Voters are set to punish Democrats next Tuesday. In 2006 and 2008, the American electorate punished Republicans, for just the opposite reason.
The Republican Party is looking to emerge from this November with one of the largest midterm election victories in the last century. Scott Rasmussen estimates that the GOP is going to gain 55 House seats. Jay Cost of Real Clear Politics contends that it could be 61 seats picked up. Even Charlie Cook says that the Republicans could gain at least 40 seats. All of these scenarios would lead to a new Speaker of the House starting this January. Many excuses and accusations will follow in the wake of the November midterm election. Democrats will blame everything and anyone but themselves, reciting a familiar list of reasons why the populace did not vote for them: racism against our first African-American president, Sarah Palin's Facebook page, George Bush's recession, Tea Party "extremism," xenophobia, the Party of No, Rush Limbaugh, the Ground Zero Mosque, Jan Brewer, the Chamber of Commerce, Dick Cheney, secret money influencing our campaigns, a bad economy making Americans irrational and distrustful of science, and, of course, Fox News. These anticipated reactions would imply that the election results of November 2010 (should the Republicans fulfill the expectations) are simply the symptoms of traditional reactionary politics against the party in power. This year's election, however, is far more momentous than just the regular ebb and flow of American politics, swinging back from the blowouts by the Democrats in 2006 and 2008. In 2006, corruption by Republican incumbents directly propelled Democrats into power. The Mark Foley scandal that hit the newspapers just weeks before the 2006 midterms served as the straw that broke the camel's back after Republicans fumbled the response to Hurricane Katrina, neglected opportunities to stand up to attacks against their policy in Iraq, and increased spending and the size of the government. The new Speaker of the House proved the importance of the last of these issues when she promised to end deficit spending at the beginning of her term.
What makes 2010 different from 2006 (or 2008)? In the two previous elections, the American public sent the Republicans home because they veered away from their core principles. In 2010, however, Democrats are going to be punished for following and implementing their truly fundamental beliefs about economics and the role of government in the lives of ordinary Americans.
How do we know this? President Obama and the Democrats have chosen not to center this campaign on legislative accomplishments, largely because they do not want this election to be a debate about their beliefs. This is why the president has continued to blame George Bush for the nation's stuttering economic recovery, used race-baiting to call Republicans the enemies of American Latinos, and fabricated accusations about foreign money influencing our campaigns in attacks against the Chamber of Commerce. In their desperate efforts to change the narrative of the 2010 campaign, Democrats have attempted to shift the blame in order to ignore the real significance of a large electoral defeat. The massive victories in the prior elections -- including the Democrats' selection of one of the most liberal members of Congress as Speaker and the most liberal senator as president -- have given the American public a clear sense of the Democratic Party's vision for the nation's future. Having a huge House majority, a filibuster-proof majority in the Senate, and a popular new president in the White House allowed Democrats to pass every major piece of legislation without any input from the minority party. Despite his rhetoric to the contrary, Republicans had no way of stopping, or even shaping, President Obama's agenda in 2009. By purposely keeping conservatives out of writing new law, Democrats ensured that no Republicans could lay claim to liberal policy decisions they expected the electorate to widely support. As miscalculations by Democratic leaders about their electoral mandate eroded their public approval, some liberals blamed President Obama for not being liberal enough. In claiming that President Obama's failures stem from his cowardice in enacting a "progressive" agenda, what they really have attempted to do is to convince their fellow compatriots, and possibly even themselves, that their agenda enjoys moderate support. Arguing that President Obama did not go far enough to the left allows the truest believers to maintain the stance that they aren't outliers hanging on the outskirts of American politics, despite evidence to the contrary. For instance, Americans are aware of President Obama's stance on a single-payer health care system and the consequences of voting more Democrats into power. Whether or not the Left realizes it, this midterm election is a referendum on modern liberalism and the policies of a Democratic Party controlled by Barack Obama, Nancy Pelosi, and Harry Reid. One significant piece of evidence that this election's results will gauge the acceptance of liberal governance is the ironic fact that Republicans still poll unfavorably. Rather than a standoff between two competing sets of ideas, November 2010 will display acceptance or rejection of the one vision that has been in complete control of the federal legislation during that the last two years. An election victory provides the Republican Party a chance very rarely offered in American politics. Because this election is about the rejection of liberalism, Republicans should act accordingly by offering something new instead of a tempered version of Democratic policies. Just as Democrats used large gains in 1930 to shape American politics for the sixty to seventy years that followed, Republicans must take the chance given to them by the 2010 election to shape public policy for decades to come -- by promoting a cogent alternative vision to the old liberal ideas still rooted in a pre-World War II mentality.
The Republican Party came into existence because Americans in the 1850s needed an alternative to two established political parties -- the Whigs and the Democrats -- that had become indistinguishable from each other on important issues. The Republicans flourished again in the 1980s, when a conservative president argued that an alternative to the status quo of liberal "big government" was possible. Now, with a Republican victory as a referendum on and rejection of President Obama's policies, the same opportunity to change the direction of the country exists once again.
Conservatives within the Republican Party need to promote new ideas that advocate American individualism as a way to strengthen the country as a whole. Instead of working to make the policies of President Obama more palatable to an electorate that has rejected them or trying to make failing government programs more acceptable to a nation that seeks an alternative, Republicans should offer a set of ideals centered on the belief that Americans themselves act as the best decision-makers on issues pertaining to their lives and foster programs that create opportunities for choice in education, health care, and planning for their financial future.
Carl Paulus is a Ph.D. candidate in history at Rice University and studies racism and politics in the 19th-century U.S.