Politics

Why Republican Numbers Stopped Adding Up

Two critical tenets of American politics explain GOP struggles with governing and Democrats' sudden success at the polls.

Do the math.

Photographer: Matt Cardy/Getty Images

Democratic victories in two special elections Tuesday at the state level and this week's embarrassments back in the nation's capital shine a spotlight on two of the most important lessons of American politics: Losing one big election is a great strategy for winning a lot of smaller ones, and winning the big one doesn't mean you can govern.

Democratic party leaders and political pundits have fiercely debated how the party should react to losing the presidency in 2016 (and Congress and many other offices in the 2010 and 2014 Republican landslides). They've recommended going populist, or going more liberal, or going more conservative, or caring more about white working class voters, or doing a better job of increasing black and Latino voter turnout, or 101 other things to fix what's wrong with the party. As Matthew Yglesias suggests, however, the biggest electoral problem Democrats had from January 2009 up until January 2016 wasn't failing to connect with specific groups of voters, or a too liberal or too conservative platform, or the wrong candidates or anything else. It was simply holding the White House.

Problem solved.

That's not to say any of those other things are necessarily irrelevant or wrong, and after all it makes sense for political parties to concentrate on the things that they can control, not those they cannot. 

But the extent to which out-parties almost always gain ground in midterm elections is a really important reminder that winning elections just doesn't tell you very much about a political party, despite the natural inclination everyone has to attribute victories to actions by the victors. So for example it almost certainly just isn't true that Bill Clinton won in 1992 because he and the Democratic Party solved their problems from the 1980s by modifying liberal positions; he won because of a recession. Michael Dukakis or Walter Mondale likely would have won in the same circumstances.

The flip side of this is that while some parties reach the White House ready to govern, including Ronald Reagan's Republicans in 1980 and Barack Obama's Democrats in 2009 (and the Hillary Clinton campaign's gigantic policy shop was a sign she was ready too), it's equally possible for a badly dysfunctional party to win unified control of the federal government. 

Which brings us to the Republican Party in 2017. 

Republican electoral gains while Barack Obama was in the White House were impressive. So is, unfortunately, what appears to be their appalling inability to formulate public policy. The budget Donald Trump submitted to Congress this week, whatever one thinks of the ideology behind it, simply doesn't add up. At all. The Congressional Budget Office will today finally publish its analysis of the health care bill the House passed weeks ago. And those are the things that are going well! There's still no real tax plan, no infrastructure plan, no trade plan ... let alone anything to deal with other real problems in the nation, whether it's climate or productivity or income inequality or anything else. 

This should be no surprise to anyone who watched the last two Republican presidential nomination contests. The most damning thing about those elections may be that Trump doesn't even stand out as the least informed candidate. Or perhaps it's even worse that the theoretically normal Republican presidential candidates have barely been more coherent when it comes to policy. Mitt Romney basically ran on "trust me, I'm a businessman" and a few out-of-context Obama quotes while running away double-speed from his signature policy accomplishment, the Massachusetts health care reform law. Not, of course, because it didn't work, but because it was too close to Obamacare. Contrast that with the 2008 Democratic nomination battle, in which Barack Obama, Hillary Clinton, and John Edwards debated the details of health care reform and other Democratic priorities. This has been going on for a while, but it's hardly inherent in liberal and conservative ideology; no one called the Republican fields in 1980 or 1988 incapable of discussing public policy. 1  

The proof is in the pudding. When Obama was elected, he and congressional Democrats had an extensive policy agenda ready to roll out. When Trump was elected, Republicans had bupkis -- indeed, at this point they seem to be hoping that at least they can make it through the first nine months without accidentally shutting down the government or defaulting, with any major accomplishments any time soon increasingly unlikely

What could change this? Christian conservatives show one path for Republicans. They've held firm to explicit policy demands for their party, generally tending to get much of what they ask for. 2

Far too many Republican groups appear satisfied with a different deal: reflexive opposition to Democrats along with scams and conspiracy talk while nothing else is getting done and even the basics of governing get lost. As easy as it is to blame Trump, that's what happened during the last Republican presidency in Iraq, New Orleans, Tora Bora, and Wall Street. As long as Republican groups are satisfied with that level of dysfunction, the party will continue to deliver it. 

And a warning for Democrats: If they mistakenly believe Republicans have been winning because, not despite, their incoherence on policy, and start to accept knee-jerk opposition to anything Republicans say and flirt with conspiracy talk of their own instead of continuing to do the hard work of policy formation, they may still benefit from Trump's unpopular presidency -- but they'll find themselves unable to govern the next time around. 

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

  1. Ronald Reagan butchered the facts at times (quite often, really) and wasn't detail-oriented, but he certainly knew what policies he supported and could talk about many of them coherently. 

  2. Certainly Christian conservatives have lost sometimes on policy, but when they do it's usually about raw numbers -- for example, there just are not 51 senators who want to shut down Planned Parenthood, so that's not going to happen. 

To contact the author of this story:
Jonathan Bernstein at jbernstein62@bloomberg.net

To contact the editor responsible for this story:
Mike Nizza at mnizza3@bloomberg.net

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