Now before we get into it, let's take a moment to acknowledge why Republicans' spirits seem to be rising lately. It's hard not to get excited, I'll admit, when we see Barack Obama's support collapsing under the weight of his own colossal sense of self-importance. With elections coming up in just a couple of months, Republican candidates Chris Christie and Bob McDonnell seem poised to take back the New Jersey and Virginia governorships, respectively, which could have the same energizing effect on the GOP as Jon Corzine's and Tim Kaine's elections did on Democrats in 2005. And as of yesterday, Republicans now lead Democrats on the generic Congressional ballot by seven points, according to the latest poll release by Rassmussen Reports. After a brief period in the wilderness, Republicans are now being presented with the opportunity to assert themselves once more. Many analysts are now predicting double-digit gains for the GOP in the 2010 Congressional elections, and some optimistic conservatives are even fantasizing about a return to the majority in the House.
Bottom line: it's easy to get excited right now. Things seem to be going well and momentum seems to be on our side. But brace yourself, because here comes the cold water.
Momentum in politics is unpredictable, and popularity lost can almost always be regained if the individual in question knows what he's doing. How many times have we seen a politician defeated, discounted, and discarded, only to triumphantly rise from the ashes and leave us in disbelief? History is rife with examples, including Harry Truman's electoral victory in 1948 and Richard Nixon's stunning comeback in 1968 after six years of irrelevance. Given Americans' fondness for second chances in politics, it would be naive to assume that President Obama's recent decline in popularity reflects a permanent shift in the way people view he and his policies. Furthermore, we would be wise to remember that other first-term presidents have overcome similar trials and tribulations.
Let's not forget that Bill Clinton spent much of his first three years as President with an approval rating below 50%. And while his early troubles did result in the Republican takeover of Congress, the GOP did have a number of factors working in its favor that year beyond Clinton's unpopularity, not the least of which was the rise of a new generation of Reagan-inspired politicians and the emergence of Newt Gingrich as arguably conservatism's most powerful post-Reagan leader. Clinton's decline, coupled with the Republican's readiness to lead as exemplified in the Contract With America plan, resulted in an unprecedented transfer of power from one party to the other during a midterm election.
Additionally, we must remember that following the spike in public support after his shooting, President Reagan's approval ratings declined for nearly a year and a half, bottoming out in early 1983 just before the economic turnaround kicked into high gear. Reagan's unpopularity allowed the Democrats to increase their majority in the House of Representatives, although the Senate remained firmly in Republican hands. Until the end of 1983, many considered Reagan a vulnerable President with little remaining political capital, and it was considered likely that a strong Democratic candidate would throw him out of office in 1984.
Both men were, of course, reelected.
The point is that Barack Obama's current unpopularity is by no means a permanent condition. It is still entirely possible that he will right his ship and sail to victory in 2012. Republicans cannot take for granted that they will have an easy road to Congressional majorities and the White House. They must instead fight with passion and vigor if they intend to truly return to power, and they must do it wisely.
But the Republican Party, as I have argued before, seems to be bereft of the Gingrich-style leader that we need to wage a successful campaign. Furthermore, we have yet to forcefully articulate an alternative view of what path the country should be taking over the next several years. We are running the risk of defining ourselves by opposition, and while it helps to argue against your opponents, it is equally important to be able to argue for yourself. It is imperative that the Republican Party demonstrate to the American voters a clear alternative to Obama's left-wing plan, or else it will be passing up an opportunity to truly knock the young President off-balance and (potentially) out of office. Until the GOP makes the case for itself, any triumphs will be insubstantial and fleeting.