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Conservatives better suited to Congress

The conventional wisdom is that if national Republicans continue to promote policies and politics that appeal mostly to older, white, married and religious voters in a country that is becoming younger, more diverse, less married and more secular, the party is doomed — if not now, then surely in the longer term.

However, the party's recent presidential failures notwithstanding, Republicans continue to survive, even thrive, especially at the congressional level.

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The Congress-strong, presidency-weak Republican Party of the past two decades contrasts sharply with the major parties' electoral histories prior to the rise of Bill Clinton. Between 1952 and 1988, Republicans won seven of 10 presidential elections despite never controlling the U.S. House and holding the Senate only for the first six years of Ronald Reagan's presidency.

How and why did this partisan reversal-of-fortunes occur? I address that question and its implications in my new book, "The Stronghold: How Republicans Captured Congress but Surrendered the White House," published this month by Yale University Press.

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My main contention is that the Republicans — and, I suppose, the Democrats too — have reached a point of ideological-institutional confluence. Specifically, in our protracted modern era of partisan polarization and divided government, it makes sense that the more conservative party dominates Congress rather than the presidency.

But don't take it from me: As I explain in the book, noted conservative scholars James Buchanan and Wilmoore Kendall had already advanced a "two majorities" thesis a half-century ago.

They argued that conservatives should support the framers' intent to create a national government dominated by Congress, composed as it is of members who represent a centrifugal patchwork of conflicting local and statewide communities. For they intended to create a degree of conflict among diverse and disagreeable numerical minorities sufficient to limit, dilute or otherwise restrain federal power.

By contrast, as the only officials representing the entire nation, "plebiscitary" presidents are natural agents for rapid and equilibrium-shattering change, and should therefore be the institution into which liberals properly invest their more activist aspirations, argued Buchanan and Kendall.

Which notable Republican politician of the past half-century best understood the implications of the "two majorities" thesis? Not Mr. Reagan. Surely not advocates of the "unitary theory" of presidential power, like neoconservative Dick Cheney.

It was Newt Gingrich. I say "was," given his recent presidential ambitions. But in his early days as House renegade and eventual speaker, Mr. Gingrich believed a country that governed from Congress governed best.

As I argue in "The Stronghold," however, a Congress-centric Republican Party faces a variety of problems.

For starters, because Republicans enjoy inflated representation in both the Senate (because they hold more small-state seats) and House (thanks to the combined effects of strategic gerrymandering and highly-clustered Democratic voters), the party has avoided learning to connect with non-white voters, upon whom few GOP senators or representatives rely to maintain their offices. This disconnect is evident in one House member's claim that most Mexican immigrants have "calves the size of cantaloupes" from smuggling "75 pounds of marijuana" across the border, or another member's speech a dozen years ago to a white supremacist group.

Second, despite recapturing the Senate in 2014, the GOP remains a House-based party. Every 2012 presidential aspirant pledged fealty to Rep. Paul Ryan's budget plan. The party's tea party wing is particularly vibrant in the House. Even the Senate in the new 114th Congress is House-heavy: 30 of the 55 Republican senators are former representatives.

Finally and most damning, Congress' public approval rating is abysmally low. Americans express more trust in banks, the media and even HMOs. Being closely identified with the shutdown-prone, debt ceiling-tinkering Congress is bad business for Republicans.

When Barack Obama leaves office in 2017, the national government will have been divided for 44 of the previous 64 years, nearly 70 percent of the time. If the oddsmakers' current favorite Hillary Clinton wins in 2016, divided government will persist and the GOP will remain a Congress-based party.

Presuming divided government is indeed the new normal, conservatives should prefer that Republicans control Capitol Hill rather than occupy the Oval Office. But whatever its allures, a Republican Party defined by its congressional wing is risky political business for the GOP.

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Thomas F. Schaller teaches political science at UMBC. His column appears every other Wednesday. His email is schaller67@gmail.com. Twitter: @schaller67.

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