Republicans need now to manage expectations for success in 2012 elections

The sweeping result of the midterm election’s debacle for the Democrats should leave both parties taking a deep breath and asking, “Now what?” The Democratic narrative that they got caught in a down economy and were just there when the music stopped is only half of the equation. Some Republicans argue they must now be true to their fiscal base and that overspending cost them their majorities in 2006 and 2008. This, again, is only half right. The path ahead for both parties is far more complicated.

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This was the third straight nationalized election for Congress. So much for the “all politics is local” motto of Tip O’Neill.  Why this anomaly? Basically, this occurred because American voters have witnessed no good news from their government establishment in more than a decade. From the dotcoms, through 9/11, to two wars, Katrina, a Wall Street meltdown and a 9.5 percent unemployment rate (for 15 months), the political establishment has not delivered for the American people. Add to that the fact that real wages have remained stagnant for 20 years and you get the picture.

To a great extent, the partisan political alignments that have evolved around cultural lines reasserted themselves Tuesday. GOP gains in the South, rural areas and red states were most pronounced. Absent from the victory party was New England (with the exception of New Hampshire) and most of the West Coast.

The cultural alignments that made the elections of 2000 and 2004 so close have reasserted themselves. GOP gains in Michigan and Wisconsin were not urban gains. Oberstar, Spratt and Skelton’s defeats were in culturally conservative districts.

Maryland, Massachusetts, Connecticut, California and Hawaii refused to yield to the GOP onslaught. Thus, cultural preferences continue to underlie the party’s coalitions, despite Tea Party rhetoric.

The GOP House Majority and Senate gains do not represent a ceiling. The Senate line up in 2012 has 24 Democrats and only nine Republicans up for reelection, and many of these Democrats were beneficiaries of a 2006 tailwind that is unlikely to reoccur two years hence.

How have the parties’ grass roots reacted to this? They have each recalibrated themselves along the flanks, depriving a basically centered and non-ideological majority of the country (or at least substantial minority) the choices they want and the outcomes they want. This has been encouraged by the ideological resorting of the parties, the dominance of interest groups in the electoral battleground and the advent of new media.  

High-level defeats of Joe Lieberman, Mike Castle, Robert Bennett and Lisa Murkowski in primaries sends chills through rank-and-file members worrying about being punished for compromising with the opposition. Even leadership moves toward compromise will be subject questioning that can undermine the coalition. 

The test for Republicans is clear.  Manage the base’s expectations. Trying to swallow the whole hog is not only impossible, but it’s destructive. This year’s gains were made possible by a fired-up base and a return of independents to the right. These independents voted in a coalition with the Tea Party for Republicans this year but are far from automatic in 2012. They merely voted to put a check on Obama, not give him a blank check. Their votes were anti-Democrat, not pro-Republican. Still, Republican leaders deserve credit for drawing lines in the 111th Congress and allowing the president to now own the economy and Afghanistan.

2012 will be a race between competing visions of America, not about putting a check on the president. Republicans will be held to a different standard (not just viewed as a protest vehicle) and will have a record as governing partners in 2011 and 2012.  They are fortunate voters have given them a second chance after humiliating defeats in 2006 and 2008. But the 2010 victories are not green lights to lurch to the hard right. Swing voters and independents are looking for a responsible party to solve their problems. The rejection of hard-right candidates in Nevada, Delaware and Colorado are signals that purple America is looking for more centered problem solvers rather than ideological warriors. Utah, Kentucky and other red states can elect Tea Party candidates, but even with this 2010 headwind, purple areas could not. GOP leaders and their caucus members will be cross-pressured as they proceed to an enhanced governance rollover the next two years. Republicans rightly accused Obama and company of misreading their mandate.  The GOP challenge is to read their “mandate” correctly. Fortunately, Rep. John Boehner (R-Ohio) is a savvy, experienced leader who understands all elements of his diverse caucus.  The future will test his abilities to navigate his disjointed coalition and make appropriate principled stands while still producing a work product attractive to independent voters.

Davis represented 
Virginia’s 11th district from 1995-2008 and chaired the National Republican Congressional Committee from 1998-2002.


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