As election after election has shown, overreach undoes the ability to forge a sustainable majority.
Republicans began 2017 not by trying to reach across the aisle in an infrastructure bill or some other bipartisan measure. Instead, they decided to try to push through a partial “repeal” of the Affordable Care Act through reconciliation. Using reconciliation as a vehicle for “repeal” meant that the GOP could attempt health-care reform on a party-line basis, but it also maximized their political vulnerabilities on health care and further polarized an already divided Congress. After this health-care-reform effort failed, congressional Republicans turned to another party-line effort, this time on taxes. In this policy push, congressional Republicans neglected the interests of many of the blue-collar voters who grow increasingly important for the hope of a long-term GOP majority.
For his part, President Trump has often leaned into cultural conflicts — with football players who kneel during the national anthem, with the press, with members of “Never Trump,” and so forth. This messaging strategy has often inflamed social tensions, and the Twitter effusions and in-fighting in the administration have contributed to the appearance of a White House in chaos. This spectacle is distinctly unappealing to the suburban voters who have long been a pillar of the Republican party (and many of these voters have been lost on health care, too).
Overreach has also frustrated the ambitions of congressional Democrats. The Left has responded to November 2016 with an outpouring of cultural rage. Rather than pivoting to the middle on economics and cultural politics, many Democrats shifted in a radical direction — embracing the “Great Awokening,” resisting immigration moderation, affecting a new sympathy to the “socialist” label, and so forth. The “resistance” doubled down on Hillary Clinton’s “deplorables” strategy, thereby harming itself with the working-class Americans who used to be reliable Democratic voters. The Kavanaugh confirmation battle was the culmination of the strategy of resistance at all costs, and it ended up costing Senate Democrats a fair amount.
And this drive to the left harmed Democrats on Tuesday night. In previous wave elections (such as 1994, 2006, and 2010), the “wave” beneficiary made big gains in both chambers. That didn’t happen in 2018. Democrats made solid gains in the House, sweeping up many upscale suburban House districts. However, they lost ground in the Senate. Some Democrats might try to spin this result by saying that the purportedly “undemocratic” structure of the Senate has caused this result, but Democrats were able to pick up six seats from exactly the same set of states in 2006. Moreover, the House results did not reach the magnitude of the waves of 1994 and 2010 (which saw gains of over 50 seats each).
For the past 40 years, every time (1994, 2006, and 2010) a party has entered midterms with unified control of the federal government, it has ended up losing at least one house of Congress. So Republicans losing the House would be an expected — not an extraordinary — result. American voters are instinctively wary about giving any party total control of the federal government. That said, this midterm might have been a sign that Republicans have not made the most of an opportunity to affect a forward-looking political realignment, in which Republicans addressed the economic concerns of the middle class while seeking to soothe factional tensions. Meanwhile, Democrats continue to struggle with middle America.
After Democrats lost Congress in 1994, Bill Clinton shifted to the center on some issues, such as welfare reform. Barack Obama was not quite so eager to find common ground with congressional Republicans. President Trump could take a page out of Clinton’s handbook, allying with Democrats to push pro-worker legislation (and indirectly help shift the GOP from an overemphasis on corporatist interests). Of course, he could also instead escalate conflicts with Democrats, and Democrats might choose to battle with Trump rather than advance legislation.
American politics is full of surprises these days, but it seems likely that, without appealing beyond its base, a political party will have a hard time gaining an enduring majority.