Most of the analysis of the impact of Scott Brown’s upset victory in Massachusetts has naturally revolved around the Democratic Party. Having lost the “Kennedy seat,” in the bluest of blue states, with health care reform legislation (and the ability to overcome Republican filibusters on other legislation) in extreme peril, and already facing a very difficult midterm election environment, what can the Donkey Party and its leaders do to mitigate the damage? Will they pull together or scatter to the four winds? Will vulnerable House members retire, making a Republican takeover in November that much more likely? And is the president in a political freefall that could make him effectively a lame duck between now and the end of 2011, and a sitting duck in his re-election year?
These are all reasonable questions, but it’s also worth asking whether Republicans may be in danger of over-interpreting the Brown win, and refusing to deal with some of their own political problems.
Few vulnerable Democrats this November will run anything like the kind of clumsy and somnolent campaign conducted by Martha Coakley. Few Republican challengers will have the luxury enjoyed by Scott Brown to pose as all things to all people: a “liberal Republican” to some, a nonpartisan to others, and a tea party zealot to the rest. No other venue will give Republicans the opportunity to attack national health care reform by way of defending identical reforms at the state level. And few states will provide GOP candidates with a fat-and-happy state Democratic establishment used to winning with little or no effort (indeed, some states, such as Georgia and South Carolina, have a fat-and-happy Republican establishment with a growing record of corruption and toxic infighting). More fundamentally, the idea that a Republican Senate victory in Massachusetts means the nation is turning “red” makes no more sense that asserting Nebraska or Alaska turned “blue” when they elected Democratic senators in actual general elections without the skewed turnout patterns exhibited in the Bay State’s special election.
But what makes the new over-confidence so dangerous for the GOP goes beyond the enduring facts that the Republican “brand” remains damaged and that congressional Republicans are distrusted by the public even more than congressional Democrats. The rise in the party’s short-term fortunes has occurred even as it has negotiated a rare, post-defeat race-to-the-Right. This trend has been punctuated by scorched-earth tactics in Congress and a virtual witch-hunt for moderate “RINOs” to vilify and defeat in primaries. At some point, and perhaps soon, the “new” Republican Party will have to define itself as something other than a pure opposition party.
This is true in health care policy, where for all the demagogic GOP rhetoric about defending Medicare from Democratic “cuts,” the default conservative policy impulses vary between “you’re-on-your own” encouragement of individual responsibility for health care costs, to such potential political disasters as voucherizing (or in effect, capping and privatizing) Medicare, and eliminating state regulation of private health insurers. But it’s even truer in economic policy, where the rightward trend in the GOP may have enabled conservative pols to attack corporate subsidies and “bailouts,” but also pushes them to oppose any sort of regulation of the financial system. If, as is already happening, the Obama administration and congressional Democrats begin to push for new regulations in the run-up to November, Republicans may have to fatally re-identify themselves with Wall Street at the worst possible time. Jonathan Chait’s profile on the economic thinking of Republican megastar Marco Rubio of Florida suggests some of the juicy attack lines Democrats could soon enjoy.
There’s also the whole question of turnout in November. What’s been fueling Democratic pessimism about the 2010 elections all along has been the understanding that older white voters—one of Obama’s weakest demographic groups in 2008—usually turn out at relatively high levels in midterm elections, while younger voters—and sometimes minority voters—usually don’t. There’s nothing quite like an Armageddon-like national political atmosphere, with Republican extremism fully on display, to boost overall turnout.
Looking beyond 2010, Republicans have a real problem with their putative presidential field for 2012. It’s easy to say that new “stars” will emerge this November, but it’s extremely unlikely any of them—or for that matter, the flavor-of-the-month, Scott Brown—would be in a position to run for president so soon. That leaves the GOP with some slim pickins: Mitt Romney, whose identification with health reform in Massachusetts is a potentially disqualifying problem; Mike Huckabee, whom economic conservatives and most conservative talk-show-hosts hate; the less-than-scintillating Tim Pawlenty, who is deeply vulnerable to an early knockout blow in his next-door-state of Iowa; and of course, Sarah Palin.
While Democrats have some very big problems, it’s no time for irrational exuberance among Republicans. They’ve got problems, too, and at the moment, appear far less willing to deal with them.