Many years ago, I heard one of the Republican Party's strategists, Alex Castellanos, explain elections as offering voters a chance to use the gas or the brakes. In times when voters dislike the direction their leaders are taking them, they can hit the brakes. When they want to continue further down the road they're on, they can hit the gas.
In 2013, at an event at the Brookings Institution, Castellanos described it in this way:
"Why did Republicans do so well in 2010 and so poorly in 2012? 2010, Democrats controlled everything, right? House, Senate, White House. No brake pedal on that car, three accelerators. America saw Washington out of control, somebody hit the brakes."
In 2010, voters certainly hit the brakes on the Obama presidency. Fast forward to the 2016 election, where voters yanked up on the emergency brake and did a donut in the parking lot. Now, the car has stopped. We sit here dizzy for a moment, looking to get on the road again.
Republicans have by and large done a lousy job asking for permission to drive. Four years ago, Castellanos rightly described Republicans as "the party of the brake pedal" but bemoaned that the party had not made the case for why they deserved the steering wheel. And if the Republican Party is a party of slowing the growth of spending, stopping the expansion of the bureaucracy, it makes sense. Those are all "brake pedal" actions: slowing, stopping.
Donald Trump is now in the driver's seat. Just like you wouldn't want to be in a car with someone who is tweeting while driving, America's driver is distracted and the passengers feel unsafe (Republicans, Democrats, and independents all agree: Trump should stop tweeting from his personal account). And thus, the Democrats — for the first time since their successful 2006 midterm — are in the position of arguing that they should be the ones slamming on the brakes.
Better to be parked on the side of the road than to be careening down the freeway going 90 miles per hour while the driver fires off an angry note on his phone, right?
But most voters would rather not have either of those outcomes. There's no question that a Democratic Congress plus a Trump presidency would equal gridlock. Nothing moves, nothing changes, nothing gets accomplished, nothing gets reformed. Voters know this. And voters already feel like Washington is chock-full of gridlock and dysfunction (Where the economy used to reign supreme as the top issue in voters' minds, "dissatisfaction with government" has surged in 2017).
The task for Republicans in Congress, eager to hang on to their seats and their majorities in 2018, is to make America excited about where we could be heading and to promise to be a steady hand. Electing Democrats means nothing happens. Elect Republicans, and at least there's a chance. Speaker Ryan, for instance, has encouraged his caucus to think differently about being a "governing" party instead of an "opposition" party, having put forward his "a better way" agenda in 2016.
But there's only so far that can go if voters are also unhappy with the big bills being kicked around in Congress. The healthcare "repeal and replace" effort thus far polls terribly and we're now hearing full-on brake pedal language coming out of the Senate, where some have now called for repeal now, replace later. Nobody feels much like steering, or making the case for why we're going where we're going, either.
There are certainly more Republicans who like President Trump than like "Republicans in Congress," and certainly many Republicans who already feel like their own Congress is a brake pedal of its own. But it would be misleading to simply point to President Trump's approval rating and to say voters seem to like him better than either party in Congress, so Republicans should be fine in 2018.
Back in 2010, voters had overwhelmingly negative views of both parties in Congress, and while President Obama's job approval was far from amazing, it was in the high 40s, numbers Congress could only dream of having. That didn't stop voters from putting those unpopular Republicans in charge of checking a more popular president.
Democrats can succeed with a "brake pedal" message in 2018 if Republicans haven't driven us anywhere either, or haven't made the case for why they should. Voters would rather not see Washington simply stopped on the roadside arguing over which way to go. It will be so disappointing if they think that's the best outcome for which they can vote.
Kristen Soltis Anderson is a columnist for the Washington Examiner and author of "The Selfie Vote."