Did Republicans Pick the Right Time to Lose?

As Joe Biden’s struggles mount day by day, it’s looking more and more like the GOP may have dodged a bullet in 2020.

For once, it seems that the Republican Party may have picked a good time to lose a presidential election.

Historically, the GOP has chosen its victory years badly. Through no fault of their own, Republican presidents have happened to be in office during the 1990–1991 recession, the 2001 “dot com” crash, the 2007 financial crash, and the Covid-19 pandemic. President Trump was routinely his own worst enemy, and yet his defeat in 2020 was at least in part the product of the personal and economic chaos that was caused by a virus over which he had precisely no control. If Trump had won reelection last year — as he nearly did — it is fair to assume that the same headwinds that dragged him down at the voting booths would have continued dragging him down well into his second term.

Just look at Joe Biden. There have been many causes of Biden’s present predicament — his catastrophic handling of the withdrawal from Afghanistan; his preposterous and inappropriate overreach; his tendency to label his opponents as secessionists and traitors; his focus on a set of issues that nobody much cares about; and his uncanny ability to make any bad situation worse — but, despite his flaws, it seems unlikely that the hole that Biden is in would be as deep as it is had Covid-19 gone away as an issue last January. As of today, the RealClearPolitics polling average has Biden at 42 percent favorable, 53 percent unfavorable. Where, exactly, do we imagine Trump would be if he were currently the president? Modern history shows that presidents and their parties begin to crumble in the public’s estimation as they enter their fifth and sixth years in office, and that this crumbling tends to be reflected in the results of the next midterms. Irrespective of the degree to which the country’s problems could credibly have been considered his fault, it should not be too hard for us to imagine what the coming elections might look like if Donald Trump, rather than Joe Biden, were being blamed for the continuation of Covid-19, for spiraling inflation, and for our ongoing supply-chain problems.

Voters should not play games with their votes; rather, they should vote for the candidates they wish to see win, without respect to the broader patterns and undulations of political fortune. But, on a purely analytical basis, one may reasonably wonder whether, in the long run, the Republican Party will come to be grateful for its loss in 2020. Absent some dramatic change to the political landscape, this year may well turn out to be the high-water mark of Democratic power for the next five — or perhaps ten — years. That panic you see on Chuck Schumer’s face is the product of his suspicion that the next decade will be marked by electoral outcomes that make the sweeping change his party so desperately covets impossible. Had Trump hung on in 2020, Schumer would presumably be more relaxed, patiently waiting for Republicans to feel the backlash in 2022 and 2024.