That Old Republican Revival

The GOP has officially declared its 2010 resurgence, and why not? This is as good a time as any. The party won all the big statewide elections last week, and it's pulling ahead in Gallup's generic congressional ballot this week. For the first time this year, more people say they will vote for the Republican candidate in next year's midterm congressional election than for the Democrat. No wonder conservatives are happy.

But in so many ways this GOP "resurgence" reminds me of the Democratic resurgence of 1998, when the Democrats needed 12 seats to take control of the House and only got five. Or maybe it's more akin to the resurgence of 2000, when Democrats won the popular vote but lost the White House, and picked up four seats in the Senate but only mustered a split that could be broken by Dick Cheney. Then, of course, there were the 2002 midterms where the Democratic "resurgence" defied expectations and lost two seats in the Senate and eight seats in the House, giving Republicans clear majorities in both chambers. And for all of Democrats' hope and hype in 2004, George W. Bush stayed on in the White House and the GOP remained firmly in control of Congress. Oftentimes, party revivals are not what you'd expect.

This week, on the heels of their big gubernatorial wins in New Jersey and Virginia, House Minority Whip Eric Cantor went on CNN to sound his optimism for the party. His big declaration: "The Republican resurgence begins tonight."

But a beginning can almost never predict the end result. And a look at the GOP suggests that it is still a long way from being able to say what they stand for as a party in a time of war, economic crisis and general instability.

After losing control of the Congress in 1994, Democrats were a party permanently on the verge: They were always within striking distance of regaining control of the Congress, and they behaved like a people deprived of their rightful place at the table. They complained about the heavy-handedness of the other side; they bemoaned how abusive the Republicans were. Most of all, they sulked. But what they did not do was convince anyone that they had a plan, much less a better plan. That took time, and I anticipate the GOP will follow a similar trajectory.

As they tried to regroup, Democrats fought and floundered, but picked up some state victories along the way. They, too, won gubernatorial elections in New Jersey and Virginia in 2001, which then faded into the congressional Democratic losses the next year. They won the governors' races again in both states in 2005, and then romped to victory nationally in 2006, taking control of both houses of Congress for the first time in a dozen years.

Republicans are hoping that Obama will implode in the same way that Bush did in 2006. but considering that Obama's approval ratings currently hover at a comfortable 53 percent, that outcome seems unlikely. According to his adviser, David Axelrod, the White House plan is to make the 2010 midterms a big referendum on the Obama administration. "The goal looking forward to 2010 —when we will in fact have a broad national election for Congress — is to motivate those independent voters who voted for us last time but stayed home this time," Axelrod said in a recent interview with Fox News. And if the president has delivered on his promises, Axelrod's plan may take little effort.

Republicans really only have one conceivable path to victory: As I have said repeatedly, if there is no improvement on the jobs front and the economy is still in disrepair, Democrats may be in for a nasty fall.

But that's all Republicans have to count on. A bad job climate next summer might play the same role for the GOP as the Iraq war did for Democrats in 2006. Still, for that to work, the president must appear to seem utterly lost in his handling of the economy -- that, so far, has not been the case. Even given these sorts of circumstances, Republicans will still have to make a more persuasive argument than they have so far that health-care reform, economic stimulus, and movement on climate change are leaving the country in worse shape. It has an opening, but the GOP still runs the risk of turning off voters if negativity is all it has to offer.

In his interview with CNN's Brianna Keilar, Cantor offered his view of why his party did so poorly during the last two election cycles. His reasons included public fatigue with the war in Iraq, poor fiscal management, and a struggle to solve the country's problems using Republican principles.

But now everything is different, thinks Cantor. In his view, Republicans have finally come up with a "coherent counter-proposal" to the administration's agenda. Given the "budgets" and "agendas" offered so far, it sounds like the conservative vision for the country will be a hard sell, but there's a whole year for the jury to deliberate on that claim.

For now, though, I'm betting against any big resurgence.