By virtually all accounts, the GOP will win landslide victories tomorrow, likely capturing 40 or more seats to take over the House of Representatives, netting at least half a dozen seats in the Senate and nabbing about that number of governorships. The country is struggling economically and the public thinks Washington is broken and unresponsive. As the incumbent party, the Democrats are going to pay dearly for these facts. But as surely as the Democrats are going to lose badly tomorrow, the Republican Party leadership is going to misread its mandate.
It is a party now almost fully in the thrall of extremists, with virtually no position too outrageous to merit full-throated condemnation (John Boehner's campaigning on behalf of Rich "who-are-we-to-judge-the-Nazis" Iott being a signature example). And the public can't stand the GOP. Poll after poll shows that substantial majorities of Americans disapprove of the party (they do Democrats, as well. But Democrats aren't going to conclude from Tuesday that the country loves them). On the GOP's (and Tea Party's) presumably signature issue, reducing the scope of government, the public disagrees, by large majorities in many cases.
After their landslide victory in 1994, the Gingrich Republicans convinced themselves that the country actually wanted them to shut down the government (and hold Medicare hostage in the meantime). This fundamental failure of political judgment revived the moribund Clinton presidency and paved the way for his landslide victory in 1996. They similarly misread the public in 1998-99 with their ludicrous impeachment trial, which a large majority of Americans thought a waste of time. President Bush insisted that he'd won a mandate in 2004 (presumably because any victory in which he actually won a majority of the votes had to feel like a landslide) and then ran into the brick wall of public opposition to his major policies - notably the Iraq war and his attempt to "reform" social security. The GOP is a more extremist party now and lacks anything approaching a coherent policy agenda. It probably won't try another government shutdown or impeachment trial, because these are proven failures
But it will try something extreme, in all likelihood. After Tuesday, it will have no meaningful goal other than to continue to do what's it has tried to do since January 2009 - obstruct whatever plans Obama and the Democrats might have for dealing with America's myriad problems. In an extraordinary interview on This Week yesterday, Republican Senator John Cornyn could not answer a direct question about the party's policy agenda in the next Congress. After fumbling for a moment, the Texan said that he looked forward to hearing what the bi-partisan commission on deficits had to say when they released their report in December. That was it. Whatever else one says about Democrats, they are a governing party, with a policy agenda. The Republicans are not. Their one clear purpose is to sow fear, anger and resentment in service of achieving elected office. Whether the target is gays, Muslims, Latinos or whomever is irrelevant. Cornyn, when given the opportunity yesterday to repudiate an overtly anti-Latino ad run by David Vitter in Lousiana, demurred (Sharron Angle, of course, is running similar garbage in Nevada). They've been reduced to little more than appeasing to their authoritarian base. This will work in 2010 because mid-term elections are base elections and because the public mood is so (justifiably) sour.
This strategy will not win them long-term support, however. It's no longer a question of hunting where the ducks are, as was often said of the Silent Majority approach of Richard Nixon. The country hates the GOP now. As it becomes less white, it will hate them more. They are facing a long-term dead end, and nothing can stop that unless the party fundamentally re-orients what it is and who it appeals to. Mainstream pundits will spin a tale of an immoderate Democratic Party that lost because it went too far. But the public, as a whole, doesn't care whether Democrats have gone too far or not. All they care about is whether government is effective. Government isn't good or evil. It's a flawed but necessary instrument for dealing with problems that affect the common good and for administering justice and and security. But the modern Republican party can't think in these sorts of qualified, contingent terms. It's all or nothing for them - black and white, good and evil. People who look and act and sound different are to be treated with suspicion, if not contempt. And the government is nothing more than a racket that helps those sorts of people at the expense of "real" Americans (especially when the suspicious looking and sounding Barack Hussein Obama is in charge of that government).
A weak and compromised Democratic Party may struggle to take full advantage of these developments for a time and most Americans will suffer in the meantime, because GOP intransigence and Democratic reticence will hurt our prospects for recovery and for visionary long-term problem-solving. Much of the mainstream media will fall back on old platitudes (like the one I mentioned above, about Democrats going too far) and mis-characterize the public mood. But whatever else tomorrow means, it will not mean that the country wants its leadership to engage, above all else, in demonization of people who are different and downtrodden, and this is precisely what the GOP will continue to do. Because it cannot do otherwise.
Jonathan Weiler's most recent book, Authoritarianism and Polarization in American Politics, co-authored with Marc Hetherington, was published in 2009 by Cambridge University Press.
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