Tracing GOP Turnabout

NYT's Harwood forgets history in analyzing the right's declining fortunes

In today’s New York Times, John Harwood writes a most curious synopsis of the past four years of American politics. The GOP, he says, went from the verge of a permanent majority to the precipice of political irrelevance. “How did such a turnabout happen so fast?” he asks. Though he acknowledges some room for historical events—Hurricane Katrina first and foremost—he finds his primary answer in demography, which shows younger voters trending left and Western voters opening up to Democrats.

Harwood makes some excellent points about the unstable nature of American political coalitions, but the historical narrative he uses to make them is laughable. Let’s look at historical opinion data. It is true that congressional Republicans gained ground in 2004, but George W. Bush only narrowly eked out a victory over Democrat John Kerry. And he returned to office with an approval rating of just 50 percent, the lowest of any second-term president in modern history. He did not win on the merits of some broad-based political vision that could provide the foundation of a permanent majority. The GOP’s 2004 victory was due to outmaneuvering Democrats on the party’s one advantage—national security. And this victory contained the seeds of its current economy-driven collapse.

In a 2004 Pew Research Center poll that asked voters which candidate held a leadership advantage on eight issues—terrorism, the situation in Iraq, foreign policy, morality, the economy, education, jobs, and health care—Bush had a statistically significant advantage over Kerry on exactly one: terrorism. Kerry beat Bush on all four economic issues, and tied him on morality and the two other national security indicators. Kerry had a seven-point advantage on the economy in the week before the election and a sixteen-point advantage on health care.

But even as Kerry gained on issues, he lost ground in the polls, largely because Bush walloped him on measures of personal strength and steadfastness. Only 28 percent of voters said Kerry was a “strong leader” in the last weeks of September 2004, as opposed to 54 percent who described Bush that way. National security was just as important as the economy to voters in 2004; today, the economy is much more important to voters than any national security issue. Barack Obama also fares much better in a personality match-up with John McCain.

The late summer and early fall of 2005—after Hurricane Katrina and a deterioration of the Iraq situation—was unquestionably a turning point for President Bush and his party. By October, his approval rating had fallen to 39 percent, with 58 percent of Americans disapproving of his job performance. But, in the spring of that year, a majority of Americans had already begun to disapprove of his performance. This can largely be attributed to the fact that he spent the first few months of his second term trying to privatize Social Security, an economic proposal that Americans overwhelmingly rejected. And the Pew Research Center found that Bush was broadly out of step with the public’s agenda even before he had been reinaugurated.

President Bush’s economic vision was already undercutting his popularity before Katrina and Iraq dealt it a blow from which it could not recover. And congressional Republicans helped tarnish the GOP brand through a wave of scandals, involving names like Jack Abramoff, Duke Cunningham, Tom DeLay, and—perhaps most devastating—Mark Foley. Though the GOP’s electoral fortunes have dramatically reversed, the party is not, as Harwood suggests, experiencing a sudden fall from grace. Rather, the GOP retained power by using a narrow tactical advantage, allowing it to ignore its fundamental disconnect with Americans on economic issues. And even a party in power can only ignore voters’ concerns for so long.

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Lester Feder is a freelance reporter based in Washington, D.C., and a research scientist at George Washington University School of Public Health.