WASHINGTON -- Graciously conceding as vice president in 1980, Walter Mondale spoke of voters wielding "their staggering power." This year's energized electorate did that, thereby proving, among other things, that bad governance is good for turnout, a fact that should give pause to people who think high rates of voting are unambiguous indicators of civic health.
In 2000, George W. Bush won 11 million (29 percent) more votes than Bob Dole won in 1996; in 2004, Bush won 11.6 million (23 percent) more than in 2000. This year the Republican surge receded. It is difficult running against Washington while one's party controls the presidency. And given that the morning news on Election Day was that October car sales and manufacturing activity were at their lowest levels in nearly 20 years, the evening news was unsurprising.
Although John McCain's loss was not as numerically stunning as the 1964 defeat of Barry Goldwater, who won 16 fewer states and 122 fewer electoral votes than McCain seems to have won as of this writing, Tuesday's trouncing was more dispiriting for conservatives. Goldwater's loss was constructive; it invigorated his party by reorienting it ideologically. McCain's loss was sterile, containing no seeds of intellectual rebirth.
Goldwater's candidacy closed an argument that had roiled Republicans since 1912, when party liberals deserted President William Howard Taft and supported the third-party candidacy of former President Theodore Roosevelt. Woodrow Wilson won; Taft finished third. Thereafter, liberal and conservative Republicans coexisted uneasily, with conservatives confined to the congressional wing. Three times they failed to nominate for president "Mr. Republican," Ohio Sen. Robert Taft, son of the capsized president.
In 1980, Republicans at last offered (in Goldwater's words) "a choice, not an echo." Goldwater's nomination 16 years earlier had been a leading indicator -- and one cause -- of the country's ideological sorting out. Today, conservative Democrats and liberal Republicans are comparably scarce.
As this is being written, Republicans seem to have lost a total of 55 House and 11 Senate seats in the last two elections. These are the worst Republican results in consecutive elections since the Depression-era elections of 1930 and 1932 (153 and 22), which presaged exile from the presidency until 1953. If, as seems likely at this writing, in January congressional Republicans have 177 representatives and 44 senators, they will be weaker than at any time since after the 1976 elections, when they were outnumbered in the House 292-143 and the Senate 61-38.