Rx for Republicans: Patience

Some lessons from the 2008 election


It was the aftermath of the presidential election and everyone was explaining why the losing party lost. It was out of step with ordinary people. Its voters were too old. It was too identified with hot-button issues like abortion. It had a problem with Hispanics, young people and independents. It was increasingly confined to a limited number of states.

For all these reasons, commentators across the political spectrum agreed that Republicans were "emphatically ascendant" and that Democrats were pretty much hopeless, in need of drastic measures to ever win again.

But that was a long, long time ago. Four years, to be exact. The drastic measures were not taken, yet lo and behold, the consensus is that Democrats are now poised for a generation of dominance and the opposition is stumbling toward extinction like a befuddled brontosaurus.

The evidence: The GOP has in two years lost both Congress and the presidency. This year's presidential defeat was the worst it has suffered since 1964. Matthew Continetti of the conservative Weekly Standard notes that it's strong only in groups (whites, the elderly, rural voters) that are a shrinking slice of the electorate. It's in trouble in states that were once redder than an angry lobster.

Just about everyone agrees that Republicans had better make some big changes: move to the right, move to the center, emphasize social issues, de-emphasize social issues, focus on trying to cut spending, give up trying to cut spending, embrace Sarah Palin or forget Sarah Palin.

But all this amounts to gross overanalysis. The best advice for the GOP is simple: Don't be at the helm when the economy hits the rocks. There is no better way for an incumbent party to assure its defeat than a recession. Richard Nixon proved that in 1960, Jimmy Carter confirmed it in 1980 and George H.W. Bush removed all doubt in 1992.

A corollary and equally obvious piece of wisdom is one the party learned in 2006 when Democrats swept the congressional elections: Don't preside over unsuccessful wars. The progress that followed the surge in Iraq largely solved that problem. But instead of becoming a Republican asset, Iraq became a political irrelevancy.

The difference between 2004 and 2008 is not that Americans became more liberal. It's that the issue of greatest urgency changed. Four years ago, the top concerns were moral values and Iraq. Only 21 percent of Americans ranked the economy as their biggest worry. This year, 63 percent put the economy first.

It also doesn't help to have an incumbent president who is widely reviled. Before the 2004 election, half of Americans approved of his performance. This time, three out of four didn't.

The good news for Republicans? Despite the powerful undertow of the economy and George W. Bush, the Republican presidential candidate got more than 46 percent of the vote. That doesn't look like a party that has no fundamental appeal. It looks like a party whose fundamental appeal was overwhelmed by transient calamities.

Barack Obama was a good candidate who ran a smart race. But in the fall campaign, his biggest asset was being kissed by fortune. With this economy Hillary Clinton would also have beaten John McCain. Heck, John Kerry could have won in this environment.

Given my own ideological preference for a government of modest ambitions at home and abroad, it is tempting to say that what the GOP has to do to regain power is swear off unnecessary wars, violations of privacy, and fiscal bloat. But the truth is not so congenial. Republicans did just the opposite in Bush's first term and won in 2004. Substitute a terrorist attack for the September financial meltdown and Obama would have gone down in history as the black Michael Dukakis.

How can Republicans come back? Easy. All they need is for the incoming president to fail at reviving the economy, make a mess of Iraq or suffer some other major setback in the next four years. On the other hand, if the Obama administration can point to a respectable recovery, a successful departure from Baghdad and no unexpected disasters, putting Abe Lincoln himself on the ticket won't restore Republicans to power in 2012.

In the next four years, they certainly should look for salable policies, attractive candidates, and fresh themes. But mainly they need patience and luck. Those worked for the Democrats.