It's tempting to explain Republicans' resounding victory in last night's midterm elections simply as a rebuke of liberal overreach and an outcry for conservative governance.
Barack Obama and his Democratic allies in Congress were swept into power on an abstract message of change, yet they took their victories as a mandate to aggressively impose their liberal vision on America. Having been reminded what liberalism looks like, the American people delivered a major thumpin' to Democrats.
While that storyline may help explain part of what happened last night, it risks being short-sighted. Lest we forget that after 2004, when President Bush was reelected and Republicans gained seats, there was talk of a permanent GOP majority and of a need for Democrats to move back to the center if they had any hope of remaining relevant. Instead, Democrats moved to the left, and over the course of the next two elections, took back Congress and the White House, even attaining a filibuster-proof 60-vote majority in the Senate.
At the start of Obama's term, he had a 67 percent approval rating, and pundits warned that Republicans would confine themselves to political oblivion if they pursued a policy of obstructionism. Yet this election season, Democrats who voted with their party leadership were massacred at the polls, while Republican candidates nationwide confidently touted their opposition to the Obama agenda.
The American public didn't go from being socialists to Reaganite conservatives in the past two years, any more than their ideology radically transformed from 2004 to 2006. The lesson of recent elections, thus, may not be that the American people are right of center, or left of center, or dead center, but that many of them aren't terribly ideological. This means that political power is ephemeral. No matter how popular one party is, they could be only one election away from embarrassing defeat. No matter how badly one party is defeated, they could be on the verge of a historic comeback. In this environment, reports of the demise of any political party, at any time, are likely to be greatly exaggerated.
One reaction to this reality is to argue that a political party should enact as many of its policy goals as they can while in charge. While Obama’s presidency is shaping up to be a spectacular failure from a political perspective, he may view it as a smashing success from a liberal ideological point of view. Instead of squandering Democrats' time in power by playing small ball, he went bold.
His efforts culminated with the passage of a national health care law, which has been a primary goal of American liberalism for decades. Even if Republicans ultimately succeed in repealing it (which remains an uphill battle), they will have expended so much political capital to do so that it will inhibit their ability to advance conservative policies.
So what does this mean for the incoming Republican majority in the House, especially if eventually joined by a Republican Senate and president? When Republicans controlled the House from 1995 to 2007 (and the presidency for six years of that time) they failed to live up to conservative principles. The GOP will have to decide whether they will act boldly and truly attempt to rein in government while they have the chance, or play it safe. In this sense, the true test of the Tea Party movement will be whether it can successfully pressure Republicans to actually govern as conservatives once in power.
Republicans were defeated in 2006 and 2008 because Americans felt that the country was being mismanaged. And in 2010, Democrats had to explain their vote for an $862 billion economic stimulus package to the American people at a time of near double-digit unemployment. The lesson any party should take from recent election cycles is that voters will brutally punish poor governance, regardless of ideology.
Yet as fleeting as political power may be, it can be extended if voters believe those in charge know what they’re doing. Heading into 2012, conservatives will have a lot of debates over which presidential candidate is the best to challenge President Obama. But the chief question they should be asking themselves is which candidate, if elected, would actually be the best at being president. Or else, even if Republicans capture the presidency in 2012 and complete their dramatic comeback, they’ll be sowing the seeds of their next landslide defeat.