Democrats get way too giddy about immediate gains and take their eyes off the ball, while Republicans excel at playing the long game. Overused sports metaphors aside, that has been the conventional wisdom because there’s a lot of truth in it.
Want proof? After Barack Obama’s historic 2008 presidential win, it was Republicans who ignored predictions of a “blue” future. They went to work. While Sen. Mitch McConnell did not ultimately succeed in his wish to make Obama a “one-term president” in 2012, he and his party delivered a 2010 midterm “shellacking” — to use Obama’s own word — that won control of the House and gained seats in the Senate.
In 2014, the GOP won that Senate majority McConnell craved, and the country still lives with the result — a solid conservative block on the Supreme Court, one that overturned Roe v. Wade and seems intent on rolling back voting rights and other signature issues claimed by today’s Democrats.
Few who watched McConnell's block-and-delay strategy, one that shaped that court, would argue with his coaching skill and foresight. But after last week’s anemic midterm GOP showing, the wisdom of Republican guile and “Democrats in disarray” is looking a lot less conventional.
It’s Democrats who are being credited with thinking ahead.
So, was the blue team taking notes, or did Republicans get a little too cocky? Why did some of those best-laid plans backfire?
After the results of the midterms, the partnership with Donald Trump, who refuses to go away, has not aged well. He did win the presidency in 2016, but Republicans ignored a lot that was in plain sight — things like competence and character.
Sen. Lindsey Graham, Republican from South Carolina, was all in when he asked and answered his own question in an appearance on Fox News in 2021: “Can we move forward without President Trump? The answer is no.” He added, “I’ve determined we can’t grow without him.”
But remember, this was the same guy who tweeted in 2016: “If we nominate Trump, we will get destroyed.......and we will deserve it.”
He knew better. So did Kevin McCarthy.
The definition of a nanosecond is the time it took for the House minority leader to segue from condemning Trump’s complicity in the Jan. 6, 2021, attack on the Capitol to a humiliating pilgrimage to Mar-a-Lago to kiss the ring.
McCarthy is now on the verge of finally fulfilling his dream of leading a House majority, and the prospect of herding his contentious crew may make that dream a nightmare. If he had sought advice from former GOP speakers John Boehner and Paul Ryan, McCarthy might have stiffened his spine and kept Trump at arm’s length. But those short-term gains were too tempting to ignore.
McConnell’s pre-midterm laments about “candidate quality” hint that even the master planner, who thought he could both use and control the former president, might be having some second thoughts. He survived a leadership challenge from Florida Sen. Rick Scott.
In the weeks before the midterms, the media paid way too much attention to the GOP flooding the zone with polls, meant to excite fans and demoralize the opposition, I suspect. But so did Republicans trapped in their own echo chamber, one devoid of solutions but chock-full of conspiracy theories, election deniers and jokes at the expense of the husband of Speaker Nancy Pelosi as he recovered from a brutal attack.
Did they not see there might be a few lines too indecent or unbelievable to cross?
In the meantime, it was Democrats who foresaw that voters could care about more than one issue at the same time (it’s the economy and abortion rights and democracy), who predicted that women might not easily forget the Supreme Court’s Dobbs decision striking down Roe v. Wade, who appealed to young people who might not answer a poll-taker but who might care about climate change, gun reform and criminal justice reform.
Young voters are still an underrepresented percentage of the electorate, and in some areas they trended toward Republicans. But they made a difference for Democrats in college towns and swing states. And that student debt relief package proposed by President Joe Biden, something he was criticized for promoting, may have been one incentive.
While many pundits, including some in his own party, thought Biden naive for leaning into the survival of democracy as a topic worthy of speeches, it appears that making a final pitch to the head, heart and conscience of a nation actually worked.
You have to give him credit for seeing something many did not, for engaging in aspiration appeals many dismissed as too amorphous to capture the attention of bored and cynical citizens.
It would not be the first time Biden has been underestimated.
It is unfortunately true that grievance, a driving force for elections past, still attracts a sizable percentage of Americans who want to return to a nonexistent past, to a time when glory meant ignoring and oppressing others, thus the Make America Great Again refrain.
Razor-thin midterm margins reveal a still polarized nation.
But Democrats’ belief that Americans would choose policy solutions and a calmer political playing field instead of chaos held — at least in this election cycle.
Speaking of the past, Trump, awash in criminal investigations, has announced he is again running for president in 2024, ready to drag the Republican Party along with him. Knowing who and what Trump is and has always been, odds are pretty good he will always put himself, not his party, front and center.
Admittedly, the former president changed the GOP, remade it in his own image, and, even in this past week, had some successes in Ohio, Wisconsin and elsewhere. You can never count him out.
But Republicans must be wondering if hitching their star and their future to such an unpredictable and uncontrollable force, if emphasizing culture wars, if elevating fear and suspicion, were wise choices if the goal is building a bigger and better GOP.
Have they dropped the ball?
Mary C. Curtis has worked at The New York Times, The Baltimore Sun, The Charlotte Observer, as national correspondent for Politics Daily, and is a senior facilitator with The OpEd Project. She is host of the CQ Roll Call “Equal Time with Mary C. Curtis” podcast. Follow her on Twitter @mcurtisnc3.