Republican party chairman Steele, Speaker-presumptive Boehner, Majority Whip-presumptive Cantor and Senator-elect Rubio from Florida have all described the result of yesterday's elections as a "second chance" for the Republican party to earn the lasting trust of American voters. These leaders apparently lack any consciousness of their own party's history.
The first Republican Speaker of the House acquired the gavel in 1860. Republicans controlled the House through the Civil War and for most of the Reconstruction era, until the 1874 congressional elections. The Republicans' second chance actually came way back in 1880, when they regained control of the House. That second chance lasted for one congressional term. Republicans' third chance arrived following the 1888 elections. That also lasted for a single term. Their fourth chance lasted somewhat longer, from 1895 through the 1910 elections. By 1918 voters were ready to give the GOP its fifth chance, which lasted until the Great Depression. After World War II, New Deal-fatigue and the first stirrings of anti-commie hysteria resulted in Republicans getting a sixth chance. During those two years they won the reputation of a do-nothing Congress. Before long, riding the coattails of Dwight Eisenhower, the Republicans got their seventh chance in 1952. Two years later, their long exile began, ending only when voters gave the Gingrich-led GOP its eighth chance in 1994. Burned by Bush, the electorate ended Republican control in 2006, only to give the party its ninth chance yesterday. To be fair, however, I should note that the Democrats, having existed longer than the Republicans, have had several more chances. It makes my point just as well.
Do Steele, Boehner, Cantor and Rubio want us to believe -- do they believe themselves -- that the Republican party only came into existence in 1994? If so, what party did Ronald Reagan belong to? Judging by presidential elections alone, Republicans in 2012 will be asking for their third chance to earn Americans' trust if we start counting only from the Reagan-Bush period. While it's true that Republican ideological evolution has been erratic, and that the party can hardly claim to have upheld any principle consistently from its founding to the present, it's historically dishonest even to imply that today's GOP is somehow not the same institution that's been hogging one end of the political tug-of-war rope for the past 150 years or so. Of course, none of the above leaders may have meant to say that. They might say "Republican" but they probably mean the radio-controlled reactionary movement that did come of age in 1994. But that movement chose to link its destiny with the contradictory heritage of the Republican party and can't shake off that heritage so easily. As for their audience, Americans need to understand that both major parties have been given more chances than they deserve. How many more chances do we give ourselves -- how many more do we have -- to get this right?