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GOP RIP?; Enter Center

Jacob S. Hacker is professor of political science at Yale Universityand a fellow at the New America Foundation. Paul Pierson isprofessor of political science at the University of California atBerkeley, where he holds the Avice Saint Chair in Public Policy.They are the authors of Off Center: The Republican Revolution andthe Erosion of American Democracy.

Last year, we published a book called Off Center, in which we arguedthat Republicans were governing well to the right of the U.S.electorate--and getting away with it. Americans, we wrote, remainedresolutely centrist and, if anything, had moved slightly leftwardin recent years. But Republicans had managed to translate theirrazor-thin electoral margins into a well-financed political machinethat pushed policy to the right while providing Republicans withwhat we called "backlash insurance"--the capacity to protect GOPincumbents against voter retaliation for their extreme positions.

Backlash insurance had worked so well for so long that manycongressional Republicans seemed to think they were invincible.Talk of a Democratic wave began more than a year ago. YetRepublicans made little effort to move to higher ground. AfterHurricane Katrina, they slammed through a budget that slashedbenefits for the needy then eked out another big tax cut for therich, all the while defending one tarnished incumbent after anotheras scandals began to pile up.

But, while the machine they built was capable of withstanding aCategory Three storm, what hit Republicans this year was more likea Category Five-- mainly thanks to Iraq. And, now that they havelost their majority, Republicans are in even bigger trouble thanthey may realize. That's because many of the gambits they used toobscure how far right they had moved depended on majority control.Savvy use of their narrow House and Senate majorities was how, in a50- 50 nation, Republicans governed as if they had an overwhelmingadvantage--as if they were the American center rather than itsright-most flank. Now that its congressional majority is gone, theGOP's "off-center" positions will be more exposed than ever. And,if Democrats play their cards right, voters will be reminded ofthis every day until election night 2008.

Political pundits fixate on what candidates say and do, butRepublican backlash insurance was mostly about organization. TheRepublican machine--and the tight network of elites who ran it--wasa formidable asset in the GOP's intense competition with the muchless coordinated Democrats. Republican leaders used thisorganizational edge to tightly control political access,constructing a "pay to play" system that mobilized powerfulinterests behind their initiatives while building unprecedented warchests. The leadership's control over the meetings where laws weredrafted and pork was distributed (often with lobbyists sitting in)allowed it to shut out Democrats and gave rank-and-file Republicansstrong incentives to follow marching orders.

Just as important, but much less recognized, tight organizationallowed the GOP to manipulate the legislative process. Billsinimical to Republican interests were kept off the agenda. Anythingallowed a hearing was steered sharply right. The Republicanleadership became adept at using moderate packaging to obscure theradicalism of specific measures. In battles over the Bush taxcuts--overwhelmingly tilted toward the rich--Republicans didn'tjust twist the facts; they wrote the bills so that all the goodiesfor the middle class came up front, while the real budget effectsand big benefits for the rich only came later or were hidden withbudgetary sleight of hand.

Meanwhile, procedural tricks ensured not just that crucial billssqueaked through, but also that GOP "moderates" would have ampleopportunities to posture as mavericks. For example, moderates wouldvote for bipartisan bills that would get rewritten alongultra-conservative lines by a handpicked group of Republicans inHouse-Senate conference committees. (Bills crafted by conferencecommittees can't be amended.) Thus, a reasonable prescription-drugbill backed by Ted Kennedy in the Senate became a give-away to drugand insurance companies larded with money for Health SavingsAccounts in a Republican-controlled conference. VulnerableRepublicans came to specialize in highly publicized displays offaux independence--displays carefully orchestrated to pose no realobstacle to an aggressively conservative agenda.

Of course, if all else failed, Republicans could always drown peskychallengers with eleventh-hour spending. Revealingly, even amid theGOP trainwreck of 2006, Republicans still managed to win most ofthe closest House races, in part because of these potentorganizational weapons.

