and Medicare​—​without crippling the economy with increased levels of taxation. Liberal Democrats who demagogue about secret Republican schemes to destroy Social Security and Medicare have it exactly backwards. In truth, the Republican party​—​and only the Republican party​—​can save these entitlements without destroying the prospects for economic growth. The Democratic party can no longer be counted on to do this, which is why the GOP consists of so many old Democratic constituencies. This is the great mandate of the GOP: not to destroy the New Deal and Great Society, but to save their best elements from the ruinous ambitions of today’s liberal Democrats.

Jay Cost is a WEEKLY STANDARD staff writer.

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