With elections looming in November, Republicans are counting on President Barack Obama’s unpopularity to deliver them control of the Senate. They’re not running on an agenda, refusing even in broad outline to say how they would reform the tax code or replace Obama’s health-care law.
Some conservatives are unhappy about that. National Review complained in an editorial that this approach “will not maximize the Republican opportunity, because it does nothing to dispel the public’s justifiable doubts about whether Republican rule would be good for the country.”
This strategy is essentially the same one the party followed in 1998. That year, Republicans broke a long historical pattern – in which the party that doesn’t hold the White House tends to make gains in the middle of a president’s second term – by actually losing seats. That was the year of the Monica Lewinsky scandal. Conventional wisdom holds that Republicans ran on a platform of removing President Bill Clinton from office and lost because the public hated the idea.
That isn’t exactly what happened. Voters did indeed want Clinton to remain in the presidency. Yet Republicans knew that: 66 percent of the public in a Gallup survey that October said they approved of the job he was doing. Republicans also knew that 68 percent of respondents told Pew the same month that they didn’t like Clinton “personally.” So they ran ads saying that voting Republican would punish Clinton and keep him in check, but they didn’t promise to remove him from office.
Even so, Republicans didn’t run on any agenda of their own in 1998, just as they’re not running on one today. Their campaign message was: If you don’t like the president, vote for us. It didn’t work. Democrats got voters to the polls to defend the president while the Republicans’ message didn’t resonate. Republicans had hoped to pick up 25 House seats that year. They ended up losing five.
Some Republicans argue that they’re better off not running on an agenda this year, too. They think it’s the height of political wisdom not to interfere with an opponent who is self-destructing. These people always raise the 2006 elections to illustrate their point. They say that a purely oppositional message won a congressional landslide for Democrats that year. In fact, the Democrats did run on an agenda, including money for stem-cell research, tax hikes on “Big Oil” and a higher minimum wage. Democrats were also more popular back then than Republicans are today.
Of course, the 1998 parallel I’ve been drawing has its limits. Obama has a much lower job-approval rating than Clinton did. The risk Republicans are running isn’t that they'll lose seats. It’s that they'll blow their opportunity, failing to win all the seats they could and failing to set themselves up to become a governing party in 2016.
Ramesh Ponnuru, a Bloomberg View columnist, is a senior editor for National Review, where he has covered national politics for 18 years, a visiting fellow at the American Enterprise Institute and a resident fellow at the University of Chicago’s Institute of Politics.