I second Roger and Peter's praise for the Ponnuru and Lowry article. I don't think the article gives quite enough emphasis to the persistently lousy labor market as contributing to Obama's political troubles. That doesn't mean that Obama's current unpopularity is merely a product of the economy. His health care plan, with its tax increases and Medicare cuts would have been unpopular even if unemployment was coming down much faster. There is something about the combination of trillion dollar deficits and the knowledge that the entitlement crisis isn't even well and truly upon us yet that is scary. But that doesn't mean the economy hasn't exacerbated the reaction to Obama's policies. All that spending and borrowing doesn't seem to be buying prosperity. A fragile economy seems like an especially lousy time to raise taxes and add an expensive middle-class entitlement. Ponnuru has written elsewhere that high unemployment doesn't necessarily translate into huge midterm election losses for the party in power. He uses 1982 as an example. The unemployment rate of October 1982 was even higher than today's, but the Republicans had only modest losses. The Democrats' losses will be greater this year and so not all the blame can go to the unemployment rate. Politics and policy is making the losses worse than they otherwise might have been. But there is a little more to that story. The (hopefully temporary) high unemployment of 1982 was at least coinciding with (and maybe contributing to) a decline in the rate of inflation. The unemployment rate of 2010 seems to be compensated by nothing. Pushing the stimulus and Obamacare might have hurt Harry Reid enough so that he would have been vulnerable to an excellent opponent even in a good economy, but it is the high unemployment rate is keeping Sharron Angle in the game
I think that it would be wise to combine Ponnuru and Lowry's observations that Republicans should not over interpret their (hopefully!) forthcoming gains by assuming that the public is with them and overreach, with Peter Schramm's observation that Republican gains will be barren if they are not used to offer a real to choice to the public. Those two pieces of advice are not contradictory in theory, but I'm not sure that Republicans possess the political skills to offer meaningful reform while avoiding (partly rhetoric-based, partly policy-based) overreach.
The House Republican Pledge does not inspire confidence that the Republican congressional leadership is inclined to put hard choices to the American people, and even if they do, the public will not have been prepared for the inevitable trade-offs. Some Tea Party-backed soon-to-be freshmen seem to be serious about the combination of spending cuts and policy reforms we will need, but they seem to struggle to explain how the consequences of those changes will be handled. I saw Neil Cavuto tie Ken Buck in knots with questions on spending cuts. And that was during a very friendly interview.
The danger is that Republicans will find a way to both offer very little affirmative policy and alienate the public with seeming extremism. The congressional leadership could fight for an economic platform that amounts to the pre-Obama status quo (extending the Bush tax cuts and repealing Obamacare) plus tort reform and defunding NPR, while backbenchers scare the pants off the public with poorly explained talk about cutting Medicare, "privatizing" Social Security, and ending the current system of employer-provided health coverage.
The number of Republicans who both seem serious about policy reform (especially about entitlements and health care policy) and have the expertise and rhetorical skill to sell those reforms to swing voters seems small. There is Paul Ryan, but his Roadmap, while noble, is flawed and he is just one guy. Marco Rubio and Pat Toomey aren't even in the Senate yet, and Toomey probably loses to Sestak most years. There seems to be more talent and reason for hope at the gubernatorial level.
Republicans need to keep an eye on the most important issues and the best available policies, but they also need to watch their words very carefully and remember that swing voters sometimes hear very differently from committed conservatives. The (hopefully!) forthcoming gains will come from a combination of energized Republican voting, the flight of persuadables from the Democrats that is significantly caused by present economic conditions, and the particular demographics of midterm elections. The economy might not be the same in two years, the demographic profile of the electorate will be somewhat different, and Obama's job approval rating isn't that bad considering the circumstances.
And to Dr. Schramm's call for a politics based on constitutionalist government might be in productive tension with Reihan Salam's more policy-based politics. Salam writes:
I sense that there's an opportunity for the right-of-center coalition to expand, provided conservative politicians and activists emphasize the core question of how to create a sustainable government. Whether that'll actually happen remains an open question.
I don't entirely agree with that. I think that social democracy might be sustainable for decades - though at the price of a great deal of unnecessary suffering. Any vision of sustainable government ought to include some normative vision of the proper relationship between man and government. But at the same time, supporters of constitutionalist government have a great deal to gain from a close alliance with fellows like Salam.