By almost all accounts, 2014 is going to be a very good political year for Republicans. Even Democrats are conceding that at this point at least, the odds are better than not that the GOP will take control of the Senate. Neutral political observers say there are now roughly 12 Democratic-held seats in danger; Republicans need to pick up six of them. If that occurs, it would be the “tsunami” predicted by the RNC’s outstanding chairman, Reince Priebus, and the second disastrous mid-term for Democrats during the Obama presidency.
Here are two thoughts on this. It may be that Republicans are in relatively good shape these days to make substantial gains in House and Senate races – but the presidency is much more of an uphill climb, including for demographic reasons. (That was certainly true of Democrats in the 1970s and 1980s.) To put it another way: Mid-term elections are a good deal more favorable for Republicans than national presidential elections.
Presidential elections matter more.
Second, beware the false dawn. That’s what happened in 2010, when Republicans wiped out Democrats in races for state legislatures, governorships, the House and the Senate. Republicans convinced themselves that the electorate had turned hard against President Obama and his agenda. In 2012, however, Mr. Obama became the first president to achieve the 51 percent mark in two elections since President Eisenhower and the first Democrat to do so since Franklin Roosevelt.
What we have, then, is what Mr. Priebus calls “a tale of two parties.” Republicans are situated pretty well when it comes to mid-term elections – but they shouldn’t delude themselves into thinking that even if they score an impressive victory in 2014 (and things could still change, of course), it means that Republicans are well-situated for 2016.
The truth is that even if Republicans sweep to victory in 2014 they still have significant repair work that needs to be done – in terms of its agenda and tone, in the mechanics of presidential campaigns and the quality of the candidates we field – if they hope to win back the presidency.
In my estimation, the GOP is still facing a moment similar to what Democrats and the British Labour Party did in the early and mid-1990s. (It took Bill Clinton and Tony Blair to recast their parties in fairly significant ways, including optically and substantively, on issues like welfare and crime and in terms of a favorable disposition toward individual responsibility and democratic capitalism.)
The problems facing the Republican Party are not transitory or simply candidate-specific; they are more fundamental than that. And so for the GOP to once again become a consistently viable presidential party, Republicans need to put forward a considerably more compelling governing vision than it has, with particular focus on the concerns and challenges facing the middle class and in a way that will win over minority voters. There are some encouraging signs here and there, but it’s simply not nearly where it needs to be. And unless more Republicans accept that fact, and adjust to it, they’ll continue their presidential losing streak.
The 2014 mid-term elections are certainly important; but if Republicans do well and, having done well, once again draw the wrong lessons from them, it will be a Pyrrhic victory.