The Republicans’ Gathering Storm
In 1994, Democrats were hit with the political equivalent of “the perfect storm” which enabled Republicans to pick up 62 House and Senate seats and seize control of both houses of Congress for the first time in 42 years. For today’s beleaguered Republicans watching the gathering clouds anxiously, the good news is that the forecast does not call for another perfect storm in 2006. The bad news is that, instead, they face something much worse.
The 1994 storm was the result of an unpopular president (Clinton’s approval was only 39% in September 1994), a backlash over a scandal-plagued Congress (73 percent disapproval) and unpopular policies (health care and taxes) combined with a loss of support from the Democratic base (women’s turnout dropped by 2 million).
Fast forward to 2005: President Bush’s approval has plummeted to 39%; Congress’ disapproval rate is at 65 percent amidst growing scandals; the Republican base has frayed over Harriet Meirs and government spending; and there is widespread dissatisfaction over the Iraq War, Bush’s Social Security plan and Hurricane Katrina.
The more alarming statistic for Republicans, however, is that unlike in 1994 when the voters repudiated Clinton’s performance but not his policies (54 percent favored continuing the Clinton agenda), today only 25 percent favor a continuation of the Bush agenda. In addition, polls indicate that voters now reject or believe the Republicans have failed on the key elements of their agenda – tax cuts, Iraq, social security reform and restoring integrity to government.
This overwhelming opposition suggests that the Republicans face a scenario similar to the 1980 collapse of Jimmy Carter and the Congressional Democrats. Bush now faces what Carter once faced: low approval ratings, a weak economy with rising gas prices combined with setbacks in Afghanistan and the Persian Gulf that have left Americans feeling less secure. Both Presidents also had a single event that defined their ineffectiveness, with President Carter’s botched attempt to rescue American hostages in Iran being his “Katrina moment.”
The 1980 election was a disaster for the Democrats as not only did Carter lose to Ronald Reagan by 8 million votes, but the Republicans picked up 47 House and Senate seats and regained control of the Senate for the first time in 26 years. Even worse, for the next twelve years (until Clinton’s victory in 1992), Republicans ran against Jimmy Carter in every election by tattooing their Democratic opponents with all of his failures. Ronald Reagan’s subsequent popularity enabled Republicans to make substantial gains among independent voters and erase the Democrats’ advantage in party leanings. The Republicans’ 1994 sweep would not have been possible without this 1980’s resurgence.
The failure of the Bush administration is having a similar effect for Democrats, as there has been a double-digit shift in their favor among voters as to which party can a do a better job and should control Congress. This is why Republicans are alarmed, since they know that if the Democrats are able to “Carterize” Bush and the Republicans in 2006 or 2008, it will be a lasting wound.
The Bush agenda has been a continuation of the ideological course set by Ronald Reagan and Newt Gingrich and, just as Carter’s defeat was the final nail in the Great Society’s coffin, Bush’s collapse may have the same effect for the “Reagan Revolution.” It is somewhat ironic that the President whose reelection was seen as the culmination of the Reagan Revolution may be the agent of its ultimate demise. But Reagan, Gingrich and Bush each deserve the blame for such a collapse since a revolution based on “free lunch” tax giveaways without concern for deficits, ideological extremism and a disdain for the details of governing is a house of cards whose disastrous end is predestined.
The current climate presents Democrats with an enormous opportunity to define the contrast between the two parties for years to come. Democrats need only remind voters that, under Clinton, not only were they the party of peace, prosperity and budget surpluses, but they were able to reduce the size of government and still be effective; while the Bush record is the exact opposite on all counts.
There is a proverb that “the firm tree does not fear the storm.” With dark clouds looming on the horizon, the current forecast for Republicans in 2006 is “be very scared.”