If you’ve been around for a while, you know what it feels like to be in the middle of a congressional “wave” election, when the electorate is turning sharply against the party in the White House. If the wave is with you—think 1994 or 2010—you can feel the energy and sense the anticipation. If the wave is against you—think 2006—you can feel the disillusionment and sense the dread.
Democrats may well feel disillusionment and even dread this year. But we can’t say we’re overwhelmed by any Republican sense of energy and anticipation. Perhaps we’ve just become insensate and jaded. Or perhaps we’ve been reading too much history. Because history suggests you get only one wave election per two-term presidency: 1958 for Ike, 1966 for Kennedy-Johnson, 1974 for Nixon-Ford, 1986 for Reagan, 1994 for Clinton, 2006 for Bush, 2010 for Obama. We rode our wave in 2010. To get to do so again in 2014 would be fun—but unprecedented.
This doesn’t mean 2014 won’t be a good election for Republicans and conservatives. It should be. The Senate map is favorable, the Republican candidates are impressive, and Obama’s approval rating and the congressional generic ballot are consistent with a good Republican showing. But it’s also worth noting that Obama’s approval rating—which reversed over the course of 2013 from about 53 positive and 42 negative to 42 positive and 53 negative—has stabilized. Indeed, his rating has ticked up a bit in 2014—it’s now at 44 approval and 51 disapproval. And the generic congressional ballot, which moved in a Republican direction during 2013—from about +7 Democratic to even, has stayed even in 2014.
So the good news is the GOP has more or less held onto its gains—or to Obama’s losses—from 2013. The bad news is that momentum has stalled.
There may not be much to do about that. We’d like to see more energetic action by the Republican leadership in Congress, both in taking on the Obama administration and in advancing a positive, populist conservative policy agenda. We think it would help. But we don’t expect to see it.
Thus to the degree Republicans in Washington can create a favorable environment for candidates, it will be up to backbench legislators to do the heavy lifting. They’ll have to take the lead in explaining the Republican alternative
to Obamacare while also taking on the insurance companies’ Obamacare slush fund. Backbenchers (or rogue committee chairs) will have to agitate for getting rid of Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac, saving community banks (though not necessarily Wall Street) from the burdens of Dodd-Frank, pushing pro-labor, pro-middle-class, pro-family tax reforms (reducing the payroll tax should probably be a high priority), and strengthening the military. Such legislation won’t pass the Senate in 2014. Some of it may not even pass the House. But having such debates in D.C. might help candidates around the country. And the more these arguments are engaged in 2014, the better shape a Republican Congress would be in to advance a serious and bold governing agenda in 2015.
Still: The basic fact of 2014 is that GOP candidates are going to have to earn their victories. They can’t simply dog-paddle in place, or sit on their surfboards, waiting for the wave to sweep them to triumph. They’ll have to make the case for themselves and against their opponents, and will have to explain what policies they’ll advance in Congress that would improve the status quo.
Such efforts would provide a good example for the 2016 presidential candidates. Obama rode in on the waves of 2006 and 2008. Partly as a result, he was utterly unprepared to govern, and had engaged in no real rethinking of liberal policy nostrums and pieties. Reagan ran for president in 1980 following an adequate but non-wave-like Republican showing in 1978 (the GOP gained 15 seats in the House and 3 in the Senate, despite starting from extremely low, post-1974 levels). Reagan had to make his own way. He had no wave to ride.
Republicans have taken to extolling earned success. Maybe they should stop hoping to hitch a ride to success on an unearned wave. Maybe they should go forth and achieve victory by deserving it.