article

11.10.08

Republican Road Map

A GOP revival depends on Obama screwing up.

Ohio hadn't yet been called for Barack Obama on election night before the losing party began to plot its resurgence. For the past week, Republican leaders have held countless conference calls, roundtables, and secret meetings designed to affix blame and figure out what it is they stand for. Is it now the Palin party, or the Giuliani party? Can it be both? And what about Bush? Did he fail by being too conservative, or not conservative enough?

The GOP could use a little soul searching, and working through questions like these will certainly prove useful at some point. But it may take a while.

The truth is, the Republicans no longer have control over their own future. Obama does. No amount of clever new policy prescriptions, or even a coherent governing philosophy, can bring Republicans back. The Democrats will have to screw up first.

Wholesale change? Nothing upsets Americans more. If Obama forgets it, Republicans could come back.

This is true in politics generally–without Clinton ’s mistakes in 1993, Gingrich’s victory in 1994 would have been impossible–but especially so this year. The reason is Obama’s mandate: He actually has one. Obama won more than 50 percent of the popular vote, something no Democratic president has done in more than 30 years, and with a greater margin than Reagan in 1980. More than 65 million voters now have an emotional stake in his success.

Unlike Reagan, Obama also won the opinion-making class. Journalists wept openly on television when he won. At the moment, America isn't inclined to give Republicans a chance.

Ironically, the magnitude of Obama’s success may give his opponents their opening. Big wins tend to breed overreaching and hubris (just ask the congressional revolutionaries of ’94). Here are a couple of ways Obama could help the Republicans come back:

Promise too much. Like Bush in 2000, Obama sees his election as a chance to make bold changes to government. Unlike Bush, he’s entering office constrained by a faltering economy. Obama staked his campaign on universal health care. The problem is, we can no longer afford it. Many of Obama’s advisors know this, and the candid ones will admit it privately. Yet the voting public still has no clue. How disappointed will they be to find out? Will they hold Obama accountable?

It’s impossible to know, though as a general rule, the higher the hopes, the harder the potential crash. Remember that before Bush became among the least popular presidents ever, with an approval rating around 25, he was also the single most popular, at 91 percent after 9-11. The reversal can come remarkably fast.

Believe your own hype. Obama has single-handedly created the broadest and best-funded political movement in modern times. He also beat Hillary Clinton in a Democratic primary. Both are remarkable achievements. Unfortunately for the Democratic Party, he seems as impressed as the rest of us.

A detail from Ryan Lizza's New Yorker piece this week reveals his profoundly high self-regard. At the beginning of last year, Patrick Gaspard interviewed to become Obama’s political director, a job he later got. According to Gaspard, in their meeting Obama described himself this way: “I think that I'm a better speechwriter than my speechwriters. I know more about policies on any particular issue than my policy directors. And I'll tell you right now that I'm gonna think I'm a better political director than my political director."

Strictly speaking, it’s possible that Obama is right. He may be more talented at all of these things than the many, far more experienced people working for him. But to say so out loud? A man who would do that might be the sort of person who could mistake an election for a coronation, and become the kind of arrogant, dictatorial president that voters inevitably come to despise.

A man like that might even wind up convincing himself that the American people really want change. They don't of course. They want incremental improvements to their lives. But wholesale change? Nothing upsets Americans more. It’s a subtle distinction, but a vital one. If Obama forgets it, Republicans could come back. But not before.

Tucker Carlson is MSNBC’s Senior Campaign Correspondent. Carlson joined MSNBC in February 2005 from CNN, hosting The Situation with Tucker Carlson and Tucker.