Why a GOP victory in November could be a disaster for conservatives

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If Republicans want to win back the presidency in 2012, they should hope to lose the midterm elections in November.

This is not some rant against the ideological impurity of the Republican Party.  On the contrary, for the GOP to forge the broad-based governing majority it needs to defeat the Democrats at the ballot box, it ought to appeal to moderates and independents.

But to triumph in the polls in two years time, the Republicans need to present a clear alternative to the Democrats.  That will be hard to accomplish if they enter into coalition with President Obama — which will inevitably happen if the GOP takes over the House and Senate in 2010.

Americans gasp at the thought that coalition governments could form in the United States.  It’s a European term, one that conjures up images of endless negotiating amongst weak political factions.

But the clear division of power between the White House and Congress makes coalition a regular feature of American politics.  The Republican Revolution in 1994 took place while a Democrat resided in the White House, and the GOP’s subsequent leadership of Congress was not enough to stop President Clinton from clinching re-election two years later.

Years earlier, President Reagan had to pass his conservative agenda through the teeth of Speaker Tip O’Neill’s Democratic House.  Indeed, one party has controlled both the White House and Congress for only 20 of the last 65 years.

So coalitions are emblematic of the American political system.

The problem for Republicans is that if they take control of one or both houses of Congress, they will serve as the junior partner in a coalition with President Obama.  And junior partners too often fail to come out of the shadow of the government of which they form a part.

Junior partners receive little credit when things go well and all of the approbation when things go badly.

In the nineties, Speaker Gingrich and the new Republican intake in Congress crafted the Welfare Reform Act, perhaps the single greatest piece of legislation passed since the end of the Reagan administration.  It was the cornerstone of the Contract with America.  And yet, despite the work of Gingrich and congressmen like Rick Santorum, it was President Clinton who signed the bill to much public fanfare.  Bubba got the credit and secured his second term.  Gingrich resigned the speakership within three years of the Welfare Reform Act’s passage.

In Europe, junior partners in coalition governments likewise struggle to answer the same intractable question: How can they forge an appealing identity with voters while working with political opponents in government?

In the UK, the Conservative Party entered into coalition with the smaller Liberal Democrats in May. Four months later, and the government is enjoying widespread public support.  A recent ICM poll found 57% approval for Prime Minister David Cameron and his new administration.

The Liberal Democrats however have seen a precipitous collapse in their support.  During the general election campaign they polled as high as 32% — a high figure in a three-party system.  Four months later, however, the party is in the doldrums, hitting 8% in a ComRes poll published last week.  The same poll showed that three-quarters of people no longer know what the Liberal Democrats stand for.

Last year’s elections in Germany also highlight the fate that can befall a junior coalition partner.  Chancellor Angela Merkel’s party, the center-right Christian Democratic Union, made modest gains in the Bundestag, while the junior ally in her coalition government, the Social Democratic Party, saw its support collapse to 23% — its worst ever result in a federal election.  It was the biggest loss suffered by a major German political party in 60 years.

Given the daunting challenges that junior coalition partners face, what can the GOP do to maintain its popular appeal if it takes control of the House in November?

First, Republicans must take ownership of the bills they pass.  Granted, the president gets the signing ceremony, but congressmen can and must take to the airwaves and the internet to proclaim that whatever the president signs was crafted by GOP lawmakers who are working hard for the voters.

Eric Cantor’s recent launch of the YouCut website — which gives ordinary Americans a chance to vote on which federal spending projects they would like to see cut — is an innovative way to introduce voters to the active steps Republican legislators are taking to honor the wishes of the electorate.

Above all, the GOP must not get distracted from what is the overriding concern of American voters: profligate government spending.  They must set to work to address the eye-watering levels of government debt, and will be judged on the success of those efforts.  Getting distracted by sideshows — such as the planned mosque in Lower Manhattan — will lead to accusations that the junior coalition partner is not serious about addressing widespread concerns over the economy.

Thankfully, the Tea Party movement, as diffuse and effervescent as ever, will do much to keep GOP legislators focused on reining in federal spending, should they secure congressional majorities in November.

Should this fall’s election result in a GOP takeover of Congress, the future of the nation will rest on Republicans acting as an effective junior partner in a coalition — while simultaneously maintaining an identity compelling enough to sustain them into 2012.  It remains to be seen if they are up to the task.

Dan Whitfield is a British writer living in Washington, DC.  A veteran of over a dozen election campaigns in both the US and UK, Dan has been active in American politics since he arrived in the country in 2005.