It’s like Jimmy Carter never left town

Republican conservatives and moderates are at each other’s throats. Tea party populists are furious at President Barack Obama and House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, and aren’t crazy about Republicans either. Democrats haven’t got a clue. There’s talk of a third party. The economy is stagnant as unemployment, now 10.2 percent, climbs. It’s beginning to look like the late 1970s.

This is good news for Republicans — extremely good news. Today’s struggles between conservatives and moderates are mere skirmishes compared with the titanic intraparty battle touched off by Ronald Reagan’s challenge of President Ford for the Republican presidential nomination in 1976. Ford’s dreamy Democratic successor, Jimmy Carter, brought matters to a head. He proved incompetent in foreign policy and a bumbler on anything to do with the economy.

The result was a Republican bull market. In 1978, Republicans gained 15 House seats and three senators. That was a preview of 1980, when they netted 35 House seats and captured control of the Senate with a 12-seat pickup. And, oh, yes, there was another victory. Reagan won the presidency in a landslide.

The resemblance between the 1970s and today isn’t exact. Political analogies never are. But there’s enough to hearten Republicans. As we saw in the election of Republican governors in Virginia and New Jersey last week, the political energy and ardor are on the center-right. Just as they were 30 years ago.

A coalition of Republicans, independents and tea party populists is beginning to take shape. How come? Because they again have a common foe. In the 1970s, it was Carter’s feeble leadership in the face of stagflation and the collapse of U.S. interests abroad.

Today it’s the hyper-liberal policies of Obama and Pelosi that are for fostering rampant spending, surging deficits, ruinous debt, higher taxes, growing unemployment and unlimited government in Washington. On top of all that, Obama’s foreign policy of “engaging” adversaries and hammering allies is a dangerous flop.

Obama and congressional Democrats could frustrate the emerging coalition by changing course, seeking a “reset” in relations with Republicans and agreeing to bipartisan (and far less costly) deals on health care and other domestic policies. But they’re too stubbornly ideological for that. They’ve decided voters in Virginia and New Jersey were sending no message at all.

Instead, their response is: If you don’t like what we’re offering, we’ll give you more of it. Far more Americans oppose Obamacare than support it. Yet Democratic representative Gerald Connolly of Virginia said he “concluded” from last week’s election that “we’ve got to pass health care … [and] give Democrats something to be excited about.” It’s “a matter of tangibles being delivered,” said Democratic representative Jan Schakowsky of Illinois.

Democrats have persuaded themselves that the Republican blowout of 1994 was caused by President Bill Clinton’s failure to enact health care reform. This was the election dominated by “angry white men.” So we’re to understand it was the defeat of Hillarycare that enraged them? Only a fool or a liberal Democrat could believe that.

The mainstream media haven’t scoped things out any more convincingly. Their line is Republicans won two big races last week and, boy, are they in trouble now. The most telling result was the loss of a Republican House seat in upstate New York as a result of turmoil among conservatives and moderates. And more such clashes, in the media’s mind, will hamper Republicans in capturing House and Senate seats in the 2010 midterm elections.

What happened in the 1970s suggests otherwise. The turmoil among Republicans then was a sign of interest and intensity. The same is true now. The effect of the battles inside the party is to focus attention on combating the greater threat that draws Republicans, independents and tea party folks together. Moderates, conservatives — both argue they’re better at the overarching task of stopping the Obama-Pelosi agenda.

There’s another important task for Republicans. They must keep the fragile coalition from splintering. Independents and tea party people got on board last week, but they haven’t coalesced with Republicans in an enduring way. They need to. Victories in 2010 and 2012 depend on it.

Republicans can firm up the coalition by doing three things. One, refrain from dissing the tea party people. “They’re not fringe,” said Rep. Darrell Issa, R-Calif. Two, stress the fiscal and economic issues that appeal to independents (and most Americans).

Three, run candidates guided by conservative principles who can talk about these issues in concrete ways, as Bob McDonnell did in winning the Virginia governor’s race. Manage all three and the Republican future will be bright.

Fred Barnes is executive editor of The Weekly Standard from which this is reprinted.

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