Me, I hate even-year Novembers. I’ve worked on just one congressional campaign, in 1998, and while I personally had a grand time in southern California, I learned immediately that I’m not drawn to politics as bloodsport. I abhor the hollow rhetoric of stump speeches. I can’t stand talking points written to resonate with low-information voters with the reading comprehension level of fifth graders. And I hate the empty evasiveness of candidate debates.
When it comes to politics, I’m far more interested in January and beyond. To put it more precisely, I’m interested in how Republicans will govern if, as it now seems likely, they assume control of the House and possibly the Senate.
At first, on the morning after, temperament is key. Hubris is the ever-lurking snake in the grass.
Let’s take a ride into the not-so-wayback machine. The scene: President George W. Bush’s first press conference after winning re-election in November 2004. With a full night’s sleep, the president was evidently refreshed, and understandably jubilant.
Asked if he felt “free” to pursue an agenda without another campaign on the horizon, Bush said: “Let me put it to you this way: I earned capital in the campaign, political campaign, and now I intend to spend it.” Also, in a half-joking response to a verbose White House reporter, Bush said: “Now that I’ve got the will of the people at my back, I’m going to start enforcing the one-question rule.”
A wind, of sorts, arrived less than a year later—Hurricane Katrina. The president was never able to recover politically. His agenda—most notably an effort to reform Social Security through partial privatization—had evaporated even before a disastrous 2006 on the battlefield of Iraq.
Recall, too, the hubris-intoxicated candidate Obama, in a June 2008 speech after his nomination became all but certain, predicting that future generations would come to look on his election as the “moment when the rise of the oceans began to slow and our planet began to heal.”
I bring up these rhetorical nuggets to make a simple point about a different kind of climate change: Politicians in both parties must always be prepared for rapid fluctuations in public mood.
As my bio indicates, I’m a man of the right. Sure, I may be utterly unmoved by the Glenn Beck-Sarah Palin populist outrage, and I’m perhaps more sensitive to the mess Democrats inherited than is the norm among Republicans—but I remain convinced that Republicans are the only party capable of imposing the kind of sacrifices that will be necessary for the country to regain its fiscal footing.
Here are a few simple things the GOP can do next year to avoid the pitfalls of 1995 and 2005.
1. Forget 2010. Everything about this year is a tantalizing fiction: Voters haven’t suddenly gotten religion, as it were. They’re as ideologically motley as they were in 2006 and 2008. They’re mad about unemployment, worried about changes to their healthcare, and feel like the stimulus was wasted. None of this means they’ve become amenable to scorched-earth economic libertarianism.
2. Err on the side of the status quo. It sounds counterintuitive now, but even now, in these dark times, it’s a core strength of pragmatic conservatism. Just by virtue of Republicans winning in November, the markets will rally. Uncertainty will ease, and confidence may begin to recover.
3. Don’t shut down the government. Whispers of a repeat of the Newt Gingrich-Bill Clinton showdown of 1995 strike me as surpassingly insane. Obama won on a promise of competence. Voters do not prefer rough ideological edges today any more than they did then. They want the federal government to work for them, not to grind to a halt. The Beck-Palin Kool-Aid here is as good as poison.
To give a brief example, the GOP’s Alaska Senate candidate, Joe Miller, is peddling a recipe for sure disaster. According to the Washington Post, he apparently believes earmark spending and the solvency of Social Security are problems of equal magnitude. This is like comparing a bathtub boat to an aircraft carrier. If Sen. Miller wants to take transportation pork away from Alaskans, he’ll find out very quickly what I mean.
4. Make a deal to temporarily extend Bush tax cuts. Even the president’s former budget chief, Peter Orszag, is hip to this now. In fact, it’s simple Keynesian logic: Don’t raise taxes when the economy is weak.
5. Dial back the cultural angst. If unemployment recedes, mosques, Muslims, and Mexicans are going to seem considerably less menacing than they might today. Remember: Ronald Reagan's appealing slogan was not "Midnight in America."
The goal for Republicans, above all, should be to work with Obama to restore stability to the economy. If they behave like responsible grownups, they may, by 2012, be in a position to make a case that they’re the ones who are best suited to tackle large-looming problems like entitlement bankruptcy.