Republicans gamble with history
As former President Trump’s impeachment trial wound to its inevitable conclusion, President Biden is riding a wave of popularity. The latest Gallup poll gives him a 57 percent job approval rating. And when it comes to handling the coronavirus pandemic, an even higher 64 percent give Biden positive marks, nearly the reverse of the 61 percent who disapproved of Trump’s performance on this issue.
Democrats and independents have taken note: Ninety-six percent of Democrats voice approval of Biden’s handling of the health emergency, as do 67 percent of independents. The reasoning behind these numbers is clear. After three weeks in office, Biden has signed agreements to produce more vaccines and get them into the arms of 300 million Americans. In addition, his American Rescue Act distributes $1,400 in stimulus payments; provides aid to small businesses and states; allocates monies to public schools to help them reopen; and offers more unemployment benefits and rental assistance to those affected by the pandemic. The Democratic-controlled Congress is set to pass the $1.9 trillion measure by early March.
Particularly noteworthy are the 98 percent of Democrats who approve of Biden’s overall performance. Much of this is attributable to his reversals of Trump-era policies. Donald Trump’s brand is toxic among Democrats, with just 4 percent expressing approval when he left the White House. Joe Biden has not been shy in condemning his predecessor. In a statement following Trump’s acquittal, Biden quoted Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) and condemned Trump’s “disgraceful dereliction of duty.” Biden has continuously drawn a straight line between the “mess” he inherited from the Trump administration and the Jan. 6 riots.
While Biden soars, Republicans remain enraged by Trump’s impeachment and angered over the 2020 election outcome. Eighty-eight percent disapprove of Biden’s job performance, and nearly three-quarters say they are either frightened (41 percent), disappointed (26 percent) or angry (6 percent) that he is president. Nearly half (46 percent) say it is “very important” for their party to remain loyal to Trump, and 71 percent believed impeaching and convicting the former president was an act of disloyalty.
Republican anger has spilled over into our civic culture: Fifty-five percent of Republicans believe “the traditional American way of life is disappearing so fast that we may have to use force to save it,” and 39 percent say that if “elected leaders will not protect America, the people must do it themselves, even if it requires taking violent action.” No wonder 57 percent of Republicans describe Democrats as “enemies.”
Biden’s singular focus on the coronavirus is likely to yield positive results. By August, the Biden administration estimates that there will be enough vaccines for 300 million Americans. The virus will still be present, of course, but as the country approaches herd immunity, Americans likely will express some degree of satisfaction. In politics, results matter.
Satisfaction aside, history shows that incumbent presidents lose seats in midterm elections. If self-satisfied Democrats and independents stay home in 2022, angry Republicans will still trek to the polls. In 2010, outraged Republicans infuriated by a “government takeover” of health care took control of Congress. Four years later, those same energized Republicans voted in another midterm election that saw the lowest turnout since 1942 — a year when the United States was busily engaged fighting World War II. A chagrined President Obama noted: “Democrats have a congenital defect when it comes to our politics, and that is we like voting during presidential years and during the midterms we don’t vote.”
Given the slender Democratic majorities in Congress, Republicans smell victory. Keeping their base angry and energized is a gamble the party seems willing to take. Uninterested in compromise, Republicans have made their priorities clear: taunting the opposition and treating them as the “enemy” keeps their base engaged. When freshman Rep. Madison Cawthorn (R-N.C.) won his seat in 2020, he issued this taunting tweet: “Cry more, lib.” Other congressional firebrands such as Reps. Marjorie Taylor Greene (R-Ga.), Jim Jordan (R-Ohio) and Matt Gaetz (R-Fla.) and Sens. Ted Cruz (R-Texas), Josh Hawley (R-Mo.) and Ron Johnson (R-Wis.) seem to believe an angry party is good for fundraising and votes.
But the Republican gamble is short-sighted. With each passing year, there are fewer white voters in presidential elections upon whom the Republicans depend for victory. By 2045, it is estimated that whites will be a minority in the United States. The exploding numbers of non-whites have put states such as California, Colorado and New Mexico out of reach for the GOP, and made others — notably Arizona and Georgia — Democratic targets.
Additional Democratic support among young voters and single women gives the party an edge when it comes to shifting demographics. Demography alone cannot win elections, but it helps. Several years ago, former Republican National Committee Chairs Ed Gillespie and Ken Mehlman noted that their party relied too much on white voters to win — a dependency that only grew during the Trump years.
While the Republican gamble with history may pay dividends in the short-term, it is a long-term loser. A rising cohort of young people, minorities and single women view Donald Trump as the formative president of their times. The association between presidents and parties is a strong one. Back in 1986, a pollster played a word association game, asking respondents who came to mind when they heard the term “Democratic party.” Forty-six percent answered, “John F. Kennedy,” even though he had been assassinated nearly 25 years before. For the Republican Party, 54 percent answered “Ronald Reagan,” the incumbent president. When Donald Trump, Jr. bragged to rally-goers on Jan. 6. that “This is Donald Trump’s Republican Party,” he was right. And any bet that this association is a winning one is a gamble with history.
John Kenneth White is a professor of politics at The Catholic University of America and author of “What Happened to the Republican Party?”