Republican Merrymaking After 2004

Four six years ago the Republican Party ruled American politics. A Republican president had just been re-elected, cementing two decades of Republican dominance (apart from the freak election of one President Bill Clinton). It held solid majorities in the House and Senate. Conservatives controlled the Supreme Court, and most states were governed by Republicans.

Naturally, Republicans were celebrating this state of affairs. A PBS set of interviews provides a very interesting look into Washington’s conventional wisdom following President George W. Bush’s 2004 triumph. Titled “How Secure Is Republican Dominance?” it constitutes an almost alien contrast to today’s narrative of Democratic dominance.

Some of these differences can be quite amusing. Take, for instance, the words of Republican pundit Grover Norquist:

Do you believe that the re-election of this president is a kind of proof-positive of the Republican hegemony/plurality, whatever you want to call it, for the next couple of election cycles?

The president’s re-election in 2004 was a confirming election for 2002 and 2000. But we’ve now had five, six election cycles with Republicans controlling the House and the Senate and now two presidential elections. When you look at what redistricting does, the Republicans will hold the House until 2012. When you look at the 30 red states and the 20 blue states, the Republicans will hold the Senate indefinitely unless there’s some radical change in the nature of the two parties. The party that carries all those lovely square states out west will dominate the Senate.

So the Republicans have the House until at least 2012, but probably another decade. They have the Senate indefinitely, and the question is — they’ll win and lose presidencies just as the Democrats when they were the dominant party would sometimes mess up and lose the presidency in ’52 and ’68.

In addition to predicting never-ending Republican control of Congress (as well as providing eminently quotable material six years later), Mr. Norquist contributes some thoughts on the coming 2008 presidential election. The Republican candidate, of course, is favored:

I think it would be difficult to see a Democrat winning in 2008 because of the demographic trends, because of some of the successes that you can see the Republicans will have in the next four years to weaken the trial lawyers and strengthen the constituencies. The Democratic Party needs to restructure itself as something other than the trial lawyer, labor union, government worker, aggressively secular party. That isn’t a majority strategy.

Not everybody is as optimistic as Mr. Norquist, however. A number of pundits note Mr. Bush’s close margin. Reporter Dan Balz of the Washington Post warns Republicans of the dangers of overreaching. He argues that:

The danger for the Republicans is the same danger that any winning party has — and we’ve seen it repeatedly over the last two decades — which is to over-interpret any election as a mandate for something, and to presume that because they won a certain victory that they now have the right to essentially do what they want to do…And if you do things that go too far in one direction, you do that at your peril. So if the Republicans overreach, as the Gingrich Republicans did in the Congress in 1995 and 1996, there could be a backlash against the Republicans that would first be felt, I would guess, in some of the off-year elections in 2006, and certainly could be felt in the 2008 presidential election.

These foresightful words are echoed by Matthew Dowd, the chief campaign strategist of the Mr. Bush’s 2004 presidential campaign (who later became a hostile critic of the president). He too worries about the future:

So, a tight election that we won closely and that we hold the Senate, we hold the Congress, and we hold the presidency, is a good place to be. But you don’t hold them by huge amounts. And if your policies go awry and you have the wrong candidates, you could easily lose those elections.

Nevertheless, Mr. Dowd takes heart in the current weakness of the opposition Democratic Party. Republicans are the party of ideas; Democrats are the party of “No.” If they don’t stand for anything, Democrats will have a difficult time winning elections:

I think a bigger part of their difficulty is they have no organizing principle right now. And that is, they have no person to organize around. They haven’t had this since Clinton left the presidency. Their entire organizing principle for the last four years has been anti, meaning it’s all been against the president. It hasn’t been for somebody. It hasn’t been: “We love this person. This person is the leader of the Democratic Party. We care about him.” It was all: “We don’t like Bush. Let’s get him out of office.” And they don’t have a set of policies that people, average voters in their minds say, “This is what the Democrats stand for. This is what they stand for in foreign policy. This is what they stand for in the war on terror. This is what they stand for on the changing economy.”

As amusing as these quotes stand four six years later, they also serve as a warning to the current Democratic Party. Today’s situation, in fact, is almost the polar opposite of that a mere four six years ago. Today it is Democrats, not Republicans, who rule American politics. In the House and Senate, the party holds greater majorities than Republicans ever did in their heyday. They control the presidency; the Democratic candidate won the 2008 presidential election by an electoral landslide. In state legislatures and governorships around the country the Democratic Party is dominant. Pundits throughout Washington are predicting a dire future for Republicans – just as they did six years ago for Democrats.

Take demographics, for instance. In 2004 demographic changes were supposedly dooming the Democratic Party: Bush had won 97 out of 100 of America’s fastest growing counties (the same places where Obama would make some of his greatest gains), and Republican-trending Hispanics were growing more and more sizable. Nowadays the narrative is the complete opposite: Democratic strength among young voters and growing minorities such as Hispanics (again!) will supposedly turn the Republican Party into a permanent minority.

Yet the tides of public opinion can turn around just as quickly as they did after 2004. If one replaced “Republican”  with “Democrat,” many of the statements quoted here would fit right in today’s conventional wisdom of Democratic strength.  In 2016 that conventional wisdom might look just as stupid as Mr. Norquist’s words do today.

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