2014: A Wave Election or an Earthquake? - The American Spectator | USA News and Politics
2014: A Wave Election or an Earthquake?
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Will the 2014 election be a wave election? Or an earthquake election? And what’s the difference?

It was November, 1922. And the Republican Party had just gotten clobbered in that year’s congressional elections. The Harding-Coolidge administration, elected only two years earlier in a landslide, lost seventy-seven seats in the House and seven in the Senate. In short, the election was a disaster, the GOP the victim of what is frequently called today a “wave” election.

But it was a wave, not an earthquake. Waves can hit the beach with tremendous force — but they quickly recede without doing much damage. Not so with earthquakes, which tumble people out of bed, collapse buildings, bridges, highways, and leave an immutable trail of wreckage in their wake. What follows is a massive rebuilding and replacement of what once seemed solid as a rock.

Two years after that wave election, President Harding had died, Calvin Coolidge was in the White House, and the pair’s low-tax “return to normalcy” agenda was wildly popular. The Roaring Twenties were on. So popular was Coolidge that in addition to winning re-election in a 1924 landslide, his tax cutting agenda — which sliced the debt in half — was given a thumbs up. Four years later, his Secretary of Commerce Herbert Hoover would ride the Coolidge popularity to a third GOP presidential landslide in eight years. Put another way, there had been an election earthquake in 1920 — and the 1922 wave of Democrats quickly receded. The Harding-Coolidge “revolution” (to borrow a Reagan-era phrase) stayed firmly in place until 1930, when in earthquake election Democrats won fifty-two House seats and eight Senate seats. Why was the 1930 election an earthquake and not a wave? Because it shattered the Harding-Coolidge majority and political consensus that went with it — a consensus that had been in place for a decade. The Republicans would not be back inside the White House for another twenty-three years.

Stuart Rothenberg of the Rothenberg Report describes a wave election as one in which “one party experiences a net loss of at least 20 House seats and the other party has minimal losses.” An earthquake election actually has a fancier term in the world of politics — a “realignment.” The theory was originally put forward by the late political scientist V.O. Key, with others like Walter Dean Burnham later elaborating on the theme. Burnham’s description of the phenomenon was a “political pattern of long-term inertia punctuated at recurring intervals by short bursts of intense change.” That description fits the 1920 presidential election, which brought an abrupt end to a progressive era that had arrived not with Wilson but Republican Theodore Roosevelt’s ascension to the White House on the death of William McKinley in 1901, a full nineteen years earlier. The earthquake was signaled by the GOP sweep in the congressional elections of 1918, in which the Republicans won a net of twenty-five seats and control of the House, as well as six seats in the Senate, likewise regaining control — shocking observers of the day.

Other congressional election years can be seen today as either a wave or earthquake. The GOP gains in 1966 signaled the beginning of a conservative earthquake whose consequences would last in one form or another all the way until the election of Barack Obama in 2008, a full forty-two years and producing five Republican presidencies. So powerful was the shift that both Democratic winners of the White House in that period — Jimmy Carter in 1976 and Bill Clinton in 1992 and 1996 — felt compelled to campaign as conservatives. Carter immediately began governing to the left — and lost forty-four states to Reagan four years later, humiliated. Bill Clinton tried the same trick, “triangulating” until he too was elected. Clinton was promptly rebuked for going left early in the 1994 elections, and so he triangulated once again, engaging with Newt Gingrich and taking conservative stances on welfare reform and other issues. Or in other words, sensing an earthquake, Clinton opted for the wave.

Thus the idea that there is a wave election in the offing for 2014 in truth means little. The real question is whether, if the GOP wins control of the Senate, it might be interpreted as a rattle of the seismic needle indicating an earthquake down the road. Or will this be just another wave election, crashing noisily on the political beach but eventually receding once Hillary or another liberal carries the day two years later? How will this year’s victorious GOP House and Senate position the party for 2016?

Earlier this year there was that much-discussed GOP Senate primary in Mississippi between six-term incumbent Thad Cochran and Tea Party favorite Chris McDaniel. About the same time Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg was in the news for her fury over the Hobby Lobby decision. What was not noted was the symmetry between the two stories. Justice Ginsburg was nominated for the court by President Bill Clinton in 1993 and confirmed by a vote of 96-3 (with one Democrat absent). The three “nay” votes came from conservatives Jesse Helms (N.C.), Bob Smith (N.H.), and Don Nickles (Okla.). One of the 96 senators voting for the liberal Ginsburg? That would be Senator Cochran.

Contrast that to the furious (and successful) fight put up by Democrats to defeat the conservative Robert Bork, or the similar brouhaha over the nomination of the conservative Clarence Thomas, who was confirmed by a 52-48 margin. The Republicans in the Senate folded like a cheap suit when it came time to stand up and battle Ginsburg.

Making the point precisely. Why bother to elect Republicans if they vote like Democrats? If the two years after the wave of 2014 are filled with Republican “compromises” that further the Obama agenda, then there will certainly be no political earthquake in 2016. What will happen — as day follows night — is that the GOP’s conservative base will simply stay home on election day, as they did in 2008 and 2012.

Consider Kansas, a state where Obama got trounced twice, where Politico reports:

The GOP’s political machine is kicking into overdrive to save a Senate seat in Kansas that’s suddenly complicating its path to the majority.

With polls showing Sen. Pat Roberts in serious trouble against independent Greg Orman, top Senate Republicans including Minority Leader Mitch McConnell of Kentucky and Sen. Orrin Hatch of Utah are leaning on big-ticket donors to fill the long-time Kansas senator’s campaign coffers. Sens. Rand Paul (R-Ky.) and John McCain (R-Ariz.) are planning to barnstorm the state on Roberts’ behalf. And in a bid to boost the senator’s sagging poll numbers, the Roberts campaign is planning an ad blitz to cast his long record and seniority in Washington in a more positive light.…

After surviving a closer-than-expected primary fight against radiologist Milton Wolf, the 78-year-old Roberts and his team assumed they would skate to victory in November given the conservative electorate in the deeply red state. Roberts ads hadn’t filled the airwaves since the August primary, and the campaign lacked much of a game plan for the general election — let alone for a competitive race. 

The GOP establishment panicking over re-electing Pat Roberts in red state Kansass is not a sign of an earthquake election — and maybe not even a wave election.

Can this change? Certainly. Nothing has concentrated the minds of the American people in the last few weeks like those videos of the beheadings of American journalists James Foley and Steven Sotloff. And seismic shifts in the political world, as in the real one, can appear seemingly out of nowhere.

What is 2014 to be? We will soon find out. But Republicans should understand that if they wake up the morning after the November election with control of the Senate and the House, it won’t cut it to spend the next two years running the government in the fashion of me-too-Republicanism.

Jeffrey Lord
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Jeffrey Lord, a contributing editor to The American Spectator, is a former aide to Ronald Reagan and Jack Kemp. An author and former CNN commentator, he writes from Pennsylvania at jlpa1@aol.com. His new book, Swamp Wars: Donald Trump and The New American Populism vs. The Old Order, is now out from Bombardier Books.
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