Saturday, March 5, 2011

Midterm 2010: Republicans Taking A Page Out Of Nixon's Playbook?

Hey guys, this is another one from my archives that I wrote write before the congressional elections, right before our historic victory in the House of Representatives. I was reading a biography on Nixon at the time, hence the inspiration. 

The party of no. That's the all too familiar label that National Democrats have been using for months to describe their congressional counterparts. Way before the realization that Republicans could take the 39 seats necessary to introduce a Speaker Boehner, Democrats began the narrative in early 2009 that Republicans stood for absolutely nothing and only were concerned with saying no to the then new President's policies. Whether it was healthcare or cap and trade, the Republicans stood united in opposition. With midterms quickly approaching and my own personal judgement that Republicans had really not offered many high profile, viable alternatives to the Obama agenda, I began asking myself as a political analyst the same question I asked my Politics 101 professor last January. I know that there are many other factors such as the viability of individual candidates (cough, cough Sharon Angle), fundraising, national trends, and the economy that will shape the Republicans' political fortunes to a greater extent than the question I pose, but I still had to know: Was this a political strategy that would work in November?
The answer I got back in January was in great contradiction with my political instinct. My professor, pundits on CNN, and New York Times columnists all seemed to speak in unison. The answer was simply no. It wasn't enough. It wasn't effective. Why? Because history has shown more times than not, that a party or a candidate has to have something positive to offer in order to win an election and that raising the negatives of an opponent or simply saying no to the ideas of the party in power did not clinch victory. I wondered though, if there was a distinct example of the opposite dynamic occurring in an election. An example of the apparent Republican Strategy of 2010 or the unfair characterization by the Democrats (however you may see it) resulting in victory came from an unlikely source:  the former president, Richard Nixon. In both his 12th Congressional District Race in 1946 against a five term New Deal Democrat, and his 1950 California Senate Race against Helen Douglas, a wife of a movie star, he was able to win, not by promoting the positives of his candidacy or knowing California issues better than anyone else in each respective race, but by seizing on the extreme anti-Communism mood of Californians at that time. As stated by Robert Dallek in Nixon and Kissinger, " His success had almost nothing to do with interest politics or the economic well-being of Californians....Nixon's appeal rested on his ability to reflect voter fears and principles."
Comparable to the anti-Communist mood of the 1950's and 1960's by measure of intensity (by no means am I equating Democrats with Communists), Americans find ourselves in an anti-Big Government, anti-spending, and anti-deficit mood that is strongly linked, in many voters' minds, with the bad economy. Unfortunately for the Obama White House, the administration is associated with those words that come after the anti-. Democrats may think that pointing out that Republicans are short on new ideas relating to job creation makes sense and will resonate with voters. I ,however, don't agree. No matter the validity of the Democratic attacks against Republicans may be, being successful in politics often is tied to being able to make the voters see you as one of them. For the time being, a majority of the country, or at least the majority of districts and states with elections this year, seem to label Republicans as one of them while President Obama has been relegated the guy with in charge of those anti-American people who is responsible for all that spending and the failed economic policies of late. A pretty bad label for your party's leader to have going into a midterm.
Like I thought almost a year ago, Republicans don't have to make positive arguments or put out new innovative ideas. Saying no to the unpopular Obama agenda may just be enough to secure impressive gains in this year's midterms as long as they are able to follow the Nixon model and accurately reflect voter feeling. Whatever criticisms you may have of Republicans or the Tea Party, they have effectively channeled voters uncertainty and fears (Nixon's winning strategy) with America's current state of affairs by saying no to the Obama agenda, something that conservative and independent voters are growing more and more disenchanted with. And if Republican's are taking a page out of Nixon's playbook in relation to Congressional races, I'd say they are in pretty good shape. As long as the don't follow it to a tee. There was that whole Watergate thing after all....

Update: I do think however that this same strategy fails to work in a presidential election. You have to offer the American a positive vision for this country's future in order to get 50% + 1 to win an election.

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