At some point about five years ago, America became a “One-Party Country”—and the party in question was the GOP. Such, at least, was the conclusion of Los Angeles Times reporters Tom Hamburger and Peter Wallsten in the book they wrote under that title following the 2004 presidential election. Bizarre as their claim may sound today, it stood on solid ground. In November 2004, George W. Bush had won re-election with the largest number of votes up to that point in American history while racking up the seventh Republican win in the previous 10 races for the White House. Republicans, moreover, were in control of the Senate by a margin of 10 seats, and of the House by a margin of 30. To complete the sweep, they also boasted a majority of the nation’s governorships and a plurality of state legislatures.
In short, Republicans had reached their most impregnable point of strength in the modern era, a fact hardly lost on their glum and battered adversaries in the Democratic and liberal camp. As “euphoric” as were Republicans, wrote the New Republic’s Peter Beinart at the time, “the intensity of their happiness can’t match the intensity of our despair.”
But then came the reversal, sudden and swift. Today, after two punishing election losses in 2006 and 2008, in the course of which Democrats gained 15 Senate seats, 54 House seats, and the White House, the GOP is now the minority party, Democrats are rejoicing, and many Republicans have lapsed into a state of near panic. “Are the Republicans going extinct?” Time asked in a dramatic cover story. “And can the death march be stopped?”
It can—though it is indisputably true that the challenges facing Republicans are the stiffest since the years immediately following Watergate.
Barack Obama’s victory in 2008 was the most sweeping since 1980. He became the first Democratic president since Lyndon Johnson 44 years earlier to garner more than 50.1 percent of the vote. In the process, he took seven states that had twice voted for George W. Bush, including two (Indiana and Virginia) that had not gone Democratic since 1964. In the Senate, Democrats hold a filibuster-proof 60 seats, the largest margin for either party since 1978. In the House, Democrats hold 257 seats to the GOP’s 178. Twenty-nine out of the nation’s 50 governorships are now in Democratic hands.
Democratic electoral dominance is reflected in other numbers as well. In every age group between 18 and 85, Gallup reported in May, Democrats enjoy an advantage over Republicans among those identifying themselves with a political party. In a Pew study earlier this year, self-identified Democrats outran self-identified Republicans by 11 percentage points. “On nearly every dimension,” the study concluded, “the Republican party is at a low ebb—from image, to morale, to demographic vitality.”
The reasons for the vertiginous decline are both proximate and long term. At the top of the list, surely, is the Iraq war—a venture that, at the outset, had garnered the support of more than 70 percent of the public and strong majorities in both the Senate and House. But that support quickly unraveled. The Bush administration never fully recovered from the revelation that Saddam Hussein did not possess stockpiles of weapons of mass destruction, and many Americans came to believe, despite clear evidence to the contrary, that the administration had “lied” the country into war. Add to this an Iraqi insurgency the White House did not adequately anticipate and an occupation strategy poorly conceived and poorly executed, and one had the makings of massive political erosion. By the time Bush embraced a new and successful counterinsurgency strategy in Iraq, it was too late for Republicans. The public had grown bone-weary of the war and blamed both the president and his party.
The GOP was also hurt badly by well-founded charges of congressional corruption. This, arguably, was the most salient factor behind the Democratic gain of more than 30 House seats in the 2006 midterm elections. “Not since the House bank check-kiting scandal of the early 1990s have so many seats been -affected by scandals,” an article in the Washington Post put it a few days before the election. Democrats turned the GOP’s “culture of corruption” into a rallying cry of their campaign, and it worked.
Finally, among major proximate causes there was the economic crisis of late 2008. By September, the GOP’s presidential candidate, John McCain, had clawed his way into a statistical dead heat with Obama and was even leading in some polls. But then came the collapse of the investment giants Merrill Lynch and Lehman Brothers, the freezing of credit markets, wild fluctuations on Wall Street, and fears of an imminent depression. As the party most closely identified with Wall Street, bankers, and capitalism, the GOP was inevitably held accountable. And none of this is to mention the other issues contributing their share to the party’s decline, from the mishandled response to Hurricane Katrina to the failure of efforts to reform immigration policy and the Social Security system.
Click here to read the rest of this Special Preview from the September issue of COMMENTARY.