Why the GOP Shouldn't Get Too Confident

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Chip Somodevilla / Getty

Republican National Committee Chairman Michael Steele

Republicans can hardly believe their good fortune. First, Democratic Senator Byron Dorgan of North Dakota announced that he would not run for re-election, giving Republicans a good shot at taking his seat. Then the Democratic governor of Colorado, Bill Ritter, said he was bowing out. Ditto the Democrats' top candidate for governor in Michigan. And all of it happened on the same day.

The Democratic politicians' decisions to step back both reflect and contribute to the party's grim prospects this November. The weak economy and public anxiety about President Obama's agenda are making Democrats think twice about running. But when they don't run, they make the party's predicament worse. (The exception is when Democratic officeholders are in such bad shape that their retirement actually helps the party come up with a stronger candidate. It was good news for Democrats when Connecticut Senator Chris Dodd called it a career on the same day that his fellow Dems bowed out.)

Nobody expects the Republicans to take control of the Senate — they're too far down for that — but most observers expect them to make big gains at all levels, and some Republicans even dream of taking control of the House. GOP strategists are especially interested in picking up governor's mansions and state legislatures: the states will soon be drawing the borders of congressional districts for the next decade's elections, and each party wants them drawn to its advantage.

Still, Republicans shouldn't get carried away. There are 10 months to go before the midterm elections, and the political climate can change a lot in that time. Just ask President Obama: according to Gallup, the proportion of Americans who disapprove of his performance jumped from 26% to 42% over the past 10 months. Here are some ways Democrats could still recover from their current woes and Republicans could make the worst of their current good fortune.

The economy could revive: The Republicans' chief economic message is that unemployment has kept going up since the Democrats' stimulus passed. But a lot of economic indicators are pointing up, and the unemployment rate may have peaked in October. If job growth is robust in 2010, Republicans could end up looking foolish — or, worse, as though they are rooting against the economy.

The Republican Party is still unpopular: Poll after poll shows that the country has moved right on many issues since Obama was elected. But affection for Republicans has not increased in tandem. Gallup shows that 27% of Americans identified as Republicans at the start of 2009 — and 26% did at the end.

Republicans are disorganized: Republicans want nothing so much as a replay of 1994, when they took control of Congress two years into a Democratic presidency. Back then, the party chairman was the formidable Haley Barbour. More than anyone else, he kept the many parts of the GOP — its governors, congressmen, activist groups and business allies — in sync. The current chairman, Michael Steele, is widely seen as a buffoon: a gaffe-prone media hound more interested in collecting speaker fees than in building the party. He does not inspire sufficient confidence to play the coordinating role Barbour once did, and nobody else is in a position to play it.

Republicans have no agenda: Newt Gingrich says that his party's challenge is to go from being an opposition party to an "alternative party." But Republicans have reached no consensus on what to do about the economy. While all of them agree on tax cuts as a slogan, they have no particular legislation in mind. Nor is there any distinctive Republican position on how to regulate the financial industry. Republicans can agree to promote nuclear power, but otherwise have no unified response to global warming. Even on issues where Republicans have come up with alternatives, like health care, the public knows little about them. Republicans still have time to address this deficiency: in the 1994 elections, they waited until September to announce their legislative agenda. But it's not clear that any spadework is being done to prepare for that moment.

The tea parties are not enough: One reason Republicans have not been working on an agenda of their own is that many of them think that they lost power mainly because they increased federal spending and passed bailouts. The success of the tea-party movement — now more popular, by some measures, than either of the parties — makes them think that opposing big government is their ticket back to power. But the movement does not command majority support, and it seems unlikely that Americans will choose a party that stands against big government without also addressing their other concerns.

The better Republicans' prospects become, the more Americans are going to ask whether the party is ready to lead. Chairman Steele recently said that he wasn't sure it was. It was another gaffe; it was also true.