A White House official once noted that the problem with the national press corps is it can only keep one idea in its mind at a time. And while that’s often true, it’s not at the moment in regard to Republicans.
Today’s media line on the Republican party is it faces irreversible decline. That’s on the one hand. On the other, Republicans have a solid shot at capturing the Senate in the midterm elections in November, are all but certain to retain control of the House, and have reasonable prospects of winning the White House in 2016.
That these two scenarios conflict is obvious. Both are speculative, but there’s a difference. Predicting long-term political trends is chancy. We were assured not long ago that Democrats were in inevitable decline. Then they won four of the last six presidential elections. But predictions of the outcome of the next election are more reliable and indicative of a party’s durability.
As luck would have it, Republicans have distinct advantages this year, the biggest being Obamacare. It has flipped politics on its head. Republicans were bleeding last fall from the government shutdown, only to have the launch of Obamacare drag down President Obama and Democrats.
Better still, Obamacare has legs. It may well replace taxes as the dominant domestic issue for years to come. In 2014, millions of voters will find their health insurance premiums have increased, contrary to what President Obama promised, and access to some of their favorite doctors has been eliminated. Also, the most unpopular provision of Obamacare, the mandate to buy insurance or pay a fine, will go into effect. As for the flawed HealthCare.gov website, it’s unlikely ever to be fully functional.
The temptation for Republicans will be to sit idly by and let Obamacare deliver victory to them on a silver platter. That could happen. Midterm elections are usually referendums on the president and his policies, and Obama is at a low point now. His prospects for recovery are poor.
Two poll numbers point to a strong Republican edge. Presidential job approval correlates closely with how well the party in power fares in midterm elections. If Obama’s approval persists in the low 40s, Democrats will suffer. Making matters worse, Obama has plummeted in trust. Most polls show a majority of Americans don’t believe he is honest and trustworthy.
Yet Republicans would be foolish to sit on their hands. Voters loathe being taken for granted. Republicans who doubt this should check what happened in the 1998 midterm elections. Since President Clinton was on the verge of being impeached, Republicans were confident they’d pick up seats in Congress. They lost seats. It was one of the rare times when the party in the White House triumphed in the sixth year of a presidency.
In 2014, Republicans have an opportunity to negate one Democratic issue and gain ground on another. But to do so, they’ll have to ignore the advice of influential GOP factions.
Both wealthy donors and Republican consultants are squeamish about social issues, particularly abortion. They urge candidates to avoid them at all costs, and many do. This strategic mistake has allowed the Democrats’ accusation that Republicans are waging a “war on women” to go unchallenged.
Republican silence serves as an invitation to Democrats to invoke the charge again this year. And it will work as effectively as it did in 2012—and in the Virginia governor’s race in 2013—if Republicans remain mute. Instead, they should tag Democrats as extremists who favor abortion on demand, even in the case of late-term pregnancies, even for sex selection. This would have the extra benefit of encouraging millions of pro-lifers who stayed home in 2012 to vote in November.
One only has to look at recent polls to see the opportunity for Republicans with Hispanic voters. More than any bloc of voters in the country, Hispanics have lost faith in Obama and Democrats. But they won’t pay attention to Republicans until immigration reform has moved forward—with GOP help. It’s a door opener. The whole notion of Republican decline is based heavily on Hispanics as a growing bloc that votes overwhelmingly Democratic.
Many conservatives, however, oppose any change in the immigration laws that legalizes the status of Hispanics who entered the country illegally, even if brought here as children. Republicans don’t need to champion the immigration bill passed by the Senate. But they would benefit from taking a step or two in that direction.
What Republicans should reject is the new Democratic campaign against “inequality” and for a higher minimum wage. This is a 21st-century version of “fairness” that Democrats touted noisily in the 1980s and 1990s. It fell flat then and will again, unless Republicans embrace it. Indeed, that would cause their decline.