Is the GOP condemned to repeat 1958?

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IN THE AFTERMATH of George W. Bush’s reelection as president two years ago, Karl Rove amused himself and his boss with a battery-powered “Redneck Horn.” At the touch of a button, the device would yell insults in a raucous Southern accent, providing automated road rage for red-state Republicans. The toy’s abusive messages included “slow down, dumbass!”; “hey, hog neck, who taught you how to drive?”; “are you freaking blind?”; and “you’re a goddamn moron!”

How they all laughed in the White House, if the Bush administration’s renegade court historian, Bob Woodward, is to be believed.

Today, however, the joke is on them. The Redneck Horn could now just as easily be used by ordinary Americans to express their frustration not merely with Bush but with the entire Republican Party. With a little more than a week remaining until the congressional midterm elections Nov. 7, some opinion polls indicate that “you’re a goddamn moron!” is precisely the message voters intend to send the White House. Certainly, “freaking blind” sums up the majority view of the administration’s policy in Iraq.


The latest USA Today/Gallup poll has the Democrats leading the Republicans by 53% to 38% among registered voters, as large as any Democratic lead since 1982. Gallup analysts say there is a “significant probability” that the Democrats could win the 15 seats they need to take control of the House. Some pessimistic Republicans fear that they could lose as many as 30 seats. There are even those whose recurring nightmare is the loss of the Senate too, though here the Democrats have a steeper hill to climb (a net gain of six seats out of 33 that are being contested).

But history certainly does suggest that a Democratic triumph is possible. President Bush’s job approval rating is a miserable 37%. The last time a president was that unpopular on the eve of the midterms was when Harry Truman was in the White House. Public approval of Congress is even lower, at 26%. Two-thirds of Americans say they are dissatisfied with the way things are going in the country. These figures recall the oft-cited midterm elections of 1994, when it was the Democrats who lost control of the House to Newt Gingrich’s rampant Republicans.

A better analogy may be 1958, when the Republicans lost 48 House seats (giving the Democrats an unassailable majority) during Dwight Eisenhower’s second term.

The parallel is especially intriguing because it was a combination of security concerns and economic woes that did the damage then. There had been a severe recession in the winter of 1957-58. But it was foreign policy that was on many people’s minds. The previous year, the Soviets had successfully launched their Sputnik satellite, causing consternation among Americans, who had assumed their country had a built-in technological advantage in both the Cold War and the space race. Civil war was raging in Cuba; Fidel Castro was just a few months from victory. And in July, a coup d’etat had overthrown King Faisal II of -- guess where? -- Iraq, the prelude to the Baathist takeover of power in that country in 1963. American troops had been dispatched to Lebanon in response.

Ring any bells?

What’s more, as happened in 1958, the combination of foreign policy setbacks and economic disappointments could set the stage not merely for Democratic gains at the midterms but for a Democratic victory in the presidential election two years down the line. Intriguingly, there is already a John F. Kennedy figure on the scene who, he recently admitted, has “thought about the possibility” of a bid for the White House. Youthful, charismatic and the personification of the American dream, Barack Obama, the junior senator from Illinois, has been this autumn’s media sensation, his face on every talk show, his name in every column, his book rivaling Woodward’s in the charts.

You think the U.S. is not ready for a black president? Well, back in 1958 you’d probably have said the same about an Irish Catholic.


But before Democrats get too giddy, they should bear in mind that gerrymandering, campaign finance and local factors tend to favor incumbents, and some issues can still be counted on to rally the Republican base in the sprawling American exurbs. Yes, they hate gay marriage. No, they don’t mind torturing terrorist suspects. And no, they’ll never vote for a Democrat.

But the crucial question is: Will they vote at all? Forty-eight years ago, in a very similar political situation, less than 20 million votes were cast for Republican candidates in the midterms. That was little more than half the number who had voted for Eisenhower two years before. Could today’s GOP end up being -- in the argot of the military -- “FUBAR” (fouled up beyond all repair) in the same way? Only a dumbass -- or a hog neck, or a moron -- would rule it out completely.