In eleven months, the midterm elections to determine the 110th Congress will be held. Over the past months, the Bush administration and the Republican Party have been lambasted for their continued inability to steer the nation on a proper course. From the woeful response to Hurricane Katrina, to allegations of corruption plaguing the Capitol and the West Wing, to the CIA leak case, to the war in Iraq, polls from here until Sunday show a continuing decline in support for the party in power.
This past November, a warning shot was fired across the bow of the Republican Party. In the off-year elections, the Republican Party suffered losses all over the country. These were the kinds of losses that indicate an impatience not just with GOP legislators or the man in the White House, but conservative ideals and/or evangelical morality.
In Pennsylvania, all eight members of the Dover school board who were in favor of teaching Intelligent Design were removed. In California, hardly a state that can be considered Republican, to be sure, all four of Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger’s ballot initiatives were defeated.
From the realm of more conventional politics, the Republican candidate for governor of Virginia, Jerry W. Kilgore, lost in part due to an election-eve visit by President Bush at a campaign rally. It was a stop intended to boost Republican turnout for an embattled candidate, but it appears that it had the opposite effect, widening Mr. Kilgore’s margin of defeat. That race was also an indication of the growing political prestige of departing Virginia Governor Mark Warner, as the Governor-elect, Timothy M. Kaine, had been picked by Mr. Warner as his successor. Despite any kind of spin the GOP can place on that race, the fact that a powerful Democrat is thriving just across the river from the White House in a region of the country that is supposed to be held in the GOP’s iron grip is annoying to them at the very least.
If this small sampling of GOP setbacks in an off-year election seems like small reason for Democrats to celebrate, that’s because it is. The very term “off-year election” is indicative of the level of importance of these races. Some politicians did suffer a backlash because of the GOP’s terrible policies, but most of those responsible, and every single one that has an office in Washington, was shielded by the calendar.
As the poll numbers kept dropping, as the GOP kept bungling, and as they offered little resistance to the attacks against them, it’s easy to see that the GOP was not going to waste much time and money for an election in which the worst offenders were not going to be held accountable. This does not bode well for the Democratic Party.
Despite what Democrats and pollsters say, the Republican Party is not on the ropes, nor are the Democrats but a year away from retaking Congress. Next year, in fact, could see Republican gains rather than losses.
The main reason for this is the impotence of the Democratic Party. Ever since they were ousted from power in the 1994 midterms, the Democrats have been struggling to win elections. The Democratic Party is bereft of ideas, bereft of unity, and bereft of powerful figures not named Clinton, yet still has a deficit that can be overcome, as opposed to being a true, lonely party of opposition. The fact that they have kept the fight close (the GOP have been operating on small majorities in Congress compared to the drubbings the Democrats used to give them) is an indication that the ideas of the Republicans do not resonate as completely with the American people as they would have you believe.
Yet with this all-important election year soon to be upon us, the Democrats are publicly airing their grievances and differences with each other, thereby weakening their position with voters. The vice-presidential candidate from 2000, Senator Joseph Lieberman, openly courts the favor of the men he once ran against. House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi has joined, along with others, with Pennsylvania Congressman John Murtha in calling for immediate withdrawal from Iraq. All the while the Democratic front-runner for the 2008 presidential nomination, Senator Hillary Clinton, is defending her support for the war while sponsoring pandering legislation that calls for making flag burning a federal crime. Any good ideas emanating from this party are getting lost in the noise as they bicker over the direction the party should take, while they position themselves for individual advancement, and while they criticize their Republican counterparts without appearing to present an alternative other than “not being Republican.” It would be nice if that were enough, but the presidential campaign of John Kerry should have taught the Democratic Party that it is not.
While these fights are going on, the chairman of the party, Howard Dean, is making the rounds on the Sunday morning talk shows promising that sometime soon, the Democrats will have a unifying party platform along the lines of the GOP’s wildly successful Contract with America. Howard Dean is blessed with the ability to be the loudest person in the room, but whether or not he can shout down the discord that has come to define his party remains to be seen.
Assuming the Democrats can come together and really put the fight to the GOP, they will then have to deal with the Republican election machine. Mostly idle this past year after stunning victories in 2004, the machine will be rested and re-funded for another go. The Republicans weren’t just lucky that the worst year for the country in memory came this year instead of next, or last. It was partly engineered that way. No, they don’t control the weather, but the weak response they put to their critics was partly to blame for the crescendo of voices that rose up against them.
Normally, when the dial begins to slip downward on public perception of the GOP, the spinmeisters ratchet up their rhetoric and back it up with mounds of paper from conservative-controlled think tanks. But not this past year. Where once they had the people on their side, this year the GOP and the conservatives have been vulnerable to that greatest of assets, public opinion. But they weren’t fighting all that hard. Why should they have bothered, when the real test isn’t until next year?
Instead, they took their lumps, and began to get ready for next year. The GOP put up paltry resistance to the criticisms and accusations it was subjected to this fall because it recognizes an immutable truth of this country. The political history of this country has shown time and time again that the collective memory and attention span of the nation is short. What causes rage and indignation one year can be easily forgotten the next after the TV news moves on to the next outrage or celebrity divorce. It’s a sad cliché, but tragically true.
For example, the city of New Orleans is still in desperate straits. Reconstruction is being handled in a classically inept way, typical of the Bush administration. While there has been an uptick in coverage of late, none of the news has the resonance of a fresh event, even though these days are every bit as important as the first after the hurricane.
The Iraq war is one place where the GOP, in particular the Bush administration, is openly battling its critics. But the administration, while suffering huge hits in its credibility this fall when the 2,000th US troop fell, has changed its tack. They are slowly beginning to embrace phased withdrawal. Without a doubt they will be stepped up in time for the midterm elections. When that happens, the GOP can claim credit for beginning an end to the war. How can the Democrats attack that? The nature of the American people being what it is, the president, and by extension, the Republican Party, will be held in high praise for drawing down the war, not in contempt for starting it in the first place. Most Americans will instinctively reward the party for doing the right thing, no matter how belatedly, nor how mistaken the war was in the first place.
One of the more surprising aspects of this fall was that as the Republicans began to get showered with criticism, the veneer of unity began to crack. This was especially evident in the disastrous nomination of Harriet Miers to the Supreme Court, when the far-right base of the party rebelled against its chosen son. The chances of these rifts not being completely healed by next fall are practically zero.
Lastly, the GOP will be out in force this coming year. Whereas they backed away from many fights this fall, almost offering themselves as sacrifices at many points, next year they will be out picking fights, flooding the airwaves, papers and blogs with examples of Democratic malfeasance and moral bankruptcy. They will have their soldiers out in force, raising money and spreading propaganda. They do it well.
So in regard to all the obituaries that have been written this past fall for Republican rule...they are all pure fantasy. The GOP is a powerful party that will not go gently into that good night. That type of introspection and acceptance of responsibility is nonexistent in the Republican Party.
The Democrats cannot expect to simply inherit Congress from a Republican Party slain by its own incompetence, because in the GOP, winning elections is one area where that word does not apply. The Democrats will have to earn their seats.