Right wing pundits and politicos moaning about this year’s election need to snap out of it muy pronto and get to work devising victories for the future.
Though you could never guess it from all the breast-beating and teeth-gnashing, the conservative/Republican cause has been much further down than this, only to come back quickly in decisive fashion. Of course, most of the people now wailing that all is lost weren’t around back then, and apparently haven’t studied the comeback with any care, and thus have no clue as to how it happened. So a few comparative data may be helpful.
Media Bias Huge
Considering the negatives faced by the GOP in this election, the party by historical standards did better than might have been expected. The list of adverse factors was huge: The housing crisis and its spin-offs, the steepest stock market plunge since the depression, the unpopularity of the Bush White House, a protracted foreign war, the vast spending advantage enjoyed by Barack Obama, rampant voter fraud on behalf of the Democratic Party, and the worst outbreak of media bias seen in many decades.
Add to the above the dithering of Bush officials who had no idea of what to say about the economic crisis (much less what to do about it), the seemingly impossible GOP feat of actually losing the tax issue to the Democrats, and a Republican presidential campaign most charitably described as feckless. Given all of which, the Republican wipeout should have been total. But, rather amazingly, it wasn’t.
While no political defeat should be minimized, the outcome this year in many respects was remarkably close — closer than logic suggested it would be and certainly nothing resembling a landslide. One need only compare the vote totals to what happened in the catastrophic GOP year of 1964 to see the difference. That was a landslide. But it also happened to be a watershed election that started the Republican Party on the road to majority status.
To crunch just a few of the pertinent numbers: In this year’s voting, Obama won 28 states with 365 electoral votes to 22 states with 173 electors for John McCain. Compare this with what happened in ‘64, when Lyndon Johnson won 44 states with 486 electoral votes to Barry Goldwater’s six states and 52 electors. That’s what a real landslide looks like, and it bears little resemblance to this election.
Likewise for other indices of support for the two major parties: 61 percent of the popular vote for Johnson in ‘64, vs. 38.5 percent for Goldwater. In this year’s balloting — though not all results are to date official — the totals are 52.6 percent for Obama, vs. 46.1 percent for McCain. Substantial, but hardly by historical benchmarks or political standards of the present anything approaching a landslide.
In Congress, the results are much the same. Great alarm is being voiced, and rightly so, about the prospect of Senate Democrats, achieving a filibuster-proof majority, and depending on some undecided races that could happen. At this writing, there are 56 Democrats in the upper chamber, with two Democrat-caucusing independents (Sanders of Vermont and Lieberman of Connecticut), and 40 GOPers, with two races undecided. That’s not good, but a far cry from what occurred in the debacle of ‘64.
After that election, there were no fewer than 68 Democrats in the Senate, and only 32 Republicans to oppose them. The figures in the House were in the same proportion: A huge Democratic contingent of 295 members, vs.140 Republican solons. The House line-ups today, as of the latest count, are 253 Democrats against 175 for the GOP. So across the board everything was worse for Republicans back then than it is today, and by a large margin.
But does it matter? Is it really important to know that the defeat suffered by the GOP this year is less severe than that inflicted on the party four decades past? The answer is that it is indeed important, as all the lamentations now being heard about the demise of the GOP, the end of the conservative cause, and all the rest of it were also being heard back then, from some of the same media sources.
Fairly typical was the comment of James Reston of The New York Times — infallible indicator of liberal error — on the day following the ‘64 election: “Barry Goldwater not only lost the presidential election yesterday but the conservative cause as well. He has wrecked his party for a long time to come and is not even likely to control the wreckage.” Similar comments from others in the press corps — and within the GOP itself — could be cited in profusion.
In obedience to such notions, we were told that the future of the Republican Party lay with “big-government” types like Nelson Rockefeller and John Lindsay of New York, that conservative GOPers and their issues were done for, and that the party needed to trend leftward if it wanted to survive and prosper. All of which, of course, was exactly wrong — both as a prescription for the GOP and as an augury for the political future. And what was wrong back then is equally wrong for today’s Republican Party — even coming from self-styled conservatives.
Ignore Liberal Preaching
In which respect, we need only note that two years after Reston & Co. pronounced the complete downfall of the party, the GOP won 47 new seats in the House, and two years after that Richard Nixon was elected President (despite 10 million votes being cast for the third-party candidacy of George C. Wallace). Even more to the point, it was precisely in those years that Ronald Reagan emerged as a major Republican figure — first as governor of California and thereafter as a presidential hopeful. All these developments followed from the Goldwater campaign of ‘64 that supposedly destroyed the party.
Obviously, there are many things different now from the way they were all those years ago — a different set of national and global problems, a different species of leaders (no Goldwaters or Reagans on the horizon), different political techniques, population changes, and so on. And conservatives and GOPers are going to face a host of serious challenges — including efforts to silence rightward media voices (though this too is a throwback to the ’60s).
The point of these historical notes isn’t simply to recall what happened but to remember why, and to learn the lessons to be derived for the Republican Party. The most significant lesson by far is that conservatives and Republicans shouldn’t let the New York Times or other liberal media outlets do their thinking for them. These gentry will always say conservatism is over and done with whenever they can possibly do so, and thus indulge in the self-fulfilling prophecy that demoralizes rightward candidates and voters.
Had such counsel been heeded back in the day, Ronald Reagan would never have been governor of California in the ’60s and ‘70s or elected President in 1980. In fact, every single argument now being made about the need to “moderate” or liberalize the GOP was thrown at Reagan personally when he set out to run for office. Fortunately, Reagan, and a lot of other people, ignored those media advices.
As to demoralization in the present day, the self-fulfilling prophecy worked very nicely for Obama and the Democrats in suppressing Republican turnout in this election. As the downturn of GOP voters compared to 2004 suggests, this was mainly accomplished by innumerable national polls and press accounts predicting an Obama landslide, discouraging to Republican voters.
McCain Lowered GOP Turnout
As these returns suggest also, rather than benefiting from his “centrist” image, McCain’s all-over-the-lot campaigning and eccentric political history helped to lower the Republican turnout. In which respect, we need only note that votes for third-party candidate Bob Barr, a former Republican congressman of conservative bent, were the difference between defeat and victory for McCain in such crucial states as Indiana and North Carolina. (Don’t recall reading that in any post-election wrap-ups, but maybe I just missed it.)
Noteworthy also is that referenda on same-sex marriage in California and elsewhere went in the conservative direction even as citizens of these states were turning thumbs down on McCain and voting for the unknown quantity Obama. Again the political lessons are apparent today as they were when Ronald Reagan came to the fore and moved on to the White House: The GOP can win by getting back to basics, not by running from them.
A party that can carry 22 states in the negative perfect storm of this year’s voting can win a lot of elections in the future — if it rejects defeatism and ignores the liberal press corps.
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