An observation that strikes a strong chord with a great many people these days is that although Democrats in Washington have certainly performed poorly enough over the past year to deserve being thrown out of power, congressional Republicans have done virtually nothing to deserve being thrown back into power. The GOP's eight years in the White House and six years in control of Congress were certainly inauspicious.
Looking toward November 2, the Democrats' situation in the House isn't quite bad enough to say that their majority is a goner. But unless something bends the political curve in their favor, Democrats are headed toward losing more than the 40 seats that would cost them control.
Pennsylvania is expected to hold a special election on May 18 to fill the vacancy created by the death of Defense Appropriations Subcommittee Chairman John Murtha. The Cook Political Report rates the contest a "toss-up," raising to 51 the number of Democratic House seats now in competitive situations. Twenty-five are toss-ups or even more vulnerable; 26 are in the "lean Democratic" category.
Murtha's district went for Republican John McCain four years after being carried by Democrat John Kerry. Even under normal circumstances -- meaning, even if they weren't under siege -- Democrats would have trouble defending this district without Murtha.
Just how bad is the Democrats' current situation? In the three statewide contests since the 2008 presidential election, the Democratic nominee has run an average of 9 percentage points behind Barack Obama's performance.
In the Senate, a Republican takeover is unlikely -- before 2012. With Democrats likely to lose five to seven Senate seats this year, the GOP has a very good chance of reclaiming the majority in 2012, when Democrats will have 23 seats in play compared with only nine for Republicans, or in 2014, when 20 Democratic seats come up and Republicans will have to defend only 13.
Republicans' exile could be brief, but do they deserve to reclaim power?
In short, Republicans' exile to the wilderness, congressionally speaking at least, could be brief, but do they deserve to reclaim power? The GOP appears to be on track to winning the midterm elections, so from a crass political perspective, how can it be faulted? Well, Republicans have cobbled together some pro forma proposals, but they certainly haven't made many good-faith efforts at producing public policy in the past year. To be sure, many Democratic congressional leaders haven't seemed open to GOP or conservative ideas, but that does not absolve Republicans of responsibility for addressing the nation's unemployment and health care problems.
If Republicans return to power soon, what will they do? As New York Times Book Review Editor Sam Tanenhaus wrote in his 2009 book, The Death of Conservatism, "Today's conservatives resemble the exhumed figures of Pompeii, trapped in postures of frozen flight, clenched in the rigor mortis of a defunct ideology." Tanenhaus's characterization of the GOP as long on obstruction and recrimination and short on constructive efforts to address our country's mounting problems rings true. Although the GOP's negativity might help it win the midterm elections, it hardly provides a sound basis on which to govern. Remember how Karl Rove's divide-and-conquer strategy to re-elect President Bush worked but failed to give him a foundation on which to govern for his final four years or the authority to rule. Perhaps during Bush's presidency Republicans came to place too much value on toeing the party line and too little on offering new ideas. A party can atrophy intellectually.
When I listened to President Obama deliver his State of the Union address, I was disappointed not to hear an acknowledgement that he had squandered the mountain of goodwill he enjoyed when he was sworn into office a year earlier; that he had misread his mandate and neglected one of his most basic job requirements -- to help manage the economy. And I still haven't heard those mea culpas. But Republicans, for their part, need to acknowledge their own shortcomings. That would be an important first step toward convincing voters that they grasp why they were thrown out of power and that they deserve to be entrusted with power once again.
I've been struck by the remarkable ad that Japan's embattled automaker, Toyota, is now running: "For over 50 years, providing you with safe, reliable, high-quality vehicles has been our first priority. In recent days, our company hasn't been living up to the standards that you've come to expect from us or that we expect from ourselves."
When will either of America's political parties learn that the best way to start anew is by apologizing?
This article appears in the February 13, 2010 edition of National Journal Magazine.
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