The myth of the permanent majority

Nothing lasts forever

(Image credit: (Illustration by Lauren Hansen | Image courtesy Charles Smith/Corbis))

It's déjà vu all over again.

Indeed, political observers could be forgiven, in these days after the GOP's resounding midterm wins, if they heard echoes of 1994 and 2006 in the forward projections of political fortunes. Republicans cheered as they took full control of Capitol Hill for the first time in eight years, and at the same time celebrated their third straight House majority result. When the dust finally settles on seven still-pending races, Republicans will have their largest majority since the Herbert Hoover administration, likely to be a combined 60 seats or more over the Democrats.

And like clockwork, many prognosticators leapt to declare that the GOP had not only won a current majority, but had won itself a "permanent majority," or more accurately, a generational majority that would endure for years to come. The estimable Nate Cohn wrote Monday at The Upshot that "any Democratic hopes of enacting progressive policies on issues like climate change and inequality will face the reality of a House dominated by conservative Republicans" for the foreseeable future. "Republicans cemented a nearly unassailable majority that could last for a generation," Cohn warned, as long as current generational, regional, and ethnic divides endure. Rep. Greg Walden (R-Ore.) went even farther, wondering aloud if the GOP had secured a "hundred-year majority."

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Republicans certainly wouldn't mind that outcome, of course. Nor would such a generational majority be unprecedented. Republicans sat in the House wilderness for 40 years until the Republican Revolution of 1994. Republicans spent more time in control of the White House than Democrats during that period of time, and had a few instances of Senate control. Democrats dominated the House, though, and by wide margins. Only after Democrats began losing their grip on the South did that domination slip. And after this election, Republicans have taken nearly monolithic control of the South, with the exception of urban districts.

Still, we heard much the same kind of prediction after 1994. Republicans, led by Newt Gingrich, focused on the Contract with America platform, and energized by opposition to overreach by Bill Clinton, promised to restore transparency and integrity to a Congress buffeted by the House banking scandal. To make sure this was a "permanent majority," Republicans launched the "K Street Project," an effort to curry favor with Washington lobbyists. That led to the Jack Abramoff scandal, and that contributed to a Democratic wave election that cost the GOP control of both chambers of Congress after a "permanent majority" of 12 years.

The 2006 Democratic wave depended largely on the unpopular presidency of George W. Bush and the widespread perception of incompetence in his second term, making the sixth-year midterms a national rebuke of Bush's leadership. But the younger and more progressive grassroots in the Democratic Party gave their leadership hope that the 2006 election had been transformational, and the easy election of Barack Obama in 2008 in the middle of the economic meltdown corroborated it.

The Democrats' permanent majority lasted an even shorter time than the Republican permanent majority that preceded it — just eight years.

Cohn, whose polling and demographic analyses are usually top notch, might be right this time, assuming that Republicans make no mistakes and Democrats keep shooting themselves in the foot. The last round of redistricting certainly gave Republicans a boost, and their expanded control of state legislatures may give them a head start on the redistricting that will take place after the 2020 census by boosting their likelihood of retaining control of those chambers. The expanded control at the state level also means that Republicans will produce more experienced candidates for the House and Senate over the next few years, which is one reason why some Democrats pointed to that outcome as the worst news from Election Night.

Still, history cautions against Republican optimism and Democratic despair. As we have seen over the last 20 years, it's usually folly to assume that parties can avoid overreach and scandal for very long. Turnout in this wave election was historically low, which argues against learning any significant lessons on demography and sustainability. Unlike 1994, Republicans did not run on a unifying national platform; they relied instead on deep dissatisfaction with President Obama and Democratic leadership in the Senate that refused to check his perceived abuses. That parallels 2006 most closely, which means that the one mandate Republicans can claim would be to force Obama to work with the GOP on their terms, as voters either turned out to oppose Obama or didn't bother to turn out in his support. That mandate could mean an even higher risk of overreach, although the lack of electoral consequences for last fall's government shutdown suggests voters are very fed up with the White House.

Even if Republicans manage to step carefully through the political minefield of the next two years, the departure of Obama from the presidency might undermine the urgency voters felt to remove Democrats from power at the other end of Pennsylvania Avenue. Success in 2016 in taking back the White House could mean an eventual drift of voters into divided government once again, especially if the next president and his allies go back to "my way or the highway" initiatives.

The phrase "I won" has a very short shelf life. Barack Obama has learned that lesson twice, as have Democrats — and Republicans have learned it at least once in the last decade. Will the GOP remember that hard lesson as it considers its options? That will probably be the biggest factor in whether Cohn's prediction of a generational majority will come true, but with history as a guide … don't bet on it.

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