When I arrived in Washington, DC in 2006 to learn about US politics, someone told me that in America, there are two main parties: the party of power and the party of stupid. The latter denoted, perhaps unsurprisingly, the Republican Party. And so it continues to prove. The failure of the much-hyped red wave to materialize in the 2022 midterms shows that the GOP has not lost its knack for snatching defeat from the jaws of victory.
Consider: a day before the election, Biden’s approval rating was 39 percent. This was a reflection of his poor performance (inflation, gas prices and immigration are just a few of the issues on which his administration has shown stunning incompetence). Concerned that the electorate was comparing the moment to the period of prosperity under Donald Trump, Democrats were fearful of what Election Day would bring, while Republicans must have felt giddy in anticipation, like children on Christmas Eve.
Now, the roles are reversed. The Democrats have held the Senate and, while they’ve lost the House, Republican control is by a far narrower margin than they had anticipated. Biden is gloating, and Republicans are in shock.
How on Earth could the GOP have done so badly? There are many reasons for their failure, but two stick out the most: Trump and the Democrats’ rhetoric.
The Trump psychodrama turned off many voters, who rejected almost all his favored candidates. Elections are about the future; Trump and his flatterers are stuck in 2020. They continue to flaunt their denial of Biden’s victory, which only alienates independents who don’t buy it.
Meanwhile, the GOP as a whole has spent the last two years complaining rather than offering a positive vision (love them or loathe them, “Make America Great Again” and “drain the swamp” were energizing, winning lines). And the Democrats’ rhetorical strategy of emphasizing that democracy was at stake played into voters’ fears about Trump’s democratic credentials. Given the choice between incompetent leadership and a whiny GOP beholden to melodramatic conspiracy theorists, voters chose to stick with the devil they know.
The allure of Trump has faded, and he is now a liability for the GOP. Even his favorite paper, the New York Post, has realized it. Their “Trumpty Dumpty” cover sums it up perfectly: “Can all the GOP’s men put the party back together again?” Trump is just a loser now: that is the main lesson of the midterms.
Biden, though, thinks the results demonstrate approval of his performance rather than a rejection of Trump’s GOP, so the Democrats won’t change. They will continue to pursue the failed policies of the past two years, which means the story of the 2024 election will also be a GOP one: will Republicans learn their lesson in time to retake the White House?
Despite everything, it looks like they might. Ron DeSantis’s huge victory in Florida — by nearly twenty points — is being lauded across the GOP. The scale of his win is historic: in 2018, he barely scraped into office. His re-election landslide is an extraordinary stamp of approval from the electorate. He is the Republican man of the moment — and Trump knows it. Trump’s reign over the GOP now faces its most serious threat; his panicky lashing out at “Ron DeSanctimonious” is the ultimate proof of that.
DeSantis is a competent leader, mercifully lacks the Trumpian streak of melodrama, and is not particularly connected to 2020 election denial. He can fight extreme progressivism ruthlessly and cleverly, as his response to Disney’s attempt to use its corporate clout to promote wokeism showed. And by refusing to adopt draconian methods to curb Covid-19, he made his state appear to be the true land of the free (so much so that northerners flocked in droves to live a sunny, mask-free life). His landslide victory is a vindication of his governorship.
DeSantis has all of Trump’s strengths, plus quite a few of his own, and none of Trump’s weaknesses. In policy terms, not much separates the two men, but only one will stand any chance of enacting policy: DeSantis. The Democrats must be terrified of him, especially if he goes up against such a woeful candidate as Biden or Kamala Harris. A GOP without Trump is going to be a winning GOP — and a winning GOP will be a vast improvement on this spectacularly incompetent Democratic administration.
The Trump presidency did many good things, including realigning the political landscape: disenfranchised blue-collar workers turned to the Republican Party, while the Democrats became the party of big money and (woke) corporatism (Boris Johnson oversaw another such realignment in Britain). If the GOP can learn the lessons of 2020 and 2022, they really could make America great again.
But as we have seen, the GOP has a tendency to lose even when victory is at hand. Republicans have long been bitterly divided by the presence of Trump in their ranks. Who takes the White House in 2024 will be decided by how the GOP resolves its internal divisions.
Will Trump make a spectacular comeback? If he’s the nominee, the Democrats win. But if the GOP ditches Trump and unites around DeSantis, 2024 will be their year. The presidency, in short, is theirs for the taking — or, equally, the losing.
This article was originally published in The Spectator’s January 2023 World edition.