Beware talk of the "permanent majority"

But it’s sooooooo seductive, isn’t it? We all want to think that the rest of the country has finally awoken to the dangers of Democratic/Republican policies, and have delivered an enduring mandate for conservative/progressive/libertarian/Vermin Supreme policies. In fact, it’s so seductive that the meme captured the imaginations of Republicans in 1994 and Democrats in 2006. How about now?

Nate Cohn makes the argument that it’s possible, if not probable, that the GOP has won a generational majority in the House:

By picking up at least a dozen House seats in the elections last Tuesday, the Republicans cemented a nearly unassailable majority that could last for a generation, or as long as today’s political divides between North and South, urban and rural, young and old, and white and nonwhite endure.

Democrats might well reclaim the Senate and hold the presidency in 2016. But any Democratic hopes of enacting progressive policies on issues like climate change and inequality will face the reality of a House dominated by conservative Republicans. It is far likelier that the Republicans will hold the Senate and seize the presidency than that the Democrats will win the House, giving the Republicans a better chance than Democrats of enacting their agenda.

After all of the remaining races are resolved, the G.O.P. will finish with about 249 seats. The Democrats would need to flip 32 seats to reclaim the chamber, but just 10 Republicans hail from districts with a Democratic Cook partisan voting index, a statistic to measure how far a congressional district leans toward the Republican or Democratic Party, compared with the national average. Because so many Republicans represent conservative districts, the G.O.P. might even retain the House in a “wave” election, like the ones that swept Democrats to power in 2006 and brought Republicans back to power in 2010.

The Republican grip on the House is underpinned by the tendency for Democrats to waste votes in heavily urban or nonwhite districts; the low Democratic turnout in off-year elections; the recent Democratic advantage in presidential elections; the advantages of incumbency; and partisan gerrymandering. Ending partisan gerrymandering would not be enough to end the Republican advantage in the House, and last Tuesday’s results for state legislatures and for governors’ races further strengthened the Republicans’ ability to control the redistricting process.

That’s a pretty decent case for a generational majority. I’ve noted a few times that the real impact of the midterms will be felt in the states, and that the expanded Republican domination below the federal level will have a generational impact. Assuming nothing else changes, Cohn at least makes a rational, data-based argument for a type of “permanent majority” claim.

This seems … a little less rational:

The head of the National Republican Congressional Committee thinks the GOP might run Congress for the rest of our lives, and then some.

“We’re as back to a majority as any of us have seen in our lifetimes,” Rep. Greg Walden (R-Ore.) said, according to The Hill. “It may be a hundred-year majority.”

Er … sure. Democrats dominated for 40 years, largely on the back of FDR’s New Deal and LBJ’s Great Society, until Republicans shocked Democrats with the Contract with America in 1994. Having lived through three “permanent majorities” in my lifetime now, I’m a little skeptical of claims that we’re entering into a real political realignment after the third flip in House control in 20 years:

Still, history cautions against Republican optimism and Democratic despair. As we have seen over the last 20 years, it’s usually folly to assume that parties can avoid overreach and scandal for very long. Turnout in this wave election was historically low, which argues against learning any significant lessons on demography and sustainability. Unlike 1994, Republicans did not run on a unifying national platform; they relied instead on deep dissatisfaction with President Obama and Democratic leadership in the Senate that refused to check his perceived abuses. That parallels 2006 most closely, which means that the one mandate Republicans can claim would be to force Obama to work with the GOP on their terms, as voters either turned out to oppose Obama or didn’t bother to turn out in his support. That mandate could mean an even higher risk of overreach, although the lack of electoral consequences for last fall’s government shutdown suggests voters are very fed up with the White House.

Even if Republicans manage to step carefully through the political minefield of the next two years, the departure of Obama from the presidency might undermine the urgency voters felt to remove Democrats from power at the other end of Pennsylvania Avenue. Success in 2016 in taking back the White House could mean an eventual drift of voters into divided government once again, especially if the next president and his allies go back to “my way or the highway” initiatives.

The phrase “I won” has a very short shelf life. Barack Obama has learned that lesson twice, as have Democrats — and Republicans have learned it at least once in the last decade. Will the GOP remember that hard lesson as it considers its options? That will probably be the biggest factor in whether Cohn’s prediction of a generational majority will come true, but with history as a guide … don’t bet on it.

Ron Fournier isn’t convinced anyone really won the midterms:

Talk about a shellacking. Two-thirds of voters in last week’s elections are dissatisfied or angry with Republican Party leaders in Congress, according to exit polls, and nearly six in 10 disapprove of the GOP altogether.

While it’s undeniable which party won the most campaigns this year, the Republican Party didn’t win the overall election – not with numbers like that. The winners were disgust, apathy, and a gnawing desire for a better choice – an alternative to what the two major parties currently are offering. …

The most obvious takeaway from the 2014 midterms is that it was a repudiation of Obama. One-third of voters said they cast their ballot in protest of the president, a rate similar to 2010 and 2006. Six of every 10 voters said they were dissatisfied or angry with Obama, equal to the amount who said the same of GOP leaders. A solid majority of voters said they disapprove of his party. …

Among the old structures that need to be sidelined or radically changed are the two major parties. Neither actually competes to be the best party, only the least-lousy choice. Neither is capable at the moment of winning elections; only losing less than the other guys. Neither party inspires, but they both divide and, occasionally, conquer.

I disagree with Ron to the extent that I think Republicans won the midterms, especially at the state level. Those races tend to be more about the local environment than the national environment, and the expanse of the victory is too broad to suggest that it’s just a mere reaction to Obama. On the national level, though, Ron’s closer to the target, which is why talk of permanent majorities or even generational majorities is premature at best, and misses the point. Now that they have the majority, what kind of governance will Republicans provide? That will determine the longevity of their control.