For congressional Republicans, the election can’t come soon enough. In the modern age, it’s hard to think of a time when the ruling party had more to do. CNN political data analyst Harry Enten recently noted that based on the wildcard ballot, things haven’t looked so good for Republicans to land midterm House seats since 1938. Since 1980, the ruling president’s party lost an average of 22 seats midterm. Republicans only need nine to win a majority.
Of course, Republicans think that means they’re doing something right. But if recent history is any guide, you can be sure that once elected, Republicans will blow it.
For decades, our national politics have been caught in a bizarre pattern. The ruling party governs as if it is about to lose power, so it shoots the moon at ambitious and grassroots-friendly big gambits that annoy the center and make its own electoral defeat all the more likely. The other party then wins and comes to believe that it has a broad mandate for equally sweeping changes in the other ideological direction. This, in turn, leads to him being ousted from power. The cycle repeats itself in a pas de deux of self-fulfilling prophecy.
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One of the keys to this dynamic is the illusion that the unpopularity of the party in power is synonymous with the popularity of the opposing party. But this is an illusion, created in part by the two-party system. If you have a menu that only offers snails or tofu entrees, that doesn’t mean diners like tofu every time they get tired of snails.
There’s a reason more Americans identify as independents (42%) than Republicans (28%) or Democrats (28%), and why 60% of voters now want a new big party to offer them an alternative.
Again, in a binary system, the unpopularity of one side creates a mirage of popularity for the other party when in reality voters are simply expressing a preference for the lesser of two evils. In 2020, a majority of Americans voted against Donald Trump, but that doesn’t necessarily mean they liked Joe Biden.
Democrats are unpopular right now for reasons that have nothing to do with the popularity of the GOP. Inflation in general and high energy prices in particular are a toxic drag on the ruling party. Democrats’ misreading of Biden’s “mandate” — swinging for a new New Deal, for example — was not a GOP masterstroke. It was a direct error on their part, perfectly consistent with this trend in American politics.
As a result, Biden’s low approval ratings make it easy for Republicans to criticize and portray themselves as symbols of discontent. It gave Republicans the misplaced confidence to indulge their worst instincts of self-indulgence assuming their antics are the reason things look so good for them right now. They’re like Ferris Bueller running in front of the parade, thinking everyone is looking at them, not the parade. Of course, Bueller’s performance was harmless fun.
Meanwhile, the Texas GOP just voted to declare the 2020 election “illegitimate,” to reprimand Senator John Cornyn for brokering sensible and grassroots gun policy reform, and other political nonsense. In the wake of two horrific mass shootings and amid rightly heightened fears of political violence, Republican Senate candidate Eric Greitens from Missouri has released a video in which he carries a gun and literally pleads for ” hunt” for GOP moderates. And, of course, the collective GOP reaction to the House committee on Jan. 6 doesn’t exactly suggest that they are listening to anyone outside of their echo chamber.
My favorite recent data point for the upcoming congressional clown show is an interview from last week with Trump. Radio host Wayne Allyn Root suggested that Trump had endorsed Rep. Kevin McCarthy for House Speaker if/when Republicans take over the House. “No, I didn’t,” Trump replied. “No, I supported him in his run. But I did not support anyone as a speaker.” And then, at Root’s request, Trump left open the idea that he should be president (the Constitution, some argue, allows a non-House member to hold the office).
Ignoring the absurd proposition that Trump is the master of parliamentary procedure that America needs, the more important point is that for all the Democrats’ well-deserved problems, there is no reason to believe that the country is ready for a new era of Republican control. That would require a GOP interested in governing for the long term. And our parties don’t do that anymore.