After last year’s huge congressional victories, it was assumed by many Republicans that the 2012 elections would follow suit as a matter of course. Tea Party conservatives, government reformers, tax cutters and party activists seemed to assume that the next national election, which would include a presidential election, was certain to go their way because the voters had clearly rejected in 2008 Obamacare and other policies of the first two years of the Obama administration and the Democratic congress.
I don’t want to throw cold water on conservative enthusiasm, but that’s not the way national politics work. Yes, the voters made a clear statement about the first two years of Mr. Obama’s leadership, but they made no commitment, lacking further good reasons, persuasive arguments, and strong candidates to vote that way again. No one said the follow-through election, and defeating Mr. Obama, would be easy. History indicates that, to the contrary, it is very difficult to defeat most first-term presidents without near-perfectly negative economic conditions and an obvious failure of incumbent leadership.
In fact, there should be no surprise that the president and his allies are fighting back and trying to keep control of the U.S. government next year.
The issue of Medicare reform is an excellent illustration of the task Republicans face ahead. Like Social Security, Medicare is financially unsound as now structured. In a few, and clearly foreseeable, years, it will be unable to perform its function without massive (and economically unsustainable) subsidies from the Treasury.
Because it is an entitlement program (although taxpayers contribute to its funding), most voters resist making it more expensive. Democrats, realizing this, have used any suggestion of reform of Social Security, for example, as a “third rail” in politics, and employed scare tactics against Republicans and others who tried to fix it. This tactic no longer works in the case of Social Security because voters have generally come to believe they will not receive benefits unless something now is done. They are not yet convinced, however, that Medicare is in the same dire condition. Those who want to reform Medicare are correct in their analysis of the situation, but they have so far forgotten that to make reform happen, they have to persuade voters that it is necessary. I am not suggesting that Republicans should abandon their reform agenda; in fact, I strongly support it. But it will come to naught, and even backfire on them, unless they begin a massive effort to educate the electorate why it must be done, and how they are going to do it.
Republicans have some advantages going into 2012. President Obama is clearly underperforming in office. His understanding and application of economic policy and foreign policy have been amateurish, out-of-date and unpopular. Unemployment has become chronically high, and although there have been some positive signs in the economy, a true recovery has not been made. In the 2012 races for Congress, the GOP seems poised to maintain control, even if they do not win the presidency, and because so many more Democrats are running for re-election to the senate, it seems likely the Republicans will make gains no matter how the election goes. Furthermore, with many more governorships and state legislatures in their control since 2008, the GOP is in a good position to benefit from redistricting, and in statewide campaigns. Finally, the remarkable turnout of blacks and Hispanics for candidate Obama in 2008 would seem unrepeatable four years later. In fact, the overwhelming majorities of Hispanic and Jewish voters for Obama in 2012 are almost certainly to be reduced. Republicans elected several attractive new Hispanic figures in 2008. Mr. Obama’s Middle East policies have been increasingly poorly received in the Jewish community. (The chance for Republicans to attract a greater share of the Hispanic voter, however, could be lost if certain GOP factions prevail with an unsympathetic and unrealistic immigration policy.)
These are advantages, but they do not even remotely guarantee that 2012 will go as Republicans hope it will. Democrats, as I suggested earlier, are fighting back. They are very good at demagogic ads that portray Republican ideas in the worst light (the new Democratic ad showing the GOP pushing a senior in a wheel chair over a cliff is a perfect example of this).
Usually, a political party gets at least one full term or two terms to enact its agenda and promote its policies. The Democrats stumbled in 2009, and paid for that in 2010. It is unreasonable to assume they won’t try to repair their relationship with the electorate, especially those in the political center where they must do well to return to power. Many Republican leaders who are not running for president do seem to understand the challenge facing the GOP, most notably Speaker of the House John Boehner who, so far, has done well to keep his party and his members viable for the 2012 election.
Yes, the conservative economic principles espoused by most Republicans these days are the basis of the right course for the nation through this difficult time. But in order to have the right to lead the nation, this party must have the confidence, understanding and good will of a majority of voters. That’s the way it works. No one should say it is going to be easy.