How do Republicans react when they lose at the polls? This is a question that Democrats should ponder as they nurse the painful wounds inflicted by the Massachusetts special Senate election. Based on the history of the past decade or so, the answer is simple and instructive: While the Republican Party may indulge in backbiting and recrimination and occasionally purge a leader to punish a loss, they don’t back down -- even when standing fast seems very costly.
Perhaps the most outstanding example in recent memory was the 1998 midterm election, held just four weeks after the House Republicans had voted almost unanimously for a highly partisan impeachment resolution against President Clinton. Contrary to the hopes of the GOP leadership, the predictions of mainstream analysts and the usual historical trends, voters then repudiated the Republicans, increasing the number of Democrats in the House by five seats. It was the first time in more than 60 years that the party of an incumbent president had won a midterm election. Yet the Republicans, unchastened by public opinion that ran strongly against impeachment (and in favor of a censure resolution over Clinton’s extramarital misconduct), proceeded with their crusade to oust the president who had been reelected overwhelmingly in 1996. They didn’t even permit a floor vote on a censure resolution. And although they eventually ousted then-Speaker Newt Gingrich, partially as punishment for the bad midterm result, that had more to do with his personal unpopularity than any real differences over policy or politics. If anything, the congressional Republicans became more ideological and more determined to enforce their will.
Next came the 2000 election, a hotly contested campaign from which the Republicans drew the lesson that whether they actually win a majority of voters or not, they can prevail anyway in a lawsuit -- so long as they control the majority of the Supreme Court justices. Aside from losing the popular vote in the presidential election, by the way, they again lost seats in the House and Senate in November 2000. Did that second consecutive drubbing shame or embarrass them? Did they reconsider their policies, move sharply to the left, abandon long-standing objectives, plead for bipartisan comity? No, of course not. Instead, President Bush and the reduced Republican congressional contingent aggressively pursued the policies they have always supported. Indeed, the most notable aspect of Bush’s first year in office was how smoothly he abandoned the moderate-sounding, "compassionate conservative" rhetoric of his campaign for the agenda of the hard right. And he won early victories on taxes, faith-based funding and other issues, even as his own popularity dwindled before 9/11. Then they crushed the Democrats in 2002 and 2004.
By 2006, Bush’s attempt to dismantle Social Security and the failure to find weapons of mass destruction in Iraq had so eroded his standing that the midterm election turned into a devastating repudiation of his party. That day, Karl Rove’s dream of Republican rule for decades to come ended abruptly. But the behavior and attitudes of the party leadership, including Rove, didn’t change at all. Instead, the consensus of party leaders was that they had "lost their way" by deviating too much from right-wing purity.
Nor did the Republicans feel any need to change following their defeat in 2008, aside from the cosmetic addition of a black party chairman whose main function seems to be embarrassing himself and his fellow Republicans whenever he speaks. Their most popular figure is Sarah Palin, a right-wing crank who was considered unstable and unqualified by the same people who put her on the national ticket. In the aftermath of that debacle, they didn’t even consider cooperating with the new president on any of the issues that had influenced the election (when they lost still more seats in the Senate and the House). Over the past year they have voted in lockstep against him on every issue, from the stimulus to healthcare, in the midst of a national economic emergency, without worrying about sound policy, political consistency or basic honesty (as when many of them "opposed" the Recovery Act and then claimed credit for the projects it funded in their states and districts). Now they believe that they are poised to begin a resurgence next fall -- and not because they have fearfully imitated their opponents or abandoned their policy objectives.
So when Republicans advise Democrats to reconsider and retreat in the face of a single special election, the sensible response should be a question: Is that really what you would do?