Vacillating Voters Lean GOP? They'll Like Obama Again in 2012

Voters' inability to make up their minds doesn't make them smart.

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Ross Douthat wonders if Republicans have learned the right lessons from losing in 2006 and 2008 and from the prospect of winning big in 2010.

I think the more interesting question is what, if anything, voters themselves have learned or concluded. Look at voting patterns over the last 20 years, with their regular oscillation between left and right. It's a muddle, at best. 

[See a slideshow of 11 Hot Senate and House Races to Watch This Fall.]

A recession and a broken "No new taxes" pledge, plus an unusually strong third-party insurgency in the form of Ross Perot, gave us the election in 1992 of Bill Clinton.

Two years later, voters said: "We're not thrilled with that." In came the first Republican House majority in 40 years, as well as control of the Senate, which the GOP had enjoyed for a portion of the Reagan administration.

Two years later, voters said, "We're not thrilled with Dole-Gingrich, either," and reelected President Clinton.

Two years later, in an election dominated by the drama of impeachment, voters said, "We're even less thrilled with that," and awarded Democrats with a historically rare pick-up of seats in a midterm contest.

Two years later, voters tilted toward Republicans anew, confident that George W. Bush, a seemingly temperate, can-do executive, was the perfect hedge between overreaching Republicans in Congress and the sordidness of Clinton and Gore.

The September 11 terrorist attacks, war in Afghanistan, and eventual war in Iraq undergirded GOP successes in 2002, when Republicans regained control of the Senate having lost it after the defection of Sen. Jim Jeffords, and in 2004, when President Bush was reelected despite voters preferring Sen. John Kerry on every issue save terrorism.

Two years later ... well, you know. Voters said, "We’re sick of that," and in came Nancy Pelosi and Harry Reid and another "cymbal-crash" (to borrow the late Pat Moynihan's description of the '94 GOP takeover) of a midterm election.

Two years later gave us the election of Barack Obama, who, after 18 months in office, has seen his poll numbers drop precipitously, despite delivering on key campaign promises.

Voters, it need not be repeated, are not thrilled with this, either.

The generous interpretation is that voters subconsciously function like a Keynesian thermostat: ensuring that federal lawmakers are neither too hot nor too cold. George Will has made this argument for years. Americans, he says, actually prefer divided government, which is in keeping with a Madisonian system’s purposefully slow-moving constitutional machinery.

I think I used to believe that. But then I look around: Are voters, who possess astonishingly little civic knowledge, really that canny? Or are elections driven by short-term, what-have-you-done-for-me-lately factors like disposable income and unemployment?

Go ahead and claim a mandate if you want. Chances are, in roughly two years, voters will respond: "We’re not thrilled with that."

  •  See a slideshow of 11 Hot Senate and House Races to Watch This Fall.
  • See a collection of this month's editorial cartoons
  • Follow the money in Congress.