Mark Shields: The trap of becoming only a Congressional party

Mark Shields

Mark Shields

In five of the past six presidential elections, the Republican Party has lost the nation’s popular vote to the Democrats. In those same six presidential contests, 18 states and the District of Columbia, totaling among them 242 electoral votes (you need only 270 to win the White House), have voted every time for the Democratic ticket. This, even our good friends at Fox News would concede, is not good news for the Grand Old Party.

But wait. After the most recent national election, in November 2014, there were actually more Republicans — 247 — elected to the 435-seat U.S. House of Representatives than at any time since Herbert Hoover’s landslide victory over Al Smith, some 86 years earlier. With those kinds of numbers, Republicans will be accepting congratulations, not condolences.

Now would be the appropriate time to quote the American philosopher George Santayana, who wrote, “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.” In 1980, the Democrats were the House majority party, holding 243 seats. But in the presidential elections of 1980, 1984 and 1988, the three Democratic nominees — President Jimmy Carter, former Vice President Walter Mondale and Massachusetts Gov. Michael Dukakis — collectively carried a grand total of just 17 states. In those three elections, the Republicans won 1,440 electoral votes to the Democrats’ 173.

Even in the face of three consecutive presidential pastings, House Democrats still managed to increase their majority, from 243 seats to 262. The problem, for the Democrats then and for the Republicans now, is that instead of a national party with a coherent and consistent message on the economy and national security issues, the House majority turns into a collective wish list for its most important interest groups and, to discourage primary challenges to its own House members, the congressional party, by frequently pandering to the ideological activists on its side of the aisle, makes the national party appear even more out of step with most of the nation’s voters.

The GOP’s problems are compounded by the fact that it has become a regional party. Since the passage of the historic Civil Rights Act of 1964, the South — the most culturally conservative and religiously observant area in the country, which continues to turn more culturally liberal and secular — has become the GOP’s indispensable home office. In 1964, there were from the 11 states of the old Confederacy just 10 Republicans in the U.S. House. Today from those same 11 states, there are 102 House Republicans, without whom there would be no Republican majority in the House.

Even though Barack Obama won the White House by 9.5 million votes over John McCain in 2008 and even though John Kerry, four years earlier, lost by 3 million votes to George W. Bush, Kerry got a much higher percentage of white Southern votes than did Obama, whose higher percentage of white voters outside the South enabled him to carry Iowa, Colorado and New Hampshire. In more than a few Southern counties, 9 in 10 whites voted for Mitt Romney over Obama in 2012. Southern whites are almost as monolithic in their voting for Republicans as African-American voters are for Democrats.

Unyielding opposition from Southern Republicans to even voting on the Senate-passed immigration reform bill and House Speaker John Boehner’s unwillingness to challenge this powerful group are the reason that this fractious issue is central to the current GOP presidential nomination fight and why the party faces even more hostility from Latino voters. There’s a real political downside, as Republicans are learning, to being a legislative — and a regional — party.


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