By all accounts, 2014 looks to be a very good year for the Republican party. The average of polls compiled by RealClearPolitics shows the GOP leading in seven Democratic-held Senate seats, while they are behind in none of their own; the party is also within striking distance in another four Democratic seats. Moreover, Sean Trende’s recent work connecting presidential job approval to Senate outcomes is extremely persuasive, and suggests that many if not most of these remaining seats should break toward the Republican party as undecided voters ultimately cast a vote against the president.
On the surface, it looks a lot like 2010, I point that I noted in this week’s magazine. And yet, how many conservatives actually feel that way? That year, the media was slow (as usual) to pick up on the building GOP wave, but conservatives nationwide were deeply attuned to it. This year, I do not get the same impression. Instead, I sense more caution than optimism.
In fact I am reminded of the 1978 midterm elections. Mostly forgotten (because they were so uneventful), the example of that year may yet prove illustrative. That election was a rough one for the Republican party. All of the ingredients for a big victory were extant, but the triumph never materialized.
For starters, Jimmy Carter was by that point unpopular. By February, his job approval had fallen under 50 percent in the Gallup poll, and would not recover until he signed the Camp David Accords in September—but even this would only bring him barely above 50 percent after the midterm, and just for a time. The public then judged Carter in much the same way that succeeding generations have; while good intentioned, he was nevertheless out of his depth. Moreover, his electoral coalition in 1976 was exceedingly narrow. It depended above all on sweeping the South, a feat no Democratic candidate had accomplished since Franklin Roosevelt (and none has done since). He lost every state in the West except Hawaii, as well as key Midwest battlegrounds like Illinois and Iowa.
Meanwhile, Democrats were highly exposed in Congress. In the House, Democrats still had historically large majorities because of the 1974 wave, including over 200 seats in the North (which Republicans still dominated at that point). The Senate battle that year was evenly split, but Democrats were defending five seats in states that went for Nixon (twice) and Ford, not to mention another four in the Deep South, where the GOP had been surging of late.
And yet…the results were kind of a dud. Republicans picked up eight Democratic Senate seats, but on the other hand forfeited seats in Massachusetts, Michigan, Nebraska, New Jersey, and Oklahoma. All of these states except Massachusetts had backed Ford two years prior. The House results were worse, and quite miserable in the aggregate. Despite having to defend more seats than at any time since the Great Society wave election of 1964, Democrats only coughed up a net of fifteen seats to Republicans. Again, considering Ford’s strength in the North, the recent Democratic surge there, and Carter’s weak standing, this was a massive disappointment.
Ultimately, the stark reality was that the coalition that powered Nixon to an enormous victory in 1972—consisting of Republicans, independents, and working class Democrats—had disintegrated. It would form again under Reagan, and persist through the 1994 midterm, but it was absent that year. Increasingly disgruntled with Carter’s ineptitude, the public was not sold on the GOP.
Some of the parallels between 1978 and 2014 are notable. Back then, the GOP was not only a party adrift in the wake of Watergate, but also one lacking a compelling issue to run on. Richard Nixon had campaigned on “law and order” and Vietnam in 1968, but neither was salient anymore. While the violent crime rate was still increasing through the 1970s, the pace had slowed notably since the late 60s, and the annual urban riots had disappeared. Moreover, Vietnam had been ended, if not won. So what was the GOP to campaign on?
Two years later, of course, the Republicans would find their issue: taxes. Tax rates were not indexed to inflation by that point, so the runaway inflation of the 1970s coupled with nonexistent productivity growth meant that tax increases were leaving middle class families poorer and poorer every year. The “tax revolt” began in California in 1978, and helped bring Ronald Reagan to the White House, and for good reason. Here was an issue on which the Republican party offered immediate and obvious relief to a problem that was plaguing average families.
But that was in 1980. Two years prior, the issue had not formed the center of the Republican party, which really had very little to run on. And it was still saddled with a bad reputation from Watergate.
What about the current period? If the 2012 exit polls teach us anything, it is that Republicans have a huge problem connecting with voters who agree with them on the big picture. The country was beset with problems, and the electorate that year (and, presumably, this one, too) was not at all sold on President Obama. It did not like Obamacare. It thought he had mishandled the economy and the deficit. It thought the government should do less, not more. Yet the Republican party, or at least Mitt Romney, struck voters as too out of touch to be trusted with power. For the hundreds of millions that Republicans spent in 2012, they never hit upon that issue akin to tax cuts in 1980, one that would connect with the average America.
In the subsequent two years, this problem has only worsened. Last year the congressional GOP spent inordinate time ineptly executing a government shutdown that, even if pulled off perfectly, would likely have produced few tangible results. Its reputation suffered accordingly. Then, to make matters worse, it affixed its gaze on immigration reform, which is unpopular with the base and—as we have since discovered—the rest of the country. Go figure that with the employment rate at 30 year lows, the country would not be too keen on legalizing millions of illegal immigrants while dramatically increasing the rate of legal immigration. If anything, the GOP’s persistent and failed efforts to pass an immigration bill underscored two of its main problems in the minds of voters—it is incompetent (all this talk, but no law?) and in hock to big business (which helped write crucial portions of the bill).
Where is the issue the GOP is running on nationwide in 2014 to connect with voters, reestablish its roots within the middle class, and overcome its bad reputation? I surely do not see it. Today, the Republican party looks like it gets the worst of both worlds—somehow being tagged as a nihilistic band of extremistsand a bunch of corporate stooges.
Maybe it will not matter. Can a political party slouch toward a massive electoral victory? Maybe it can. Maybe it really did not matter what the GOP did or did not do in 1978; maybe the country was still willing to give Carter the benefit of the doubt. Maybe the Contract with America did nothing in 1994; maybe the country was just too upset with Bill Clinton. Maybe the impeachment effort did not backfire Republicans in 1998; maybe the soaring rate of economic growth put the country in a mood to retain the status quo, regardless of what the GOP did. Read as much as you like about these elections, and you will never get back a solid answer either way. Nobody really knows.
Still, it is hard not to think that the GOP is only slouching toward a Senate majority. Favorable terrain. Unpopular president. But what is the raison d’être? What is the solution that will induce voters to back Republicans, which they have been hesitant to do for nearly a decade? Maybe they don’t need a reason, which would be good for the GOP, because I really cannot think of one.
That is especially frustrating because the Republicans have a good, even excellent candidates in a dozen contested seats. It is truly one of the best crop of recruits the party has put together in decades. Unfortunately, the national party has done little over the last few years to lay the groundwork for them. Maybe these fine candidates can overcome the liability that is the “R” label. Indeed, most of them probably will; the odds appear tilted in favor of a GOP Senate takeover at this point. The frustrating thing is that the party’s persistent reputational problems might make for some wasted opportunities.
It’s become a bit of a cliché these days to say that the party needs a Ronald Reagan. Of course, Ronald Reagan wasn’t “Ronald Reagan” in 1980; he was a two-time loser who was nearing 70 years of age. But he did have an issue that worked for him. Runaway taxation was hurting average people, and Reagan’s proposal would offer unequivocal relief. That was the crucial difference between 1978 and 1980. Today’s Republican leadership needs to stop thinking in such small-minded ways, and find an issue like that.
© 2014 Weekly Standard LLC. Reprinted with permission.