There has been much commentary about the results of the latest Wall Street Journal survey, which revealed that the Republican Party has not been able to gain traction even as President Barack Obama’s numbers continue to fall. Indeed, the survey showed that the party is now slightly less popular than it was on Election Day last year. This is not really as surprising as it sounds, and it fits with well-worn historical patterns of how parties rebuild after devastating defeats.
In sports, general managers tell us that a team has to get really bad before it can become really good. The GOP has had a bad stretch — though the victories in last week’s gubernatorial elections in Virginia and New Jersey were a good start toward a comeback. But challenges remain. We are still a decided minority in Washington, D.C., without control of the White House or Congress. The media attention and spotlight is on the majority, Democrats. The Obama White House and its proposals dominate the debate. Democratic bills are debated in Congress.
The public is looking at what they are offering, and fortunately for us they don’t like what they see. As discussed in the Wall Street Journal’s poll, they are deeply concerned about government-run health care, exploding deficits and higher taxes. That’s why Obama is losing support from the American people.
That doesn’t necessarily translate into support for the GOP — not yet, anyway. The Republican Party has not had the spotlight much in the past 10 months. However, it is not true that Republicans haven’t been offering their own ideas on today’s major issues. The Republican alternative budget bill and stimulus proposals just didn’t receive much attention. When floor debate begins, the GOP leadership will offer a number of bills to address important health care problems, but media attention will be limited. That’s life in the minority.
This same pattern prevailed in 1977-1978 and 1993-1994 when Jimmy Carter and Bill Clinton began having major difficulties with the electorate. In neither case did we see an immediate spike in GOP approval. However, that did not stop us from having very successful years in 1978 and 1994, the latter being when the GOP won the House for the first time in a generation. We were the alternative to a failing president and poor economic policies, and we benefited as the loyal opposition. Today the same dynamic is in place for the GOP to have an excellent year in 2010 — last Tuesday’s results were the first tangible evidence of that.
Whether we can take the next step in 2012 and beyond and become a real alternative to the Obama administration remains to be seen. Our task now is to continue to not only speak out against poor liberal Democratic economic and foreign policies, but also to work even harder to offer constructive alternatives that reflect our historic belief in smaller government, low taxes and maximum opportunities for American families and individuals. Not only does this clarify the thinking of our party, but it also forms the policy and intellectual basis of our new appeal to the American people — whenever the spotlight returns.
Frank Donatelli is chairman of GOPAC, a center for training and electing the next generation of Republican leaders.