Mark Shields: William Faulkner and the Republican future

By Mark Shields

Republicans who have not won a majority of the vote in a U.S. presidential election since 1988 and who have lost the nation’s popular vote in five of the last six presidential elections would do well to read and heed the wisdom of William Faulkner, who gave us in “Requiem for a Nun” the timeless line: “The past is never dead. It’s not even past.”

True, not all the 2012 numbers were bad for the GOP. Even though Barack Obama became the only presidential candidate since Gen. Dwight David Eisenhower to win a majority of the nation’s popular votes in successive elections and even though Democratic House candidates nationally won 1.4 million more votes than did the Republicans, who lost a net of eight House seats, the GOP still held on to its House majority by a comfortable 234-201 margin.

And if history is a semi-reliable guide, then 2014 ought to be a pretty good year for Republicans. Why? Because of what politicians call the “six-year itch,” which teaches us that after either party has won the White House in consecutive elections, that “in” party, in the judgment of respected political analyst Charlie Cook, “tends to lose energy and focus. Party leaders run out of ideas (and) … voters tend to grow weary and to look for
something different.”

In support of his thesis, Cook points out that since World War II, “the party of a re-elected president has lost an average of 29 House seats and six Senate seats.”

Democrats respond that the one exception to the six-year itch rule was in 1998, in the middle of Republicans’ attempts to impeach re-elected Democratic President Bill Clinton, when, partly due to voters’ rejection of what they saw as GOP overreach and partly because of superior candidate recruitment by the Democrats, the Democrats actually gained five House seats. Optimistic Democrats now insist that there is similar ideological overreach by today’s House GOP majority.

Here’s where the past ought to make Republicans nervous. In the five presidential elections between 1968 and 1992, the national Democrats were a lot less competitive than Republicans have been in the last 25 years. In those five elections (one of which in 1976 Jimmy Carter won), Democratic presidential nominees — having been chosen by a primary electorate where organized, liberal interest groups exercised a veto power — carried a grand total of just 41 states, while losing 209. Twice the Democratic nominee carried only one state and the District of Columbia. In those five elections, the GOP presidential nominee won an average of 42 states and a thumping 83 percent of the electoral votes.

At the beginning of that period, voters self-identified as Democrats over Republicans by a margin of two to one. By the end of that GOP dominance of the presidential contests in 1992, the Democrats’ advantage over the Republicans in voter support had shrunk to low single digits.

During that entire 24-year span when their national tickets were being routed, however, Democrats, who continued to hold a House majority from a high of 292 seats to a low of 242, became convinced that their “lock” on the U.S. House was unassailable. Until suddenly in 1994, it wasn’t.

Now conservatives in the Republican Party are flexing their muscles by laying down non-negotiable demands on issues from gay rights to immigration where the nation has already moved considerably beyond them. Today the House Republican majority — which is the “face” of the national Republican Party — with its reflexive opposition to all the president proposes and to what the Senate passes, reflects the deep hostility of American conservatives toward the Obama presidency and change.

The “six-year itch” and the self-interested drawing of “safe” House districts for their candidates offer comfort to the GOP. But an angry, obstructionist, unwelcoming Republican Party whose White House nominee must pass narrow litmus tests imposed by the right is a formula for electoral disaster. Just ask the Democrats.

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