The Republicans Played a Masterful Long Game For 40 Years. Their Short Game Is Horrendous.
In 2020, the country that likes to think of itself as the greatest democracy in human history is led by a President who lost the popular vote. In the Senate, Republicans control 53% of the votes but they represent 48% of the population. This President who was rejected by a significant majority of Americans has now personally chosen more than a quarter of all the judges in all the federal courts in the country. And before the country votes for its next President, the nine-member Supreme Court will have five judges nominated by presidents who came to power legally by losing the popular vote.
It’s not only that. The Republicans themselves are firmly controlled by the most conservative members of their party, whose views are shared by as little as 20% of the entire country. But today they wield the vast majority of American political power — the far-right tail that wags the dog.
For decades, conservatives in America have seen the writing on the wall. The country is becoming more urban, more diverse, more educated and more liberal. The trends were there in the ’70s, obvious to anyone watching. In the 32 years since George H.W. Bush was elected in 1988, only one Republican presidential candidate has won a majority of the popular vote — and that was for his second term, after he was elected to his first term by a minority. In that time, voter registration in America has gone from 30% Republican to 25% Republican, while Democratic registration has stayed mostly steady in the low 30s. People who leave the Republican Party are not being replaced by new voters, while the Democrats keep finding ways to refresh their numbers. The Democratic advantage in registered voters is now so commanding that Republicans would have long since given up control of every branch of the federal government, if they hadn’t made a long-term plan to game the system in their favor.
We have a tendency to accept the political reality we live in as the only way things ever could have been. If we don’t like it, we work to change it, but we rarely think about how it could have been different. But the truth is that Republicans worked hard to make things the way they are now. While the Democrats were focused on one election at a time, Republicans were finding ways to ensure their own success 10 and 20 and 30 years down the road. They actually earned the hugely disproportionate share of political power they currently wield. And Democrats have no one but themselves to blame for the fact that they didn’t do anything to stop it.
For instance, white evangelical Christians didn’t have to end up as the most reliable Republican voting bloc. In the early ’70s, they weren’t. They were highly unreliable voters altogether. The Republicans put in work to earn the evangelical vote, by scheming behind closed doors to set up abortion as a wedge issue. And it worked better than they ever could have imagined.
It’s almost impossible to believe now, but the Southern Baptist Convention actually passed three resolutions between 1971 and 1976 affirming a woman’s right to a legal abortion. Evangelical Protestants mainly saw abortion as a Catholic issue, until Republicans led by Paul Weyrich and Jerry Falwell redefined it for them.
White evangelicals acted as a lifeline for the GOP, by ending Carter’s presidency early and paving the way for 12 years of Republicans in the White House. In that time they regrouped and embarked on a decades-long effort to put more Republicans and conservatives in state legislatures across the country. And that gave them the power to amplify conservative votes through gerrymandering, while suppressing liberal votes through voter intimidation, restrictive voting laws, disenfranchisement, selective manipulation of polling places, and pretty much anything else they could get away with.
The 2018 congressional elections were a historic beatdown for Republicans. They lost 41 seats and unified control of the government. But it should have been much worse. In Ohio, North Carolina and Wisconsin, Republicans didn’t lose any seats, despite close popular vote counts in all three states. They kept 12 out of 16 seats in Ohio, despite only winning the popular vote 52% to 47%. They kept 10 out of 13 seats in North Carolina, despite only winning the popular vote 50% to 48%. They kept a 5–3 majority in Wisconsin, despite losing the popular vote 45% to 53%.
But although those midterms showed on the one hand how successful the GOP’s long game has been in the past two generations, on the other hand they also showed equally how disastrous the GOP’s short game has been since Trump assumed office. And the party is about to make all the same mistakes again this fall.
Why did the Republicans lose so badly in the midterms? It wasn’t only in Congress. They lost hundreds of seats in state legislatures, and suffered a net loss of seven governorships. After 2016 they had complete control of 32 state legislatures, while the Democrats had complete control of 14. Since the 2018 midterms it’s been 30–19.
