The Impending, Brief Republican Dawn

In terms of the political strategy they are now pursuing, the national Republican Party can accurately be labeled clueless: blind, shrill opposition to a president with deep personal popularity, reliance on a dated government-is-the-enemy philosophy that voters have roundly rejected as deregulatory excesses have sunk the economy, and unblinking and highly public fealty to a bombastic talk show host who is wildly unpopular with voters outside of the G.O.P.’s conservative base.

This is clearly not the formula for a lasting revival of Republican dominance, but it’s also possible that—completely and totally in spite of its strategy—the G.O.P. could be in for a wave of good news at the polls over the next two years. This possibility is rooted in the electorate’s history of rallying behind the opposition party—almost no matter what its public posture—when it grows restless with the governing party, along with specific factors that favor the G.O.P. in some of the marquee races on tap for 2009 and 2010.

Start with the next high-profile election on the docket, the special election at the end of this month to fill Kirsten Gillibrand’s old House seat in New York’s 20th District. There are other special elections for House seats taking place around the country (a primary in Illinois’ overwhelmingly Democratic 5th District, which Rahm Emanuel represented before joining the Obama administration, was held earlier this week), but this is the only one playing out in a politically competitive district, so the national media will treat it as an early referendum on Obama’s presidency – and the G.O.P.’s rehab efforts.

The problem for Democrats is that they’re probably going to lose, since the district, while winnable for them under the right set of circumstances, simply has too many Republican-leaning voters. Gillibrand was able to break through in 2006 thanks to the prevalence of anti-Bush and anti-G.O.P. Congress sentiment, and a similar mood – plus the benefits of incumbency – allowed her to score a second term in 2008.

But now Bush is gone and the G.O.P. has been relegated to an afterthought in Washington. Not surprisingly, there’s already a poll that has Republican Jim Tedisco, the Assembly minority leader, 12 points ahead of the Democratic nominee, venture capitalist Scott Murphy. In the first closely watched election of the Obama era, the Republicans are likely to win, and the posture of their national party will have nothing to do with it (although the resources the national G.O.P. is pouring in will be felt).

After the NY-20 contest (and barring any unexpected special elections that might pop up), the next tests will come this fall in gubernatorial races in New Jersey and Virginia and, to a lesser extent, in the New York mayoral race. The outlook for Democrats in these races ranges from not encouraging to grim.

In New Jersey, the situation for Democrats is deteriorating by the day, with Governor Jon Corzine seeking re-election as his popularity collapses. A new poll this week showed him with a dismal 31 percent approval rating (with 56 percent disapproving) and running nine points behind his probable G.O.P. challenger, former U.S. Attorney Christopher Christie. (That nine-point deficit marks the worst showing for any Democrat in a statewide poll in New Jersey since the doomed re-election campaign of Governor Jim Florio in the early ’90s.)  

Theoretically, Corzine could reverse his plight, but his inability to make a dent in the state’s dysfunctional political culture and his listless style seem to be uniting the electorate against him. In Christie, a moderate with a compelling résumé of corruption prosecutions, the G.O.P. seems to have the ideal vehicle to capitalize on a once-a-decade-or-so chance to break through in what remains a very Democratic state. It’s fair to call Corzine the underdog at this point, but his vulnerability has nothing at all to do with the rhetoric being offered by Republicans in Washington; if Christie does succeed, it will be in spite of his national party’s strategy.

Then there’s Virginia, where political history strongly suggests that the G.O.P. will win back the governorship: Not since 1973 has the state elected a governor from the sitting president’s party. Democrats have made impressive gains in the state this decade, but—as in NY-20—their numbers in ’06 and’08 were inflated by widespread voter frustration with the ruling Republicans, a force that was deactivated with Barack Obama’s inauguration.

Plus, there’s a good chance Democrats will make the G.O.P.’s task even easier by nominating Terry McAuliffe, the mega-fund-raiser and former national Democratic chairman, to run against the presumed Republican candidate, Attorney General Bob McDonnell. McAuliffe’s reputation as Bill and Hillary’s money man figures to make an easy target.  

In New York City, meanwhile, the G.O.P. won’t be able to engineer a victory this fall, but preventing Democrats from reclaiming City Hall, which they last ran under David Dinkins, could still be touted by the national party as a victory of sorts (especially if Michael Bloomberg ends up running on the Republican line).

In other words, the G.O.P. could very plausibly post three outright wins and one moral victory in this year’s highest-profile races—and none of this success will have anything to do with their national leaders’ opposition to Obama or adherence to Limbaugh dogma. But make no mistake, national Republicans would loudly tout this as proof of a revival, and the media would be tempted to join in—countless comparisons to 1993, when Republicans swept all of the major races during Bill Clinton’s first year in a prelude to their 1994 “revolution,” would undoubtedly be made.

And the political news could get even better for them in ’10, provided the economic recovery is sluggish. Obama may have immense popularity and momentum now, but the public’s mood will eventually turn if there aren’t tangible results. Even if Obama’s policy decisions are wise and set the stage for long-term recovery and prosperity, he and his party will almost certainly suffer in next year’s midterms if voters don’t believe the ship has been righted.

Here, a clear parallel can be drawn to 1982, Ronald Reagan’s first midterm election. In his first year, Reagan matched Obama’s popularity and momentum and won enactment of a sweeping economic agenda. But the country plunged into a recession in the fall of 1981 and the unemployment rate crossed 10 percent at the end of September ’82—just as the midterm races were heating up. The president’s popularity dipped and his party lost 26 House seats (and broke even in the Senate races, which was actually bad news, considering that Democrats had been defending far more seats).

No matter how clueless their posture is over the next 18 months, a high unemployment rate and a dismal Dow would probably translate into Republican gains next year. On top of a sweep of this year’s races, that would lead to considerable G.O.P. chest-thumping about the wisdom of their strategy, the revival of conservatism, and the retreat of liberalism. (Democrats made the same claims about their own strategy and philosophy after the ’82 elections.)

Of course, it wouldn’t mean any of that. The country is cheering for Obama to succeed as much as it was pulling for Reagan. When the economy improves (provided it does), he and his party and their philosophy will get the credit. Any Republican success between now and then really won’t mean anything.

“Don’t confuse favorable outcomes with good decisions,” Bobby Cox, the longtime Atlanta Braves manager, once cautioned. It’s advice we should all keep in mind if the G.O.P. goes on a winning streak these next two years.