Four months ago, the Republican Party seemed headed for the scrap heap. Today, things don't look quite so bad — not because the party has done anything particularly brilliant, mind you, but because opposition parties almost always come back sooner or later — and almost always for the same reason.
The other party screws up. Or, to paraphrase Enoch Powell, the British politician who put it far more eloquently: all political careers ultimately end in failure. That's because leaders and political parties inevitably over-promise and over-reach. Already, President Barack Obama's efforts — from the stimulus package to welfare reform — are coming in for some heavy criticism.
So the Republicans will certainly make their way back to equal footing (or worse). But their route to success may be stealthier than anyone anticipates — it may even be a route that sees them lose more seats in Congress before they gain some.
Just look at what happened to the GOP in the period between 1965 and 1968. Lest Republicans think their party is in bad shape now, it was in far worse shape then. In 1965, along with the presidency, the Dems held a huge 295-140 majority in the House and a whopping 68-32 advantage in the Senate. Yet within four years, by 1969, the Dems had lost 11 seats in the Senate and 52 in the House, as well as the presidency.
It all began with governorships.
Two steps forward, first one step back
The GOP's revival in fact had little to do with ideology or a new programmatic approach, but more with a kind of results-oriented pragmatism. Between 1965 and 1967, as the Vietnam War became more unpopular and civil unrest increased, there could be only one real beneficiary: opposition Republicans, who attracted support from a wide spectrum of voters who simply wanted results in Southeast Asia, not a stalemate or the continuation of the status quo.
In the 1966 elections, the GOP made only few gains in the Senate; then, as it will likely be in 2010, too many seats were out of reach. But in 1966 the Republicans made much larger gains in the House and, perhaps most significant, won eight new governorships and held some key others. George Romney won big in Michigan, Nelson Rockefeller held on in New York, and a neophyte named Ronald Reagan was unexpectedly elected in California. (The GOP also won in Ohio, Pennsylvania, Arkansas, and, to almost everyone's surprise, in Maryland, with a new candidate named Spiro Agnew). This is likely to be the path the GOP pursues again in 2010 — if it's strategically savvy.
Because of the composition of the Senate and the seats that will be up for election, the Republicans could lose a seat or two in the upper body during the next trip to the polls. The House is a different story. Still, the number of "safe seats" due to districting has increased greatly since 1966, favoring incumbents and making it more difficult for any party to make huge gains.
What Democrats need to be worry about in 2010, then, are the State House races, where ideological issues play less of a role. Pennsylvania and Michigan have term-limited Democratic governors who can't seek re-election. States such as Maryland, Illinois, and New York should be in play — especially the latter two, now that "Blago" has tainted the Dems in Obama's home state and David Patterson has gotten off to such a stumbling start in his effort to replace the resigned Eliot Spitzer in New York. Meanwhile, the Republicans are a good bet to retain Florida (Charlie Crist, or someone else if he runs for the Senate), Texas (most likely Kay Bailey Hutchison), and California (especially if former eBay head Meg Whitman runs).
The result could well be a formidable GOP executive base around the country — just as in 1967. And, in an era of economic turmoil, that could give the party a platform of executive competence from which to launch a national campaign in 2012. Plus, it would neatly coincide with the fact that almost all the major GOP candidates thinking about running in the next presidential election are current or former state executives themselves: Mitt Romney, Mike Huckabee, Sarah Palin, even Bobby Jindal.
If the GOP is shrewd, the 2012 race isn't likely to be framed primarily as a battle between left vs. right, but as competence vs. incompetence. That's another way of saying that the campaign slogan will be "Throw out the bums." Or, to paraphrase Mr. Powell again, if the GOP is successful in 2012, it will mean that another set of political careers has ended in failure.
To read the "Stark Ravings" blog, go to thePhoenix.com/blogs/starkravings. Steven Stark can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.