It had a lot to do with voters being fed up with Trump, clearly. But the Republicans took that disaffection and supercharged it by seating Brett Kavanaugh on the Supreme Court only a few weeks before the election. They thought it would energize their voters — but it only increased the turnout for the Democrats. Somehow the entire party did not realize that a huge reason Trump won in 2016 was that they waited until after the election to confirm a nominee. The promise of a new Supreme Court justice was what motivated their voters to come out. But when they seated Kavanaugh before the midterms, conservative voters had already gotten what they wanted. There was no more reason for them to turn out. On the other hand, the Democrats were angry and mobilized, and they came out in hordes.
In early 2018, the electoral map looked so bad for Democrats that Republicans were fantasizing about a 60-seat supermajority in the Senate, to add to their unified control of the federal government. Instead the Democrats held them to only two pickups in the Senate, and the Democrats took back control of the House, bringing the Republicans’ whole legislative agenda to a sudden stop. A crushing, humiliating loss, only weeks after Republicans had delivered decisively on their constituents’ absolute top wish list priority: a second conservative Supreme Court justice in Trump’s first term.
Here’s what Republicans don’t understand about the short game. Voters do not reward politicians for good behavior. They only punish politicians for broken promises. Voters feel thoroughly entitled to everything that a politician does for them. From a voter’s perspective, once a politician is elected, everything that politician does in office counts toward returning the favor that has already been extended. Politicians don’t store up goodwill with voters, to be cashed in when the next election comes around. They can only pay back the initial debt that was incurred when they were elected.
How do you marry for money? By withholding sex until after the wedding. By confirming Brett Kavanaugh before the midterms, Republicans gave it up on the first date. They’re about to make the same mistake again with Amy Coney Barrett. Once again, they won’t be getting a call back from their voters.
On the other hand, Democrats are wild with rage over the Republicans’ unrepentant hypocrisy, and they’re now highly motivated to take all the extreme measures that virtually no one was ready to take before now. And they’ll have bigger majorities in Congress to take them with. There will be at least one Republican senator and maybe two who will be defeated in November because of this confirmation, when otherwise they would have won. Lindsey Graham will likely be the first. Joni Ernst might have lost anyway, but she’s a goner if Trump seats another justice. Susan Collins was on her way out, but she’s signing her own death warrant with her support for Barrett.
It’s not just the angry Democrats coming out to vote. It’s also the scared moderates. A lot of women who have never felt a reason to be political before are suddenly paying very close attention, because of the threat to abortion rights. They could easily end up being the deciding factor in states like North Carolina and Pennsylvania where the margin is expected to be extremely tight.
What exactly do Republicans think they’ll get out of that third justice in a lame duck session? Could there possibly be any outcome worth selling their Senate majority — not to mention giving up on the presidency itself?
Do they think they’ll abolish Obamacare, in the case that comes before the court on November 10th? They might get a decision; they might not. But they won’t get rid of Obamacare either way. The Democrats are looking at a unified government in January. There won’t be anything stopping them from abolishing the filibuster and passing the same law again. By the time Republicans can appeal to the Supreme Court, they may not have a majority any longer. Even before the Barrett confirmation hearings begin, many Democrats are already talking about packing the Court with Biden appointees. If Barrett is seated within days of the election and then the Court strikes down Obamacare in a lame-duck session, how many Democrats will still be inclined to hold out on general principles?
The Republicans have now spent the better part of four years purposely stirring a hornet’s nest, just for the fun of it. Congratulations to them, they managed to own the libs. But in that same time they’ve gone a long way toward undoing four decades’ worth of ceaseless and untiring work, in every community across the country. And when that work is finally undone, when the new Democratic majorities have passed anti-corruption laws and voters’ rights laws, when they’ve redrawn congressional districts based on the 2020 census figures, the Republicans may find themselves doomed to a generation or more in the minority. Not even all the white Christians in the world will be able to save them a second time.