Observers suggest that the GOP is in its death throes as a result of having lost two national elections in a row. No doubt, the Republican party has seen better days. But it is worth remembering that once upon a time, not so long ago, things were much, much worse for Republicans:
In 1977, as in 2009, the future seemed dark for the country’s conservatives, shut out of all of the conduits to power, with nary a bright spot in sight. “The result of the 1976 election was Democrats in power as far as the eye could see,” wrote Michael Barone in Our Country (1992). “It was almost universally expected that the Democrats would hold on to the executive branch for eight years; it was considered unthinkable that they could lose either house of Congress.” “Once again, the death knell of the Republican Party was being sounded,” added Steven F. Hayward, in his two volume study of Reagan. Notes historian John J. Pitney Jr., “The hot bet of the moment was not whether the Republican Party could reshape politics, but whether it could survive at all.”
At the time, the New York Times said the party was “closer to extinction than ever before in its 122 year history.” House minority leader John Rhodes thought it could go the way of the Whigs and vanish completely. Robert Novak said the election showed the “long descent of the Republican Party into irrelevance, defeat, and perhaps eventual disappearance.”
Gerald Ford had just lost to Jimmy Carter. Republicans held 38 seats in the Senate, and just 143 seats in the House. According to a Gallup poll, more than twice as many Americans identified with the Democrats as with the Republicans. In Fortune magazine, election scholar Everett Carll Ladd pronounced that the GOP was “in a weaker position than any major party of the United States since the Civil War.” Jimmy Carter, the incoming president, was widely regarded as the cure-all for what ailed the Democrats, a social conservative who had been a career Navy officer before coming home to take over the family business (a peanut farm in Plains, Georgia), and who planned to restore simple and homespun American virtue to a scandal-wracked land.
We all remember what happened four years later, don’t we? Republicans ought to bear in mind how the party went from near-extinction to creating a new coalition that even now, continues to shape the nature of American politics. It will be tough to repeat the performance, but the past alone should remind us that declaring the Republican party dead is a dangerous exercise for the coroners.