Opinion - Politics

Here are the 5 biggest Republican mistakes of the decade

Key Points
  • Thanks to five major blunders over the last decade, including nominating Mitt Romney, the Republican Party is actually weaker than it was 10 years ago, Jake Novak writes.
Republican presidential candidate, former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney speaks during a campaign stop at Lansing Community College May 8, 2012 in Lansing, Michigan. Last night former U.S. Sen. Rick Santorum gave his endorsement to Gov. Romney in an e-mail sent to supporters.
Bill Pugliano | Getty Images

For Republicans, the 2010s end with the party seemingly in a better situation than it was when the decade started. The GOP has control of the White House and the Senate. Ten years ago, the Democrats held the White House and both houses of Congress.

But that scorecard doesn't tell the whole story. Thanks to five major blunders over the last decade, the Republican Party is actually weaker than it was on Jan.1, 2010. To understand why, you have to document each key mistake in order:

2010: Blowing the midterm elections

The 2008 elections gave Barack Obama a clear win in the presidential election and the Democrats a filibuster-proof supermajority in Congress. They proceeded to spend that political capital almost entirely on passing Obamacare in a lengthy process that included a number of unusual compromises with their own party members, like the "Cornhusker Kickback" and controversial legislative tricks like the "deemed as passed" maneuver. All of this took place even as the Affordable Care Act failed to gain majority support in the polls.

That set the stage for a strong Republican advantage going into the 2010 midterm elections. On paper, the GOP did score a resounding victory, picking up 63 seats in the House of Representatives and a net gain of six seats in the Senate.

But Republicans blew a solid chance to retake the Senate. They put up weak candidates in several winnable races. They included Sharon Angle in Nevada, who was seen as too radical and managed to lose to then-incumbent Harry Reid despite his very weak approval ratings in his home state. Arch-abortion opponent Ken Buck won the GOP nomination in Colorado, marginalizing him in a moderate state. The biggest mistake of all was Christine O'Donnell in Delaware. O'Donnell lost after she became infamous for her revelation that she had once experimented with witchcraft.

As a result, the Democrats kept control of the Senate and the Republicans lost a chance to force Obama into what could have been a series of advantageous compromises over the next six years.

2012: Nominating Mitt Romney for president

Despite the failure to grab the Senate, the GOP was still riding strong anti-Obamacare sentiment and voter frustration over the slow recovery from the Great Recession. Much of this was fueled by the Tea Party movement, which added a rare Republican grassroots element to the GOP.

When you think about it now, all of that made former Mitt Romney an extremely odd choice for the Republican nomination for president in 2012. He embodied the establishment GOP in almost every way. Romney had years as a hedge fund manager at Bain Capital on his resume at a time when most Americans were still blaming Wall Street for the nation's economic woes. Worst of all, his universal health coverage plan enacted while he was governor of Massachusetts looked eerily like Obamacare. In fact, "Romneycare" was seen as one of the models the crafters of the Affordable Care Act used when they wrote the law. If the GOP wanted to put up a candidate who invigorated its anti-Obamacare and increasingly anti-establishment base, they couldn't have missed the mark much more than they did with Mitt Romney.

2013: Failing to recognize the crisis at the border

The first surge of unaccompanied children at the U.S. southern border began in 2013. It resumed a year later, and the Obama administration responded by detaining many of those children in fenced-in areas critics of the Trump administration today like to call "cages."

While the immigration issue and border battles have been front page news since President Trump was elected, the severe problems at the same border in 2013 and 2014 didn't garner anywhere near as much attention in the mainstream media. But it was a regular topic on right wing talk radio at the time, and Republican congressional leaders should have spent more time listening.

All of this set the stage for making the border issue the blunt weapon that helped Donald Trump trounce a crowded field of establishment GOP presidential candidates in the 2016 primaries. More importantly, it was evidence that Republican leaders seemed more interested in bowing to corporate pressure to keep the borders relatively open instead of dealing with the problems that massive migration present on a human scale.

2014: Surrendering before the battle

The midterm elections of 2014 gave the Republicans control of the Senate that they should have won in 2010. But even before the new members took their oaths of office, then-Senate Majority Leader-elect Mitch McConnell promised never to trigger a government shutdown. That effectively took the sharpest arrow out of the GOP's congressional quiver, and again relieved the greatest pressure the Republicans could have exercised against Obama.

2017: The Obamacare "repeal & replace" failure

The above four mistakes weren't all bad for the Republicans, because without them it seems unlikely that Trump would have won the 2016 GOP nomination. It's hard to believe that any of the other Republican candidates could have beaten Hillary Clinton.

But under Trump, congressional Republicans and the White House have made a major error that has already come back to bite them and could do so again. That is, the failure to pass the repeal of Obamacare in 2017 and the lack of any sweeping plan to replace the ACA even if it were fully repealed.

That failure was made memorable by the late Sen. John McCain's decision to vote to uphold Obamacare despite his fierce and longtime opposition to the law. But its most powerful effect came in the 2018 midterm elections, when Republicans lost control of the House in an election where health care polled as the number one issue for voters.

No matter what the Trump administration and Republicans in Congress do to address rising health care costs in the coming months or years, the failure to get ahead of the issue in the first year of Trump's term will continue to be a costly error.

The good news for the GOP is that the 2020 elections will provide the party with a chance to make up for a lot of this past decade's mistakes. But the bad news is that they've already put the party in a tougher position than it could have been in the first place.

Jake Novak is a political and economic analyst at Jake Novak News and former CNBC TV producer. You can follow him on Twitter @jakejakeny.

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