Yet these weapons weren't nearly as effective in 2006 as they hadbeen in the past. The main reason was Iraq, which effectivelynationalized the election while disrupting Republican control overthe political agenda. Instead of a series of beauty contestsbetween local candidates--which advantage incumbents and play tothe strengths of GOP organization and obfuscation--2006 became anissues-oriented referendum on the president and his allies, adisadvantage Republicans could not fully overcome.

To be sure, the perks of majority control weren't the only thingthat enabled the GOP to win elections despite its steady rightwardmarch. There was an institutional factor at work, too--one that,unfortunately for Democrats, won't disappear with this election:The House and Senate electoral maps give Republicans a substantialadvantage in translating popular votes into congressional seats. In2004, Bush carried nearly six in ten House districts while winningless than 52 percent of the vote--in part because of Republicangerrymandering after the 2000 census. The Senate, meanwhile, isinstitutionally biased toward conservative, rural states, since allstates have two senators regardless of their population. In 2000,Bush lost the popular vote but carried 30 states.

These advantages didn't evaporate in 2006. According to David Mayhewof Yale, the popular-vote swing since 2004 was 5.5 points, whilethe Democrats gained 30 House seats. Compare that with 1994, whenthe Republicans achieved a six- point swing in the popular vote butpicked up 52 seats. The story is similar in the Senate. Assumingsenators represent half their states' residents, the 49 Democratsin the new Senate represent approximately 40 million more Americansthan the 49 Republicans. Put more bluntly, the center of Congress isstill not the center of the U.S. electorate.

Still, the 2006 election shows that the GOP's institutionaladvantages aren't enough to guarantee victory. And, now,Republicans are in serious trouble. Not only is their pay-to-playalliance with K Street in ruins, but they can no longer use theirmajority power to obscure their radicalism.

The conventional view is that the Democrats are the ones who are infor a tough two years, as they try to reconcile their basic liberalinstincts with their unexpected 2006 victories in relativelyconservative regions. But this conclusion--reflective of somemysterious pundit geometry in which the electoral center is alwayshalfway between the two parties--simply misses the extent to whichmiddle-of-the-road voters support the main elements of theDemocratic agenda. Nearly every new Democrat in Congress ran notjust against the war, but against privatization of Social Securityand in support of raising the minimum wage, expanding healthinsurance, and protecting middle-class economic security--even inred states like Virginia and Montana. As long as Democrats stayfocused on these issues, Republicans will remain in a difficultposition.

After all, the GOP took its heaviest losses within its moderateranks. In an even more conservative Republican caucus, there willbe a powerful faction that blames defeat on insufficient clarityand urges a further pull to the right.

Democrats should give this faction the clarity it wants. In pursuingtheir own agenda, they need to put the GOP between the rock of itsintense base and the hard place of swing voters on every keyissue--from basic kitchen-table concerns (like health care andcollege tuition), to reform issues (like reestablishingpay-as-you-go budget rules and ensuring electoral fairness), toless controversial social issues (like stem-cell research).

Majority power also gives Democrats the capacity to ensure theaccountability that was sorely lacking in recent years. High-mindedcommentators fret about a subpoena frenzy, but judicious use ofcongressional oversight and self-policing provides an unmatchedopportunity for Democrats to correct past abuses while remindingvoters of how, and for whom, the GOP majority used the tools ofgovernment authority. Here, too, Democratic control means that whatwas once carefully hidden can be exposed.

For a sense of how this might play out, look no further than RickSantorum. In his voting record, Santorum was actually arun-of-the-mill GOP senator, only moderately to the right of hiscaucus' middle. His distinctiveness came from his willingness torun as who he was, rather than as a fake moderate. The result?Despite spending more than any senator not named Clinton, Santorumlost by a staggering 18 points. One has to go back 26 years to finda Senate incumbent thrown out by a similar margin.

Republicans say they lost because they abandoned their principles.Santorum's plight suggests that embracing those principles won'thelp, either. The GOP is off-center. If Democrats want to retaintheir edge, they need to make that clear over and over again.

By jacob s. hacker and paul pierson