One of the more amusing aspects in American politics is the rotating sense of triumphalism that both parties go through when they win an election. After Reagan was elected, some Republicans thought this would usher in a permanent Republican majority. They thought that again after 1994 and yet again in 2010 when the Tea Party swept so many of them into power. I don’t usually agree much with Russ Douthat, but he’s right on this:
Liberalism’s majority is real, its demographic base is growing, its opposition is in disarray. The current confidence of liberal pundits is less jaunty than it was after the sweep of 2008, but perhaps more justified. Indeed, it’s quite possible that we’ll look back and see the conservative backlash of 2010 as the new progressive era’s greatest test, a brush with death which it has now successfully survived…
These potential fissures within liberalism won’t matter if the G.O.P. remains as hapless as it is today. And there’s a increasingly popular strain of opinion on the left that holds that Republicans are now structurally incapable of moderation, reform and self-correction — that the grip of ideology is too strong, the demands of the base too intense, the party’s distance of twenty-first America too great. If this view is right, the G.O.P. is almost irrelevant to liberalism’s fortunes, and Obama’s political legacy is really only threatened by “black swan” events like suitcase nukes and 2008-style financial panics.
But just because the G.O.P. looks like it could spend a generation in the wilderness doesn’t meant that it actually will. National parties exist to win national elections, and that incentive alone often suffices to drive changes that the party’s interest groups and ideological enforcers dislike. For every case like the Republicans of the 1930s and the 1940s, the Carter-Mondale-Dukakis Democrats, or the British Tories between John Major and David Cameron, there’s another case where a party that seems to have lost its way completely turns out to be one successful campaign, one appealing nominee or one change of circumstances away from a comeback. In modern G.O.P. history alone, the Goldwater rout was swiftly succeeded by the Nixon realignment, and the various Gingrich-era debacles by the rise of George W. Bush’s “compassionate conservatism.” We are only one presidential term removed from the latter rebranding, and the idea that it cannot happen again (albeit hopefully along somewhat different lines) seems ahistorical and naive. Yes, obviously, the Republican Party might remain a mess for years to come. But liberals who expect that continuing conservative dysfunction will help cement Obama’s legacy are betting on a trend, not counting on a certainty.
Do not mistake a short-term political victory as a permanent shift in partisan fortunes. Remember that only two years ago, the Republicans were crowing about the death of liberalism and the Tea Party movement overturning the entire progressive agenda. Reports of the death of one of the two major parties are always likely to be premature.