Third is that as recently as eight years ago Republicans won the White House as well as respectable majorities in the House and Senate. Even at that height, though, they had nothing like the dominance in Congress that Democrats had in the late 1970s, or 1993–94, or 2009–10. The Republican success of 2004 partly reflects the fact that it was the first presidential election following the terrorist attack of September 11, 2001. Even in that good Republican year, though, Republicans went down one Senate seat, net, outside the South (while gaining five in the South).
Republican weakness emerges even more clearly when we look at a longer timescale. From 1896 through 1930, Republicans were the dominant party, holding the White House and Congress most of the time and losing the presidency only when they split, as in 1912 and 1916. The Great Depression made the Democrats into the dominant party until 1968. Only one Republican won the presidency during that period, and under highly unusual circumstances: He had won World War II, the Democrats had held the presidency for five consecutive terms, and the country was beset by inflation, corruption, and an unpopular war in Korea.
The Democrats lost majority status in 1968 — they would lose five of six presidential elections from that year through 1988, and win one by a hair — but Republicans did not gain it. They never held the House and rarely held the Senate during that streak of presidential wins. Why didn’t Republicans become the dominant party then? It wasn’t because of foreign policy: That boosted them during the second half of the Cold War, when the Democrats became the relatively dovish party. That’s a big reason Republicans did better at the presidential than at the congressional level. It wasn’t because of social issues: The hippies and McGovernites helped make Republicans the party of middle-class values.
What they did not do is make the Republicans the party of middle-class economic interests. Most Americans associated the party with big business and the country club, and did not agree with its impulses on the minimum wage, entitlement programs, and other forms of government activism designed to protect ordinary people from cold markets. Americans came to be skeptical of government activism mainly when they thought it was undermining middle-class values (as they thought welfare undermined the work ethic). And even when voters thought Republicans were better managers of the economy in general, they thought the GOP looked out for the rich rather than the common man.
This pattern of voter preferences — favoring the GOP on values and foreign policy, the Democrats on middle-class economics — persisted for a long time. There were always exceptions. On some social issues — for example, stem cells during the George W. Bush presidency — the public sided with the Democrats. On some economic issues, such as taxes during the Reagan presidency, the public sided with Republicans.
The generalization nonetheless holds. Clinton won the White House because of the recession of the early 1990s, of course, but also because the end of the Cold War took foreign policy off the table, badly weakening Republicans, and because he systematically addressed Democratic liabilities on welfare, crime, and other values-laden issues. During the presidential debates of 2004, Bush did well on social-issue questions while being defensive on economic issues. In 2006, when Democrats took Congress, they racked up their biggest margin against a Senate incumbent in Pennsylvania, where they ran a candidate who opposed abortion and same-sex marriage.
For the last 50 years, voters have been alarmed by rapid expansions of government (which goes a long way toward explaining the good Republican years of 1966, 1978, 1980, 1994, and 2010) but also by the prospect of major cuts to government (which goes some way toward explaining 1996 and 2012). In other years, they have held vaguely government-skeptical sentiments while approving most proposals for gradual increases in government assistance (for families paying for college, seniors trying to get prescription drugs, and so on).
After the 2006 and 2008 Democratic blowouts, liberals started to view their victory as the new normal in American politics, the result of inexorable demographic forces. After the 2010 Republican victories, some conservatives began to think that was the new normal. Republicans, they thought, had lost in ’06 and ’08 because of the Iraq War, the financial crisis, Hurricane Katrina, Bush’s big spending, and congressional scandals. Given a straight-up choice between conservatism and liberalism, though, the people would choose the former. The 2012 results give credibility to the liberal interpretation and subtract it from the conservative one. It’s the 2010 election, not the 2008 one, that is starting to look aberrant.