The most important thing about great defeats is the lessons you learn from them. And the nice thing about political defeats is that there are always plenty of people around to tell you what these lessons are. At the risk of adding to the already formidable volume of such advice, here are a few observations Republicans should keep in mind after Tuesday's defeat at the polls.
There are three essential rules of political success, all of which the Republicans either ignored or rendered themselves incapable of following:
Rule #1: Say what you're going to do: In the case of the Republican Party in the 2006 election, their lack of any coherent agenda left voters with only two things on their minds: Iraq and political corruption, neither of which they seemed too crazy about. In other words, Republicans didn't say what they were going to do, so voters cast their votes on the basis of something else, in this case, what others said they were going to do (i.e., the same old thing).
Rule #2: Do what you said you were going to do: The modern Republican Party is the party of Newt Gingrich. Gingrich brought the Republicans to prominence in Washington on the basis of a principled and clearly articulated agenda: The Contract with America. The Republicans were going to make government smaller, less intrusive, and more responsive to the voters. There was also the implicit understanding that values issues would receive the attention they deserved. As long as they stuck to this agenda, they succeeded. But two things happened that undermined the success of the party. The first was the fall of Gingrich. The second was the rise of Karl Rove.
Unlike Gingrich, who, though personally unpopular, understood the importance of principles in political strategy, Rove was pure Machiavellian. Rove calculated that if the Republicans co-opted the Democrats on two issues, education and health care, they could deprive the Democrats of a political agenda. The Gingrichless Republicans went along with the strategy. They passed the "No Child Left Behind Act" which dramatically expanded the role of the federal government in education, and they passed Medicare drug legislation that created another huge federal entitlement program. And although these actions did deprive the Democrats of an agenda, they went against the very principles on which the Republicans had been elected in the first place.
For the last half of their twelve-year reign, Republicans have been talking like Ronald Reagan and acting like Lyndon Johnson. Republicans need to learn that if they act like Democrats, they are likely to be replaced by them.
Rule #3: Clearly articulate how you did what you said you were going to do: Thanks to Karl Rove's strategy, the Republicans neutered the Democratic agenda, but, in the process, they neutered themselves. They rendered themselves incapable of telling voters that they had done anything they said they were going to do. This left voters in a position of having nothing to vote on except the War and political corruption, about which neither party had anything particularly compelling to say.
Karl Rove mistook good political strategy for good politics. Hopefully, he knows better now.
And this brings us to Rule #4: When disenchanted voters have no particular reason to vote for either party, they will vote for change: There comes a point when voters begin to think that the Devil they don't know might possibly be better than the Devil they do know. We could also call this the "What the heck" rule in politics. Neither party is particularly compelling, but all you know is you don't like how things are going, so, what the heck, let's try the other guys for while.
Today, the great national conservative governing coalition forged by Ronald Reagan and fashioned by Newt Gingrich lies in ruins. The party that once enjoyed a unified front of fiscal and social conservatives is dispirited, leaderless, and bereft of an agenda.
As the national Republican Party uses its time in the wilderness to ponder what went wrong, it needs to consider what it was that made it successful in the first place.