01 Apr 2008

A Bad Year

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The Sunday New York Times Magazine this week had a feature by Benjamin Wallace-Wells profiling Oklahoma Congressman Tom Cole, chairman of the National Republican Congressional Committee, and discussing Cole’s uphill task this year.

Going into the 2008 elections, Cole faces a daunting list of challenges. To date, 29 of his party’s representatives in Congress have retired, an unusually large number, leaving open politically marginal seats that incumbents might have held but which will be more difficult for challengers to defend — Deborah Pryce’s seat in Columbus, Ohio; Mike Ferguson’s in central New Jersey; Heather Wilson’s around Albuquerque; Thomas M. Reynolds’s in Buffalo. Reynolds, Cole’s predecessor at the N.R.C.C., just narrowly held his seat in 2006. Rick Renzi, a Republican congressman from Arizona, was indicted last month on federal corruption charges, putting what was another safe Republican seat in play. These vacancies mean that in a year when, by historical standards, his party would be expected to win back seats, Cole will have to defend many more seats than he will be able to attack (only six Democratic incumbents have announced they are leaving office). His committee has approximately $5 million on hand, roughly one-eighth the amount of cash on hand as its Democratic counterpart, which at latest count had $38 million. …

Many within the Democratic Party believe that the gains of the 2006 election weren’t merely the result of good strategy. They believe that the map was undergoing a fundamental shift. Perhaps the most-studied Democratic detailer of the map’s evolution is a consultant named Mark Gersh, whose analysis of the 2006 election results has become the Democratic Party’s official version. “Most people think of politics as changing from the grass roots up,” Gersh says. “It doesn’t. It changes from the top, from presidential races on down.”

For Gersh, the modern political map has sustained two basic changes in the past 30 years. The first, beginning with Ronald Reagan’s election in 1980 but only culminating with the 1994 election of Newt Gingrich’s insurgents, was the slow, top-down conversion of socially conservative blue-collar voters, in the South and elsewhere, from Democratic partisans to Republican ones. In 2006, Gersh saw the culmination of the second big shift. “The biggest thing that happened in 2006 was the final movement of upper-income, well-educated, largely suburban voters to the Democrats, which started in 1992,” he says. The largest concentrations of districts that flipped were in the suburbs and the Northeast. This, Gersh says, was the equal and opposite reaction to the earlier movement toward the Republicans and to some degree a product of the social conservatism demanded by the Republican majority. When I spoke to Emanuel earlier this month, he told me: “I believe there’s a suburban populism now. The Republican Party has abandoned any economic, cultural or social connection to those districts.” …

Many Republican operatives now worry that crucial segments of the electorate are slipping away from them. Republicans had traditionally won the votes of independents; in 2006, they lost them by 18 percent. Hispanic voters, who gave the Democrats less than 60 percent of their votes in 2004, cast more than 70 percent of their votes for Democrats in 2006. Suburban voters, long a Republican constituency, favored Democrats in 2006 for the first time since 1992. And Democrats won their largest share of voters under 30 in the modern era, a number particularly troubling for some Republicans, since it seems to indicate the preferences of an entire generation.

“What is concerning is that we lost ground in every one of the highest-growth demographics,” said Mehlman, the former R.N.C. chairman and Bush political adviser, who is now a lawyer at the lobbying firm Akin Gump.

Tom Cole, however, thinks the situation is not hopeless.

Cole’s basic challenge is to try to flip the popular perception of the capital so that more voters identify Washington with the Democrats than with the Republicans. He says he wants to use his party’s resources to define Nancy Pelosi as a national character, the face of a Democratic Congress that is once again too liberal for the country. (“Those three little words — ‘San Francisco liberal’ — are just magic for fund-raising,” one of Cole’s staff members told me.) He has tried, when possible, to choose candidates whose biographies can reinforce the anti-Washington theme, even if they have no real political experience. And he is counting on McCain’s emergence to permit the party to distance its image from that of Bush. Cole might have come up with a grand and unifying policy vision for his insurgents to run on. But Cole is not an ideologue. And with Rove and the party’s other grand strategists having abandoned the field — five of the six members of the Republican Congressional leadership in 2006 have now retired — Cole is now turning to practical answers, to process, and deferring to the politically moderate geography of the battleground areas. “I still think most Americans want their government to be smaller, not bigger, and their taxes to be lower, not higher,” Cole says. “And I still think most Democrats in office think that America is not a force for good in the world, and I think most voters have a different perspective.”

