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McCarthy asks the wrong question about elections, lessons learned

Kevin McCarthy wants to know if Democrats have “learned nothing” from the election results. It's a question better directed at the Republican's own party.


House Republican leaders held a news conference on Capitol Hill to complain about the pending congressional spending package, which is intended to prevent a government shutdown tomorrow night. But as part of his pitch, House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy raised a curious rhetorical question about economic policy:

“Why did we have to raise rates? Why is the interest going up? Inflation. How did we get inflation? The runaway spending from the Democrats. Did they learn nothing in the last month election?”

To be sure, the California Republican has earned a reputation as a clumsy speaker. With his “Why is the interest going up?” question, McCarthy was obviously trying to refer to interest rates as set by the Federal Reserve. When he mentioned “the last month election,” he was obviously pointing to the midterms.

What’s more, the GOP leader’s understanding of macroeconomic conditions isn’t great. High inflation is affecting many of the world’s economies right now, not because of congressional spending bills, but because of conditions related to the pandemic.

But I found myself stuck on McCarthy’s most important question: Did Democrats “learn nothing” from the 2022 midterm elections? The implication is that Democrats fared so poorly, and the party received such a brutal electoral rebuke, that they should take this opportunity to come to terms with their devastating defeats and rethink their policy positions.

There are a couple of problems with this.

The first is that Republicans have a curious habit of learning nothing from election defeats. In 2018, for example, the party lost 40 House seats and its majority in the chamber. Two years later, the GOP lost the Senate and the White House, too. What would McCarthy say Republicans learned from the results? Did the GOP reconsider its approach to governance in the wake of their losses?

But just as notable was the flawed premise in the minority leader’s question? To hear McCarthy tell it, Democrats struggled so badly that they should learn from the failures.

Except, that’s not what happened. As we recently discussed, since World War II, Democratic presidents in their first midterms have seen their party lose an average of 40 House seats and five Senate seats. Since Watergate, the results have looked even worse for the party: Democratic presidents in their first midterms have seen their party lose an average of 44 House seats and six Senate seats.

This year, President Joe’s Biden’s party only lost nine House seats, while managing to expand their Senate majority, gaining gubernatorial offices, and even flipping some state legislative chambers. Indeed, Democrats didn’t lose any state legislative chambers in this year’s midterms, which is a first for the party since FDR in 1934.

What’s more, over the past century, only three presidents — FDR in 1934, John F. Kennedy in 1962 and George W. Bush in 2002 — finished a midterm cycle with fewer than 10 House losses and zero Senate losses. Biden just joined that club.

A year ahead of the midterm elections, McCarthy said Republicans could flip as many as 60 seats. A member of his leadership team predicted that as many as 70 House Democrats could lose their seats as part of a “red wave.”

McCarthy wants to know if Democrats have “learned nothing” from the election results. Isn’t the better question what his GOP has learned after falling far so far short?