The Republican Party and President Bush must be congratulated for a stunning victory in the Congressional midterm election. Not only did they overcome the normal historical pattern, whereby the party in the White House loses Congressional seats in a midterm election; they did it in the middle of a recession. Voters appear not to have blamed the Bush administration for corporate scandals, increased unemployment and trillion-dollar losses in the stock market, let alone our vulnerability to terrorist attack.
Over the past three decades there has been a fundamental change in public perceptions of the two parties. Rightly or wrongly, Republicans are now seen as the party that can assert American power and win wars—the cold war, wars in the Persian Gulf, Afghanistan, Grenada and Panama. The Democrats have been branded as losers ever since Vietnam and Iran. They did not receive any credit for subduing Serbia.
The Republicans have also become identified as the party of the white middle class, the group to which most Americans outside inner cities claim allegiance. Democrats have been successfully branded as the party of blacks, gays, feminists and people who would rather sponge off the government than work for a living. It is no longer seen as the party of Catholics and Jews. As more and more people have in fact joined the middle class, they see government not as an institution that helps and protects them but as a bully who demands a big bite out of their paychecks and gives nothing in return. “Liberal” has become synonymous with decadence, weakness and fuzzy thinking. Conservatism stands for efficiency and family values. Compassionate conservatism is preferable to soft-headed liberalism.
Political pundits blame the Democrats for not offering a coherent message. House Democrats in liberal districts savaged the president, while House and Senate Democrats in conservative regions supported the president’s tax cuts and resolution on Iraq. But this is nothing new for the Democratic Party, which has always been composed of liberals and conservatives with irreconcilable differences, who agreed only on the right of their party to govern.
When the Democrats did control Congress, it was always an uneasy alliance of Northern and Southern Democrats. Even then, most controversial votes were won by the conservative coalition—Republicans and Southern Democrats voting together. In fact, liberals have not controlled the Congress since the mid-60’s, when President Lyndon Johnson was able to push through the Great Society programs. The difference today is that Southern Democrats—outside of black districts—have become an endangered species. The conservative coalition of the past is now the Republican Party.
For the next two years, the Republicans will control the White House and both houses of Congress. What is this party to do now that it is in power and can no longer blame liberal Democrats for the problems that face the country?
High on the Republican agenda are more tax cuts, which investors hope will help restore the losses they suffered in the market. Will the economy come back or will we have a double-dip recession? Does the administration have a plan to restore confidence in corporate America? Will conservatives, who prefer that the government be the lapdog rather than the watchdog of corporate interests, be willing to take on corporate malfeasance?
That more tax cuts will mean cutting programs for the poor does not seem to matter to many people. But at the rate tax cuts are being proposed, it is difficult to see how military spending and other Republican priorities can be funded without deficit spending. What about school vouchers? Will they be sacrificed to investment tax credits? Republicans, like Democrats, tend to promise the impossible.
The president now has a free hand to deal with terrorism and Saddam Hussein. Will America be a safer place in two years or will we simply have more enemies? Will we become more isolated, or can we build broad-based alliances?
And finally, there is the pro-life agenda. So far, conservative welfare reforms have increased abortions among the poor by forcing them to have abortions because they cannot feed more mouths on the same low pittance. President Reagan and the first President Bush promised much to the pro-life community but delivered very little. The Republicans now have the votes; will they deliver, or will they once again put the pro-life agenda on the back burner while they push their tax cuts and military programs? Will a pro-business Supreme Court justice be more important to them than a pro-life justice?
The Republicans have shown that they know how to win power; now they must show that they know how to use it responsibly.