In his latest Bloomberg column, Ramesh Ponnuru agrees with Matt Steinglass below that Republicans decided they lost the 2006 and 2008 elections because they weren’t conservative enough. Ponnuru argues that this is a misreading of the electorate.
To some extent. Certainly, most independents didn’t start voting against George W. Bush’s GOP because Republicans had been spending too much money (though some did). But Republicans in 2006-08 faced a comprehensive problem: their base was dispirited, their opposition energized, and swing voters had swung against them. This combination of factors helps explain John McCain’s choice of Sarah Palin as his running mate.
Republican overspending was a contributor to the base’s disenchantment, even if it wasn’t what was driving Democrats bananas and swing voters away. Why didn’t this show up in the first term, when the overspending was initially taking place and Bush remained popular? Just as winning can paper over a divided locker room in sports, it can play a similar role in a political coalition.
Moreover, many conservatives were willing to give Bush the benefit of the doubt because of the war on terror (9/11 alone is a good reason not to read too much into Bush’s first-term popularity), taxes, and judges. By 2006, with Iraq seeming lost, Katrina having damaged Bush’s reputation for handling a national crisis, and Harriet Miers having been nominated to the Supreme Court, that benefit of the doubt was gone. What had once been quiet grumbling about the Medicare prescription drug benefit turned into vocal criticism.
Something similar is at play with Barack Obama and the progressive left. Liberals weren’t happy when Obama compromised on the Bush tax cuts, let go of the public option, signed off on the Patriot Act, and stayed in Iraq until the Iraqis kicked us out. But criticism was muted until Obama became a political loser in 2010. That doesn’t mean a more left-wing Obama would have avoided a midterm rout. But it might have solved the portion of his political troubles caused by his base being dispirited.