As they seek to revive their political fortunes in the wake of last year’s disastrous election, Republicans risk a dangerous misunderstanding: Since Democrats did well last November and Republicans generally didn’t, some on the right have concluded that the Democrats must be onto some secret formula for success in an altered political environment, and that the task for Republicans is to find elements of their opponents’ agenda or style they can comfortably co-opt or uncomfortably accept.
There is precedent for such a response to political troubles. In the late 1980s, a group of centrist Democrats concluded that their party had to adopt the essentials of Ronald Reagan’s economic vision if it was to appeal to voters again, and their efforts ultimately bore fruit with Bill Clinton’s election.
But the analogy to that era understates both the challenge the GOP now faces and the opportunity it confronts. The fact is that the public is not much happier with the Democrats than with the Republicans, and that neither party has offered a compelling policy agenda for addressing America’s challenges in this era of stagnation and uncertainty.
The president’s approval rating now hovers around the share of the vote that Mitt Romney won in November, and congressional Democrats receive approval ratings in the low 30s. It would be odd to look to a party the public barely tolerates for guidance on how to appeal to voters. And the 2012 campaign offers cautionary lessons but few constructive insights. The president effectively combined cynical attacks on his opponent’s character with microtargeted pandering to various slivers of the population, but he offered no agenda for addressing the public’s deep concerns. The Republicans, meanwhile, sought to benefit from his failure to allay those concerns, but they did not offer their own path to allaying them.