In much the same way the Democrats started banging their heads against the wall after the disappointing 2004 election cycle, when the hated George W. Bush won re-election and the GOP improved its majorities in both the House and the Senate, the Republicans have gone through a similar concussion-inducing exercise following the disappointing 2012 election. Arguably, however, the GOP is better positioned today than the Democrats were after the 2004 defeat.
Both the Democrats in 2004 and the Republicans in 2012 were facing the role of minority party in the Senate with 45 seats, the Democrats having lost four seats in the 2004 elections and the Republicans two in 2012. In the U.S. House races, however, the GOP held its majority in 2012, while losing eight net seats, to wind up with 234 seats to 201 for the Democrats.
After picking up 63 seats in 2010, to only lose eight in the subsequent cycle when the president won re-election fairly decisively (by 4% and 5 million votes) was not a bad performance. Due to effective redistricting after the 2010 census, particularly in Pennsylvania and Ohio, the Republicans maintained their House majority in 2012, despite losing the overall House popular vote nationally by 1%. The median House district (#218) was a 52% Republican district in 2012. It will not be a slam dunk for the Democrats, however effectively the president and his media allies demagogue the GOP, to win back control of the House in 2014.
In the Senate, there is far more potential for the GOP to pick up seats in 2014 than exists for the Democrats, though the two most recent Senate election cycles in 2010 and 2012 suggest the Democrats are far better focused on nominating candidates who can win in the states where they are running and who will not self-destruct with inane comments on divisive social issues. Finally, the Republicans also hold 30 of the country’s 50 governor’s chairs, and are the majority party in more state legislative bodies than the Democrats are.
The 2012 elections demonstrated that the Republicans could be successfully portrayed by their opponents as a party largely made up of old white male voters who are protective of the wealthy and big corporations and hostile to the aspirations of minority groups, gays, and women. It mattered little that every one of these characterizations is largely or completely false. The GOP provided enough ammunition to keep some of these arguments alive.
When Rush Limbaugh trashed Sandra Fluke, he elevated the Georgetown law student from a one-day political non-entity to a cause. The Todd Akin and Richard Mourdock discussions of rape and abortion damaged Mitt Romney and other GOP candidates. Mitt Romney’s comment about the 47% dependency rate suggested a callousness to the needy.
The reality is that the GOP has far more minority group members who have been nominated and won in state elections than the Democrats have — governors in New Mexico, Nevada, Louisiana, and South Carolina; senators in Texas and Florida; and an appointed senator from South Carolina (the only African American senator, who was welcomed after his elevation from the House by an almost complete media blackout). The Democrats have only a New Jersey senator, a Hawaii senator, and the governor of Massachusetts who are members of minority groups. By and large, the Democrats are afraid to run minority group candidates statewide, and only nominate them to run in congressional districts where the minority makes up a majority of voters.
The Republicans’ position in Congress is stronger today than the one the Democrats held after 2004. However, it is, at best, a position that will enable them to be part of the legislative process, not to dictate it. The GOP behaved after the 2010 election as if it could dictate terms to the other party, which still held control of the Senate and the White House and had a media megaphone to broadcast its side of the debate. The overreach, particularly on the debt-ceiling debate, damaged the Republican Party.
The end-of-year resolution to the “fiscal cliff crisis” turned out better and was much more of a win for the GOP than a defeat, at least in terms of the substance of what was accomplished. If one compares the tax rates now in effect for 99% of the population, including estate taxes and taxes on dividends, to where they were before the Bush tax cuts went into effect with their ten-year life in 2001, they are substantially lower (to the tune of $3.6 trillion over ten years) and are now permanent, without any more expiration dates that can be gamed by the president.
There are, of course, some in the party who believe that any tax increases will destroy the economy and are a sellout, but much larger cuts in spending will have only a positive impact on the economy. One can not argue with purists. It seems to me that given the almost complete lack of leverage held by the GOP in the lame-duck negotiating session, Senator McConnell got a pretty good deal — certainly better than the one the president campaigned for, which included lower levels for the new top rates to kick in, ordinary income treatment of dividends, and lower levels of estate tax exemption and higher rates for estate taxes.
House Speaker Boehner also skillfully managed to set the sequestration deadline ahead of the date when the debt-ceiling extension expires. As was proven in 2011 and 2012, the perception of the Republicans playing games with the debt ceiling, and risking the commitment to upholding the full faith and credit of the United States, was disastrous politically. But spending cuts gather far more political support and are a core Republican principle. If the GOP can hold the line on the defense cuts in sequestration, as much as many in the party do not like them, Boehner will have gained leverage with the Democrats due to the president’s passionate attachment to discretionary spending. The threat of across-the-board sequestration cuts to discretionary programs could force the Democrats to offer up some modest entitlement spending cuts as a replacement, maybe even more than one-to-one for the discretionary program cuts restored.
The GOP has also shown some moxie in the initial negotiations over immigration reform. While the ideas of amnesty and a path to citizenship are repellent to many on the conservative side, these steps already occurred with immigration reform under President Reagan. The four GOP senators who have been participating in the immigration negotiations have linked the ability to even apply for a green card to a trigger based on improved border security, as well as a “last in line” concept of placing the undocumented behind all those already in the queue for legal immigration.
As no bill has been written but only broad principles outlined, the GOP in both the Senate and House can certainly work to make the bill a better one, and limit the president’s role to his normal hectoring of the Republicans. If Chuck Schumer and Robert Menendez are working with John McCain and Marco Rubio, the president’s hectoring of Republicans will not accomplish much in terms of securing passage of any bill. Rubio has shown the ability to speak directly to the American people on this subject despite the media filter most GOP members of Congress face when trying to discuss policy or defend their approach.
Hopefully, the GOP has learned that most voters regard compromise as a good thing politically, and the split in government control gives the GOP a seat at the table but not control over the process. This is not like the six-month period in 2009 when Obamacare was rammed through with 60 Democratic Senate votes. The GOP’s success in the 2010 elections was in large part a reaction to that unpopular bill and the unseemly process by which it was passed. The bill is no more popular today, and there is a very good chance that the rollout of the exchanges in 2014 will be a political nightmare for the administration. At that point, the GOP needs to do more than say “I told you so”; it needs to offer substantive alternatives that address the program’s many defects.
Similarly, the GOP needs to advance a growth agenda. It was remarkable that the president never mentioned the issue in his inaugural address. Dividing up the pie is all that matters to him. The GOP has to make economic growth a factor to all its policy initiatives — in immigration, tax reform, and health care reform. Being part of the sausage-making enterprise in Congress is better than being on the sidelines. Getting to yes at times is also better than being seen as the party of no.
The GOP should also insist that its new faces — Rubio, Cruz, Scott, Jindal, Haley, Susana Martinez — get their time on the Sunday talk shows, not just the old guard. The media are happy to have the GOP’s s old men show up to make the case for the party. In the personality-driven culture we live in, the party’s image will change faster if its spokespeople defy the image the Democrats and the media have tried to create for them.