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."
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."
On Fox News Sunday, Eric Cantor, the incoming House majority leader, chided Obama and House Democrats for sticking with their leaders and beliefs:
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 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 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 [in 2006 and 2008].
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.
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