But Wallace-Wells believes the GOP coalition and platform are in serious trouble.

Part of the problem, for a Republican Party that wants to get back to basics, is that George Bush and Karl Rove’s party was not theirs alone but a pretty precise articulation of decades of post-’60s Republican strategy. “You go back to the Reagan years, and even before that, and we always had a three-legged stool: anti-Communism, anti-abortion and tax and spend,” Dan Mattoon, the Republican lobbyist and former deputy chairman of Cole’s committee, told me. “The first leg dropped off when the Berlin Wall fell, and after 9/11 we’ve tried to do the same thing with terrorism, but it’s not as strong. The second leg, tax and spend, was pretty strong until George Bush. Then we had just one leg of the stool, which was social issues, and I think that you look at the makeup of the younger generation and there’s more of a libertarian view on social issues.” Cole says that the party’s rhetoric on issues like gay marriage has cast Republicans as too reactionary for many suburban districts. “My problem on social issues is the tone — sometimes we have been too shrill, and that has alienated voters who might otherwise have joined us.

In other words, he is repeating the conventional viewpoint that the Reagan coalition of anti-communist neocons, religious and social conservatives, and economic conservatives has fallen apart.

I think it’s more the case that the Republican coalition, under George W. Bush, has fallen into disarray for lack of articulate and firmly principled leadership.

Bush is so inarticulate that it isn’t easy at all to identify a coherent Bush philosophy, but it seems clear that he has always been a moderate on Government, and is in many ways a liberal (resembling Woodrow Wilson) in foreign policy. Bush’s so-called conservatism has generally consisted of a manifest rejection of the consensus of the elect as articulated in the elite media outlets, which is widely recognized as an expression of a visceral animosity on Bush’s part to his own native elite culture.

Therein really consists his unforgivable sin from the point of view of the Establishment left. And Bush’s folly has proven to be his willingness to provoke their ultimate degree of wrath in the absence of an effective ability to fight them in public debate or within government.

Amusingly, Bush got away with his fundamentally happy-go-lucky approach right up until 2005 Hurricane Katrina. He seemed to be made of teflon. Media attacks simply bounced off him, and the American public in general indifferently shrugged off his malapropisms with a smile until along came New Orleans. The MSM was able to flood televisions screens with images of disaster while blaming them on Bush Administration incompetence and callousness. Blame for Katrina finally stuck.

Simultaneously, the disinformation operation conducted by disaffected elements of the Intelligence Community proceeded without White House interference or effective opposition. The passage of a couple of years proved adequate for the media echo chamber to persuade large portions of the public that “Bush lied.” There were no Iraqi WMD, and Bush knew it all along. He started the war “for the oil,” or to avenge Saddam Hussein’s attempt to assassinate his father.

The collapse of Bush Administration political activity coincided with a series of Republican Congressional scandals, and together produced the public perception of a failed and discredited GOP and the subsequent loss of both houses of Congress.

Bush’s failures seem to be amplified by the failures of the Conservative Movement. The Conservative Movement chose the time of Republican disarray to try mobilizing the base with a red meat issue. And what did they chose? Anti-illegal immigration. Anti-illegal immigration politics worked beautifully in transforming California into a firmly democrat stronghold. Why not take the same strategy, certain to alienate Hispanic voters, nationally?

Both George W. Bush and the current organized Conservative Movement demonstrably arrived at the 2008 primary campaign season without a defined candidate, a coherent strategy, or a clue.

The consequence was John McCain’s victory, produced by a combination of media bias and cross-over democrat voting in open primaries. Essentially, we are running the moderate democrat candidate this year as the Republican nominee.

If the Conservative Movement and the GOP does not return to the kind of politics practiced by Barry Goldwater and Ronald Reagan, to a politics based on a coherent and principled philosophy, to clearly articulated ideas, to a policy of winning elections by winning the long-term national debate, they are going to find the GOP stool has no leg to stand on at all.

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