"I mean, it would be one thing if they had kind of gone away and gone off into the desert," President Obama said recently about the Republican Party. "They could have meditated and thought about, boy, how did we screw up so bad?" In his remarks, at a campaign rally in Nevada, the president got things half right. In the normal course of politics, after a party has its clock cleaned as badly as Republicans did in 2008, the losers go off to recover -- off to the desert -- while the winners go on to govern. For the defeated, regaining the political momentum can take years.
Normally, we should be in the early stages of that process. Instead, it appears that Republicans are about to retake one, and perhaps both, houses of Congress. The normal cycle of defeat and renewal has been speeded up considerably.
Why? Because Democrats have been screwing up faster than Republicans can recover. The GOP might not be fully ready to govern, but voters are increasingly convinced that Democrats don't deserve to. The Democrats' willful defiance of the public's wishes on Obamacare, on federal spending and on other government-expanding initiatives has changed voters' priorities. In the urgency of the moment, throwing Democrats out is more important than determining whether Republicans are fully ready to take control.
That's why the so-called generic ballot question -- whether voters prefer a Democratic or a Republican representative in Congress -- has shifted so dramatically in the GOP's direction since the spring of 2009, even as the public remains skeptical about Republicans.
For the GOP, the strategy now is to be contrite over past errors while projecting confidence for the future. "When Republicans were in charge of Congress, we made our fair share of mistakes," House Minority Leader John Boehner said as he unveiled the GOP's "Pledge to America" on Sept. 23. "I think we've demonstrated over the last 20 months that Republicans have heard the American people."
When it comes to mea culpas, the GOP has shown a lot of message discipline. "We've learned our lesson," says Boehner. "We've learned our lesson," says House Republican Conference chairman Mike Pence. "We've learned our lesson," says House GOP Whip Eric Cantor.
Of course, doubting voters hear that and think, well, what else could they say? That they haven't learned anything and will pick up right where they left off? This year, Republicans know that if voters give them control of Congress, it will be a gift that could be taken away very quickly if they don't live up to their promises.
"Boehner has said that we have to prove to people that we are who we say we are, that people rightly want to see us standing on principle, not just hear us saying it," says a top GOP Hill aide. "When you look at the fact that all House Republicans voted against the stimulus, that all Republicans voted against the Democrats' fiscally irresponsible budget twice in 2009, when nearly every Republican voted against cap and trade, and when everyone voted against Obamacare, we sent a clear message that we were listening to the people and once again standing on principle. That may not be enough to prove to everyone that we've truly learned our lesson, but it's certainly a good start."
As they try to redeem themselves, Republicans are not just fighting their own record. They're also fighting a tendency among some in the GOP to remember the recent past as worse then it really was. Yes, Republican leaders lost touch with principles of fiscal responsibility in the Bush years. But the spending that so upset the GOP base simply doesn't compare to what Democrats have done in the past two years.
Go back and look at the numbers. According to the Office of Management and Budget, George W. Bush's first deficit -- after a burst tech bubble, 9/11, and Bush's own tax cuts -- was $158 billion in 2002. It climbed to $378 billion in 2003, and then to $413 billion in 2004. But then the deficits began to fall, hitting a low of $161 billion in 2007 -- a figure that would be a rounding error in today's huge shortfalls.
In 2008, of course, the bottom fell out of the economy and deficits shot up. GOP critics who decried a $161 billion deficit are now seeing $1.3 trillion deficits. If the polls are right, Republicans will soon get a chance to fix that. They'd better be ready.