The current state of the Republican Party is a good-news, bad-news situation. The good news is that the GOP has gone through several debilitating elections over the last generation and each time has recovered quickly.
The bad news is that the conditions may not be as ripe this time for a fast Republican comeback as they were after the elections of 1964, 1976 and 1992.
The presidential election of 2008 is the fourth since 1964 that has left the Democrats in control of both the White House and Congress. And in the past, Republicans benefited from a confluence of favorable factors to rebound with alacrity.
They had pragmatic leadership that muted ideological differences within the party. Democratic presidents had troubles governing, even with strong congressional majorities. And by the time of the midterm election, the sitting presidents had acquired a beleaguered look, with presidential approval ratings that had fallen below 50 percent.
The result in each case was an environment conducive to a quick GOP rebound.
Just four years after Barry Goldwater’s landslide loss to Lyndon Johnson in 1964, Republicans won the White House. The Vietnam War, urban race riots and a bout of inflation all served to damage the Democratic “brand.”
Four years after the post-Watergate election of 1976 left the GOP diminished and hunkered down, the GOP again won the presidency. The ill-starred administration of Jimmy Carter invited ridicule, spawning the term “misery index” to define a new scale of economic ineptitude.
And just two years following the election of Bill Clinton in 1992, Republicans captured both houses of Congress. Like Johnson and Carter before, the mood between Clinton and the Democratic congressional majority was often fractious.
Chart 1. GOP Has Mounted Quick Comebacks in the Past
When the Republican Party has been electorally rebuffed in the past, it has not been down and out for long. Four years after their defeats in 1964 and 1976, the GOP won the White House. Two years after President George H.W. Bush’s loss in 1992, the party gained control of both houses of Congress. And currently, Republicans hold more House seats and more governorships than after 1964, 1976 or 1992. The 2008 Republican totals reflect the situation immediately after last November’s election. Since then, the GOP has gained one governorship and lost one Senate seat.
Sources: Vital Statistics on Congress 2008 (Brookings Institution Press) for Republican congressional totals prior to 2008; Elections A to Z (CQ Press) for governorships; America Votes 27 (CQ Press) for electoral votes.
Yet if LBJ, Carter and Clinton all offered examples of “Velcro” presidencies, Barack Obama’s thus far has seemed pure “Teflon.”
Relations between the White House and Capitol Hill have started well. Obama has added to his historic stature by acting boldly on both the national and world stage. And he was elected president in 2008 with a far more zealous base of support than Johnson, Carter or Clinton. Thus far, Obama’s job approval ratings have stayed mainly around the 60-65 percent range, and the incumbent has shown a political nimbleness capable of preventing the sharp decline in popularity that befell his Democratic predecessors.
Moreover, the political leadership of the Republican Party these days is much more problematic than it was when the party mounted its successful comebacks in the past. Then, the Republican National Committee (RNC) was headed by experienced professionals, who had led successful party-building efforts in their home states before taking their skills to the national level.
Ray Bliss, who chaired the RNC in the mid-1960s, had been the long-time leader of the Republican Party in Ohio. Former Sen. Bill Brock, the national party chairman in the late 1970s, had been in the forefront of the revival of the Tennessee GOP more than a decade earlier. And Haley Barbour, RNC chairman in the early 1990s, was a prime player in the emergence of the Republican Party in Mississippi. (He is presently the state’s governor.)
Ideological litmus tests were not on the radar screen of any of the three. As national party leaders, their prime goal was electing Republicans of all stripes.
Probably no RNC leader has been more successful in orchestrating a “big tent” philosophy than Bliss in the midterm elections of 1966. The GOP gained nearly fifty seats in the House and four in the Senate, to go with dramatic gains at the state and local level. But it was not just the numbers that stood out–it was the ideological range of the Republicans who won that year that was so impressive.
On the right, Ronald Reagan was elected governor of California while John Tower was reelected senator in Texas. In the moderate middle, Howard Baker won a Senate seat in Tennessee, as did Charles H. Percy in Illinois. And on the left, Edward Brooke was elected senator in Massachusetts (becoming the first African American since Reconstruction to win a Senate seat), while Nelson Rockefeller was reelected governor of New York–all this following the election of liberal Republican Congressman John Lindsay as mayor of New York City the previous fall.
It is highly questionable whether the present RNC leader, Michael Steele, can lead the construction of such a “big tent.” For the moment, the party shows signs of shrinking, both in the ranks of elected officials (highlighted by the recent defection of veteran Sen. Arlen Specter of Pennsylvania to the Democrats) as well as rank-and-file voters who identify with the GOP. A Gallup Poll released in May indicated that Republican loyalties had declined since 2001 among virtually every demographic group except frequent churchgoers.
Compounding Steele’s problems in base broadening is the political tenor of the times. The voices that resonate most loudly through the party are not those of elected officials, but of tart-tongued conservative talk-show hosts. In their quest for ideological purity, they pose a threat to Steele’s party-building efforts that Bliss, Brock and Barbour did not have to contend with.
To be sure, it may not be long now before Obama and the Democrats take full possession of the problems inherited from the administration of George W. Bush–from war in the Middle East to a struggling debt-ridden economy. And then, Republicans could conceivably win an election or two simply by being the “party of nope.”
Yet it could also turn out that the GOP’s current situation less closely resembles 1965, 1977 or 1993, when quick comebacks were in the offing, than that of 1933. Then, in the midst of the Depression, Franklin Roosevelt and the Democrats completely took over the political stage, leaving the Republicans with bit parts for more than a decade to come. At this point, it looks like the GOP’s future could go either way.
Chart 2. Obama’s Popularity: A Potential Stumbling Block for GOP?
The pace of any Republican resurgence will be tied in part to the popularity of President Barack Obama. GOP comebacks in the past were made easier by the sharp decline in the popularity of the Democratic presidents at the time, with the approval ratings of Lyndon B. Johnson, Jimmy Carter and Bill Clinton all falling below 50% by the eve of the midterm elections of 1966, 1978 and 1994, respectively. In all three elections, the Republicans gained a significant number of House, Senate and gubernatorial seats.
Note: Republican midterm gains reflect the difference in the number of GOP governorships, Senate and House seats after the midterm election with similar totals after the presidential election two years earlier. An asterisk (*) indicates that Lyndon Johnson succeeded to the presidency in November 1963 upon the assassination of President John F. Kennedy, and was subsequently elected in his own right in 1964. Johnson’s initial post-inaugural approval rating in 1965 is listed.
Source: Gallup Poll.