Looking Back at 2006 and 2008

by Ramesh Ponnuru
My Bloomberg View column this week argues that Republicans still don’t have a clear understanding of why they lost power in the elections of 2006 and 2008. Most of them believe that voters were punishing them for being insufficiently conservative, especially on spending. They did spend too much money, but that’s not why voters turned on them. And Republicans’ false understanding of what happened in those elections has led them to make mistakes: “The view that Republicans must avoid accommodation at all costs — that the principal obstacle to achieving conservative policy goals is a lack of spine and not, say, a lack of popular support — made them lose at least two Senate races in 2010. In Colorado and Nevada, conservative primary voters rejected two electable, conventionally conservative candidates because they were considered part of a compromising establishment. If Republicans fall two votes short of repealing Obama’s health-care plan in 2013, the mythology they have created will be part of the reason why.” Karl at Hot Air generously quotes my column but disputes a point I make in the column’s conclusion: that an important cost of the Republicans’ false understanding has been a failure to address their actual political weaknesses. I think he takes me to be saying that if Republicans had merely embraced the right policies, they would not have suffered major losses in 2006 and 2008 and would be in much better political shape today. He then argues that I overestimate the political importance of candidates’ policy positions by overlooking the fact that most voters pay little attention to them. I plead innocent on most of these counts. Having better policies would have helped marginally in 2006 and 2008, but would not have spared the party major losses. (Unless one of those policies had been a more successful Iraq policy in 2003-6.) But while the importance of politically attractive policies in yielding favorable election outcomes should not be overestimated, it should not be underestimated either. Republican tax policy has won a lot of votes in the past, and could do so in the future. But to have a sense of how the party can, consistent with sound principles, improve its electoral performance, you have to have an understanding of recent electoral history that is unclouded by myth.

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