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Are Republicans Ready for Change Yet?
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Are Republicans Ready for Change Yet?

The party is badly out of step with the electorate.

U.S. Sen. Rick Scott. (Photo by Scott Olson/Getty Images.)

Republicans are doing something very rare in modern politics: contemplating life after three bad election cycles in a row. 

Even during Democrats’ brutal run in the 1980s when the party lost blowout presidential elections in 1980, 1984, and 1988, they scored midterm victories—sometimes substantial ones—in between. Republicans’ deep suffering after Watergate lasted only two cycles. By 1978, voters were ready to return to the GOP.

But today’s Republican Party finds itself reeling from a trifecta of tough contests. In 2018, Democrats made their biggest House gains in 44 years. In 2020, Donald Trump became just the fifth president in a century who lost a re-election bid, and the first in nearly 30 years. In 2022, as Yuval Levin points out, Democrats lost too. But the Republican failure to win the Senate and the party’s puny gains in the lower chamber, maybe as few as seven seats, were nothing short of a debacle. Top Republicans were talking about “long-range bets in places [President Biden] won by even double digits,” at the end of October, which would have pointed to gains of more than 30 seats. After a record-breaking $175 million in super PAC spending, Republican candidates struggled even in toss-up districts.

But this isn’t primarily about bad strategy and misspent money. This is a story about a party badly out of step with the electorate even as the majority party struggles to offer a viable option for voters. The question for the GOP is whether three bad outings are sufficient to persuade the party to start mending its ways. We saw some stirrings of change over the weekend at the first cattle call of the 2024 nominating process, but it is by no means clear that Republicans are prepared to face facts.

As rare as the GOP’s three misses in a row may be, though, it’s not without recent precedent.

Twenty years ago, Democrats were smarting over their second bad election cycle in a row but hadn’t quite accepted that they were in real trouble. 

The 2000 presidential defeat could be written off as a fluke; the result of some bungled butterfly ballots in Palm Beach County, Florida, and a favorable Supreme Court ruling. Then, when Republicans actually added eight House seats and two Senate seats in George W. Bush’s first midterm—one of just three times in history that the party in the White House made midterm gains—it could be explained by the rally-round-the-flag effect from the terrorist attacks 14 months prior. 

Of course, Republicans had gained a smashing 47 House seats and nine Senate seats in 1942,  less than a year after Franklin Roosevelt spoke of a “a date which will live in infamy,” so maybe Democrats should have known that there was something more going on than just wartime jingoism. But outgoing House Minority Leader Dick Gephardt, who was stepping down to mount his own presidential run, sounded certain that Democratic reversals were a temporary affliction.

“Reality will eventually catch up with their policies because their policies fly in the face of reality and they are wrongheaded,” Gephardt told the New York Times. “I think the American people will eventually see that—and we need to help them see it.”

After all, while Bush might have been popular, the Democratic president who had left office less than two years prior had been very popular, too. These transitory troubles for the blue team would pass as the focus returned to domestic concerns like drug prices, education, etc., or so ran the conventional wisdom. Instead, Democrats would find themselves two years later losing a third straight cycle. 

After realizing that 2004 would also be about foreign policy, Democrats nominated John Kerry,  a presidential candidate of such wooden smugness that he made 2000 nominee Al Gore look like Mr. Giggles. It would only be in 2006, after the Iraq war went south, gas prices rose, and the housing market sagged that Democrats finally had their first good year since 1998. They followed that up with a smashing victory in 2008 that delivered the presidency but also an expanded House majority and almost a filibuster-proof majority in the Senate. This had more to do with the financial panic of 2008 and the inept Republican effort that year than anything Democrats did. But the party had been willing to change and was able to take advantage.

The shift in the party from blue-collar, Midwesterner Gephardt to his progressive, female, Californian successor, Nancy Pelosi, reflected the same energy as the move from stiff, boring white dudes as presidential nominees to Barack Obama. The consequences of that change for the party were hardly all positive. Democrats’ alienation from working-class voters and capture by culturally radical progressives explains a great deal about Republicans’ midterm successes of the Obama era and the Trump presidency itself (though a terrible 2016 Democratic nominee certainly plays a role in that, too). 

Republicans face similarly difficult choices after six rough years. There’s no guaranteed path to success in 2024 and beyond, but they should at least know by now that what they’re doing isn’t working. Like Democrats in 2002, the current GOP can’t assume “reality will eventually catch up with” Biden and the Democrats. Voters this year showed themselves willing to stick with the party in power even when they clearly disapproved of its policies and performance.

But it’s also clear that there will be some terrible fights on the way to whatever’s next for the red team—first in Congress and then in the presidential nominating process. And it may be that the task will be too much for them.

Democrats managed to elect only two presidents over the course of the 71 years between the start of the Civil War and the beginning of the Great Depression. The party couldn’t find a way to fuse newly re-enfranchised Confederates and northeastern immigrants. But William Jennimngs Bryan, powered by angry rural voters in the Great Plains, combined Christian moralism, nativist anxieties, and economic resentment to make a new coalition large enough to dominate the party but not win general elections. Democrats nominated him three times to increasingly poor results, unable to break free from the grip of populist rage.

In the coming months we will find out whether Republicans are capable of the kind of reset Democrats managed at the start of this century or if the GOP is in need of a fourth bad cycle to become willing to change.

Chris Stirewalt is a contributing editor at The Dispatch, a senior fellow at the American Enterprise Institute, the politics editor for NewsNation, co-host of the Ink Stained Wretches podcast, and author of Broken News, a book on media and politics.