How the parties handle setbacks

HOW THE PARTIES HANDLE SETBACKS…. Political parties are going to experience highs and lows, victories and setbacks. And while the ebbs and flows of shifting electoral fortunes are hard to avoid, how a party responds to adversity says something about their commitments and fortitude.

With that in mind, consider a few examples from recent history.

* In 1998, voters were unimpressed, to put it mildly, with the Republican crusade against Bill Clinton. In the midterms, voters sent a message — in a historical rarity, the party that controlled the White House gained congressional seats in the sixth year of a presidency. It was a stinging rebuke of the GOP and its excesses.

House Republicans responded by impeaching the president anyway. In fact, they did so quickly, ramming impeachment through the chamber before newly-elected lawmakers could take office.

* In 2006, voters were widely dissatisfied with the war in Iraq, and wanted to see a withdrawal. In the midterms, the Republican majority didn’t just suffer setbacks; they lost both the House and Senate. It was an overwhelming rejection of GOP rule.

In response, Republicans endorsed escalating the conflict anyway, and approved funding for the “surge.”

* In 2008, Democrats took the White House and expanded their congressional majorities to heights unseen in a generation. After years of witnessing abject failure, the electorate wanted nothing to do with the GOP.

Republicans responded by changing literally nothing about their agenda, ideas, ideology, rhetoric, tone, attitude, or approach to politics.

* In 2009, there were five congressional special elections. Democrats won all five — including one district that hadn’t been represented by a Democrat since the 1800s. Despite frustrations about the pace of change in D.C., voters still weren’t buying what the GOP was selling.

Republicans again responded by changing literally nothing about their agenda, ideas, ideology, rhetoric, tone, attitude, or approach to politics.

* In 2010, Democrats lost a special election in Massachusetts. In response, Dems are having a meltdown and seem to have gone into scream/cry/panic mode. Many leading figures in the congressional delegation are prepared to give up on their policy agenda altogether.

The difference in the way the two parties handle setbacks is hard to miss. Nothing conveys weakness like running for the hills at the first sign of trouble.

* edited for clarity

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Steve Benen

Steve Benen is a producer at MSNBC's The Rachel Maddow Show. He was the principal contributor to the Washington Monthly's Political Animal blog from August 2008 until January 2012.