As much trouble as Republican leaders in the Congress might have accepting the brutal fact of their candidates’ poor performances in last week’s mid-term elections, “fixing” the problem will take more than post-election tinkering.
Sure, there were major problems affecting the outcomes of last week’s results that were unique to this cycle – foremost among them, the quality of several Republican Senate candidates, and the barrage of early votes by Democrats – but there are far more consequential problems facing the GOP.
Even accounting for such problems as candidate quality, uneven funding, and questionable polling, the failure of the Republican Party to develop and communicate a coherent and positive message to the electorate stands as a major shortcoming now and moving forward. History shows it need not be that way.
In the 1994 mid-term election, the White House occupant was the widely unpopular President Bill Clinton. The House of Representatives had been under Democrat control for 40 years. The stage was set for change. To take advantage of that momentum, then-Minority Whip (and future Speaker) Newt Gingrich broke with Republican tradition, and articulated a substantive, specific, and positive message to the electorate.
The 1994 Contract With America did not mention, much less attack Bill Clinton, though he was vulnerable to such charges. That would have been the politically easier course.
Instead, the Contract listed ten pieces of legislation the GOP promised to bring to the floor of the House for a vote within the first 100 days of being awarded a majority. Importantly, it did not overpromise. The widely publicized document promised only what we could guarantee. It worked.
By running on a program of specific, positive issues — each of which was in accord with basic, widely accepted principles of the Republican Party and a majority of voters – the field of GOP challengers broke the mold of generic, feel-good campaign talking points and presented to the voters an actual agenda. The voters responded by giving the Republicans their first House majority in four decades.
Contrast that experience with the less-than-inspirational Commitment to America presented publicly to the electorate in late September 2022 by the current Republican leadership. The document articulated “themes” that could provide an election agenda for the GOP in any year — 2022, 2024, 1994, or whenever. Such “evergreen” ideas have a place in a political Party’s agenda, perhaps as a convention platform, but as a vehicle with which to win a hard-fought mid-term election, unsurprisingly it proved virtually worthless.
The GOP’s Commitment reflects a problem beyond a missed opportunity. It suggests that the Party remains unsure of itself, has become overly dependent on polling rather than substance, and fails to understand the contemporary American electorate.
Poll after poll taken in the weeks leading to November 8th showed the electorate in a sour mood and a country led by a highly unpopular president. Apparently deciding that these polls provided a roadmap for victory, the GOP message became simply, “Biden and the Democrats are bad, so vote for us.” By implication, it deferred the details until after the voters would give Republicans majorities in both houses. Voters declined the invitation.
The results – a net loss of at least one Senate seat, and a far slimmer House majority than polling “promised” – speaks volumes about whether it is better to present voters with a positive, substantive plan or a campaign devoid of real substance but long on negativity.
Unfortunately, the GOP has been presented with this lesson in the not-distant past, but has failed to learn it.
Beyond the lack of a coherent, consistent message, the Party seems not to have yet grasped that the American electorate has changed dramatically over recent cycles. Gone are the days when we could count on an informed and morally cognizant majority of voters. Today, a majority of voters in all age groups, some by nearly 75%, consider abortion a “right” to be protected by law. A majority of voters support the “right” to health care. At the same time, Americans are increasingly ignorant about our country and its history.
Threading that needle takes more than well-worn talking points.
The Republican Party had best do a far better job than in the recent past of presenting a coherent platform to voters if it hopes to achieve better results in 2024 and beyond.