Representative Tom Cole (R., Okla.), chair of the National Republican Congressional Committee, made a revealing but little-noticed comment to the New York Times. He said of the presidential race: “I don’t need the nominee to win; I just need him to be competitive enough that we can win behind him in the places that should be ours. I need him to be Gerald Ford.”
Conservative readers may have blanched at that name. But Cole was not talking about Ford’s policies. He was referring to the 1976 election. In the aftermath of their huge losses in the 1974 midterm, Republicans feared for their party’s survival. And early in the 1976 campaign, they appeared to be dinosaurs looking at an incoming asteroid. Ford was heading for a wipe-out that would doom dozens of GOP lawmakers. Yet by Election Day, he had pulled almost even with Carter, enabling House and Senate Republicans to hold their own.
It was the perfect defeat. Its narrowness kept the party from going deeper into the hole, and its aftermath was GOP resurgence.
The out-party had gained seats in every midterm for decades, and the 1978 election followed the pattern. That year’s freshmen not only bolstered the GOP’s ranks but included such extraordinary figures as Newt Gingrich and Dick Cheney. Their activism opened the way for greater gains in 1980 and the Reagan Revolution that followed.
To grasp the value of Ford’s downfall, ponder the alternative: a narrow GOP victory in 1976. The midterm effect would have worked against the Republicans in 1978, shrinking an already small congressional base. As the vice president in 1980, Bob Dole might well have won the presidential nomination instead of Reagan. After three straight GOP terms, the public would have been itchy for change. So there might have been no pickups in the House, no majority in the Senate, and no Reagan Revolution.
The 1992 election was another silver-lining defeat for Republicans. Clinton won a sizable margin in the Electoral College but only 43 percent of the popular vote. Congressional Republicans hung on, actually picking up some House seats. It bears no elaboration here that the events of the next two years led to their 1994 takeover.
Just as a Ford squeaker in 1976 would have probably blocked Reagan, so a Bush victory in 1992 would have kept Newt Gingrich out of the speaker’s chair.
Congressional Republicans know this history. Accordingly, some of them may be thinking that the best outcome in 2008 would be for John McCain to lose by a hair. Despite the anomalies of 1998 and 2002, midterms still favor the out-party. In 2010, therefore, the GOP would likely gain seats and might even retake control of the House.
Under a McCain presidency, by contrast, congressional Republicans would probably lose ground in 2010. In his shadow, they would find it hard to craft their own policy ideas and carve out their own identity.
So should Republicans take a dive in 2008? That is, should activists withhold money and effort from the McCain campaign in the hopes of midwifing a Republican rebirth later on? Such a strategy could work — but the risks are extreme.
First of all, a presidential campaign is not like a fixed fight where a crooked boxer can go down in the round of his choosing. If Republicans ditch McCain, political events could spin out of control, causing him to lose by a party-crushing margin. That outcome would leave congressional Republicans too far behind to recover.
Second, midterm gains have often been modest. In 1986 and 1990, for instance, Democratic House pickups were in single digits. With a Democratic president, House Republicans would have no guarantee of a big “snapback.” As for the Senate, only one third of the seats are up in any given election. Much depends on the partisan makeup of that portion, and in 2010, most of the Senate seats at stake will belong to the GOP. Democrats will have more pickup opportunities than Republicans.
Finally, the Democrats know history, too. If they regain full control of the federal government, they will strive to avoid the mistakes that cost them their majorities in 1994. Moreover, they will press their advantage in fundraising and try to undermine their critics. Among other things, expect a revival of the “Fairness Doctrine” to silence conservative talk radio.
Sometimes it is possible to win by losing. But Republicans should remember that they can lose by losing.
– John J. Pitney Jr. is the Roy P. Crocker Professor of American Politics at Claremont McKenna College.