The Republican Party spent much of the 1930s and '40s struggling for relevance. FDR's landslide victory in 1932 created massive Democratic majorities in both chambers of Congress, majorities that would stay inconceivably large through his full 12 years in office.
It wasn't until 1946, with President Truman's approval ratings hovering around 30 percent, that the once-marginalized GOP would find the strength for a comeback. That November, Republicans gained 55 seats in the House and 12 in the Senate, regaining majority control for the first time in 14 years.
In the years that followed, however, the Republican comeback turned out to be awfully short-lived. The Republicans famously lost the White House in 1948, along with control of the House and Senate. They would briefly regain control of Congress in 1952, but by 1954, they would lose their grip on the majority for a generation. Democrats regained a House they would not lose until 1994, and a Senate they would hold until 1980.
For all the talk of Republican resurgence, the comeback turned out to be little more than the death throes of a party destined to spend decades in the wilderness.
Fast forward to 2010.
Again, Democrats find themselves in a position to lose a substantial numbers of seats in the House and Senate, and perhaps, their majorities. Republicans are cheering, confident that the strength of the Tea Party movement, the enthusiasm of their base, and the public's dissatisfaction with Democratic leadership are poised to build a wave as large--or larger--than the one that swept them back into power in 1994.
And yet, just as in 1946, the Republican party is poised to regain the majority while still staggeringly weak, and without a strategy for governing going forward. In fact, the very things that are propelling the Republican resurgence this year will, almost certainly, be responsible for its coming downfall.
Take the Tea Party as the most obvious example. In an off-year election like 2010, with a small, angry, conservative electorate, and with an economy sputtering to recovery at a rate no one considers acceptable, it's little wonder that a movement that has stoked such enthusiasm would be an asset, even as it pushes the party spectacularly rightward. But that same rightward tilt, in a presidential election year, is likely to be a death sentence.
In 2012, there will be roughly 40 million more voters than in 2010, most coming from among minorities and young voters, traditional Democratic constituencies. In 2008 minorities gave President Obama 80 percent of their vote. Voters of the Millennial generation gave the president 66 percent. In the two years since, no groups have felt the brunt of the economic downturn more acutely than these. And yet both groups remain steadfastly committed to the Democratic party.
In 2012, if Republicans cannot attract large chunks of those groups to their side, they are all but certain to lose the presidential election, and likely to lose ground in Congress.
Smart GOP strategists know this. And yet, they know, too, that their hands are more or less tied. The Tea Party has put the Republican Party in an impossible position, one in which any break with ideological purity, any attempt at modest moderation (say, a reasonable stance on immigration reform), is met with massive -- and effective -- retribution. That's a lesson Lisa Murkowski, Bob Bennett, and others, have learned the hard way.
Still, a good Democratic year in 2012 doesn't spell a long-term majority. For Democrats to accomplish what they did in 1954, for the party to build a majority that is unassailable, it would need to see dramatic changes--inconceivable changes--in the makeup of the voting populace itself. After all, as we see today, Republicans, even while incredibly unpopular, can still muster the strength to build a majority.
Yet, that shift is exactly what's happening. The voting population is changing in stunning ways, all of which will benefit the Democrats.
Those same groups mentioned earlier, minorities and young voters, are rapidly growing as a percentage of the American population. Eighty percent of the population growth in the country over the last decade has come from minorities. According to the Census Bureau, in the next decade, the Hispanic population will grow another 40 percent. That's enough growth, over a relatively short period of time, to even turn Texas blue.
The youngest generation too, is reshaping the landscape. Every year between now and 2018, four million more Millennials will become eligible to vote. By 2018, they will be 90 million strong -- bigger than the baby boomers -- and will make up 40 percent of the eligible voting population in America.
At the same time, for all their current strength, Tea Party Republicans are a dying demographic. Populations are shrinking in the South and in rural areas. Massive growth among Democratic constituencies is expected to be accompanied by static -- and in some cases, declining growth -- within the Republican base. That formula will require the Republican party to change if it wants to stay a majority party. But it will require changes the Tea Party base will never accept. It's an impossible choice for the GOP, a lose-lose any way it's sliced.
In the short term, Republicans can feel free to break out the champagne. But over the long term, what looks like a celebration will be more akin to a wake.