A political scientist would tell you that the first lesson to learn for a politician is to know their constituents. It seems basic, but it is a fundamental part of constructing a winning electoral strategy. If you don’t get this right, you have no chance of holding on to power, let alone passing meaningful reforms once you attain it. The Democrats saw this firsthand in 2010 when they lost control of the House after failing to motivate their winning coalition from 2006 and 2008 to go to the polls. Republicans risk repeating the same mistake with a push for radical legislation that independent voters will find hard to stomach.
The Democratic and Republican Party are comprised of many, sometimes conflicting, constituencies. Labor unions, minorities, and blue-collar workers are just some of the Democratic Party’s base. Big business, evangelical Christians, and white-collar workers largely comprise the Republican Party. While this is a bit of a simplification, it largely holds true from one election to the next. The people who do not rigidly identify with one party or the other, independents, will decide who wins Congress and the White House in 2012. They largely sit out midterm elections, which are low turnout elections driven more by partisans.
The independent vote, by all accounts, is up for grabs in 2012. There is no doubt that they were dissatisfied with the slow pace of the economic recovery and perceived overspending by Washington. The Republican Party did a great job of characterizing, vilifying even, the Democratic healthcare plan as “socialized medicine”, despite the fact that it essentially left the structural system unchanged. Near universal healthcare? Yes, but far from the single-payer systems of Europe and Canada.
Whatever the case may be, Republicans have gone in the opposite direction and pursued a far more radical agenda than the Democrats could ever imagine. The Republican plan to end Medicare, replacing it with vouchers for seniors that would result in over $6,000 a year in out-of-pocket expenses, is just one example of their overreach. It has long been a wet dream of Republicans to dismantle Medicare and Social Security. George W. Bush attempted a similar approach in 2005 with his failed plan to privatize Social Security. Voters rejected that and they are going to reject this Republican Congress’s plan as well.
As far as building coalitions goes, though, the Republican Party is in a real bind. Former Speaker of the House Newt Gingrich displays this quite well when he called the Republican plan “right-wing social engineering”, only to backtrack the next day when he was met by outrage on the right. A Republican presidential or Congressional candidate will find it difficult to win a primary without supporting the Republican plan to end Medicare, but at the same time, this makes them virtually untenable in a general election. It’s a catch-22 that could very likely end the Republican majority in 2012.
The bottom line of this is that the Republicans in Congress, with the exception of only four in the House and five in the Senate, voted for a plan that is toxic to a majority of their constituents. Even Republican voters have reservations about dismantling a program that they have invested in throughout their entire lives. Elections are won with coalitions and the Republicans just gave the middle finger to the two largest and most reliable voting groups in the country: Baby Boomers and seniors. Unless Republicans can distract voters away from their vote to dismantle Medicare, they can kiss their majority goodbye.