When you lose an election, change course—but only if you're a Democrat.

How you look at things.
Nov. 8 2010 7:32 AM

Spin the Tale on the Donkey

When you lose an election, change course—but only if you're a Democrat.

Congressional Republican leadership (L-R) Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY), House Minority Leader John Boehner (R-OH), Minority Whip Eric Cantor (R-VA) and Senate Minority Whip Jon Kyl (R-AZ). Click image to expand.
Mitch McConnell, John Boehner, Eric Cantor, and Jon Kyl

The election returns are in, and Republican leaders have discerned the people's will. "We are witnessing a repudiation of Washington, a repudiation of big government," incoming House speaker John Boehner declared on election night. "The American people have sent an unmistakable message to [the president] tonight, and that message is: Change course."

William Saletan William Saletan

Will Saletan writes about politics, science, technology, and other stuff for Slate. He’s the author of Bearing Right.

Two days later, in a speech at the Heritage Foundation, Senate Republican Leader Mitch McConnell called the election "a report card on the administration and anyone who supported its agenda." He offered Democrats "a choice: they can change course, or they can double down on a vision of government that the American people have roundly rejected." Sunday on Face the Nation, McConnell dismissed President Obama's attempt to deflect blame from Democratic policies:

The president believes that somehow his product was good, but he just didn't sell it well. … His problem was not his sales job. It was the product. The American people simply did not like what the president and this Congress were doing substantively. They didn't like the spending, they didn't like the debt, they didn't like the health care bill, and they wanted to have a midcourse correction.

On Fox News Sunday, Eric Cantor, the incoming House majority leader, chided Obama and House Democrats for sticking with their leaders and beliefs:

This says to the voters, "We're not listening to you, we think we're right, we're going to continue the same path." … What the voters said is, number one, we're tired of the 20-month agenda that we've seen out of the Obama administration, because, number one, it hasn't produced results, but number two, it is anathema to most people. … It is government getting into more and more aspects of our economy that the voters outright rejected. And when you hear the president say things like, "We did a poor job of explaining what we were trying to do," I think that that's indicative of his not getting it.

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Maybe Boehner, Cantor, and McConnell are right. When voters strip you of your majority and seem to reject your philosophy in exit polls, maybe you should change course. But before taking the advice of these Republicans, let's check whether they've taken that advice themselves. Let's go back and see what they did two years ago, when the election and the exit polls went the other way.

In November 2006, the GOP lost 30 House seats and six Senate seats, forfeiting its majorities in both chambers. Two years later, voters handed another 21 House seats and seven Senate seats to the Democrats. In the presidential race, voters chose Barack Obama over John McCain, 53 percent to 46 percent. In the 2008 exit poll, 75 percent of voters said the country was seriously on the wrong track, and 51 percent agreed that "government should do more to solve problems," while only 43 percent said "government is doing too many things better left to businesses and individuals." That was a shift from the 2004 exit poll, in which voters had preferred less government by a margin of 49 percent to 46 percent. Self-identified moderates, who had split evenly on more vs. less government in 2004, favored more government in the 2008 exit poll by a margin of 55 percent to 39 percent.

So Boehner, Cantor, and McConnell took those results to heart, right? They listened to the voters and changed course?

Don't be silly. They did just the opposite. They stuck to their principles and rejected partisan interpretations of the election. On Nov. 9, 2008, Cantor went on Fox News Sunday to declare:

This was not some kind of realignment of the electorate, not some kind of shift of the American people toward some style of European social big government type of philosophy. ... You can look at some of the things that people are upset about, whether it was the latest in the financial crisis, whether it was the handling of the response to Hurricane Katrina, or whether it was the continued ratcheting up of federal spending in Washington. … It really is not about left versus right. It's not about conservative versus liberal. … [The people] want to see a government that works for them. And we still believe very strongly that it is our commonsense conservative principles of a limited government, of lower taxes, of reining in federal spending that will provide the type of solutions to the challenges that face American people.

When FNS host Chris Wallace pointed out that voters had shifted from an even partisan split in the 2004 exit poll to a seven-point preference for Democrats in 2008, Cantor used the same empathy dodge for which he now chastises Obama. "We have to demonstrate, number one, that we understand what people are going through," the congressman pleaded.

Two weeks later, Boehner went on the same program and was asked why he should remain in charge of the House GOP after his party "lost more than 50 seats in the last two elections." He replied:

If I thought that I was to blame for those losses, I wouldn't have run for this job. And I can tell you my colleagues would not have reelected me. We've got a long way to go. The American people have issues. They've got concerns. We need solutions, solutions to the issues that the American people care about that are built on our principles.

McConnell took the same steadfast view. In his speech this week, he explained his party's thinking:

While the media was still groping to define the 2008 election, Republicans were taking stock. We knew the principles that had made our party great were the same principles that had made America great, and that if we were going to solve the problems of the day, we would have to embrace and explain those principles, not discard or conceal them. So we renewed our commitment to our core principles—win, lose, or draw. If we had not done this, the administration would never suffer the consequences for pushing policies Americans opposed, and Americans wouldn't have a clear alternative. And that is why this, in my view, was the single most important thing Republicans in Congress did to prepare the ground for Tuesday's election. By sticking together in principled opposition to policies we viewed as harmful, we made it perfectly clear to the American people where we stood. And we gave voters a real choice on Election Day.

That's how the GOP interpreted and addressed its shellacking in 2008. The election wasn't about more or less government; it was about "a government that works." The losing party didn't need to change course; it just needed to convey empathy, devise solutions, and do a better job of explaining its principles. This stalwart response wasn't just the right thing to do; it was also good politics. It offered voters a clear contrast in the next election.

So there's your choice, Democrats. You can listen to the Republicans or learn from them. You can do as they say or do as they did. It's pretty clear from McConnell's speech what's going on. Republicans think they beat you in 2010 by refusing to bend after 2008. Now they're trying to con you into doing the opposite. It's a clever sales job. But I wouldn't buy the product.

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