Tuesday, February 28, 2006

Delusional Republican

Hugh Hewitt's optimism reminds me of nothing so much as those "Delusional Jock/Cheerleader/etc." spots on MTV:

As with the Patriot Act, as with the debate over the NSA program to conduct surveillance of al Qaeda communicating with its agents inside America, and as with the war on all of its fronts, the president and the party he leads are serious about the debate and the stakes.

The Democrats aren't.

A photo op at the harbor with Chuck Schumer and Hillary is just another in a long line of stunts that is supposed to pass as a policy: Congressman Murtha's demand for an immediate withdrawal; Harry Reid's gloating that he "had killed the Patriot Act," John Kerry's never-ending campaign -- they are all the same stunt.

It didn't work in 2002. It didn't work in 2004. And it isn't going to work in 2006.

Much as I wish that were true, I'm not so rosy about 2006.

First, the Bush whose whirlwind campaign in 2002 helped win Senate seats for Republicans like Saxby Chambliss and Norm Coleman and who ran for re-election in 2004 is not the Bush who will campaign for Republicans in 2006. He carries the baggage, both good and bad, of five years in office, including, in just the past year, the failure to reform Social Security, the Katrina debacle, the Harriet Miers nomination, the Scooter Libby indictment, the wiretapping controversy, and the not-noticeably-improving situation in Iraq. None of these issues on its own has been enough to sink Bush, but taken together, they raise questions about competence and trustworthiness.

For the most part, with the major exception of Iraq, such doubts have been confined to domestic matters, but those doubts have already started to seep into national security. According to the CBS poll released today, only 43 percent approve of Bush's handling of the war on terror -- that's the war on terror, not Iraq, Bush's management of which scores only 30 percent approval. Last week, John Podhoretz pointed out a Rasmussen poll in which "Democrats in Congress are outpolling President Bush on national security. By a margin of 43 to 41 percent, Americans say they trust Congressional Democrats more than Bush when it comes to protecting our national security" (emphasis in original). Take polls for what they're worth, but this has happened even as the Democrats have articulated no policy except opposition and obstruction. Sooner or later, we're going to reach a tipping point -- if it hasn't already arrived -- past which it's probably not going to matter to many voters that the Democrats don't have coherent policies, or any at all. It will matter only that they're not Bush, that they're not Republicans.

Moreover, the Bush of 2006 is not the Bush of 2002 or 2004 in another very important sense: his approval numbers -- and therefore his political capital and influence -- are now at all-time lows. In the fall of 2002, as Bush toured the country in support of Republican candidates, his Gallup approval rating for September and October averaged 66 percent. Two years later, in the two months preceding the presidential election, Bush's approval hovered around 50 percent, which materialized in 51 percent of the national vote. The same CBS poll puts Bush's approval rating at 34 percent. There is every reason to believe, as Kellyanne Conway points out, that Bush would lose were he to face the voters today -- lose, that is, to John Kerry and lose even as Kerry articulates no substantive national-security policy.

Second, it's already been more than four years since 9/11, four years without a terrorist attack on American soil. After the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989, it took the U.S. a mere three years to have a presidential campaign in which national security did not figure prominently and to elect a Democrat whose national-security credentials were weak. As 9/11 fades into memory, as we go longer and longer without an attack (thanks, in large part, to Bush's policies), it becomes easier and easier -- though still wrong -- to slip into complacence and to start to think about other things. Just look at the conservative Republican Study Committee's list of ten legislative priorities for 2006: there is not a single national-security item among them. This is why Rudy Giuliani's presidential candidacy probably won't get much traction and why 2006 is not going to be fought over national security to the extent it was in 2002 and 2004. And as Iraq is increasingly seen as a failure, even if it isn't in reality, it becomes easier and easier to reject Bush and the GOP.

Third, most politics is local, except where parties can nationalize them to their benefit as in 1994 and 2002. Even so, in 2002, Bush and national issues like the war on terror might have put Norm Coleman over the top, but the tragic and unfortunate death of the incumbent Paul Wellstone gave Coleman a far weaker opponent in Walter Mondale and created the unsavory spectacle of a memorial service-turned-political rally. The Georgia in which Saxby Chambliss won that year was a state rapidly trending Republican and a state in which the incumbent Max Cleland fit in less and less; national-security issues only highlighted those changes. We should remember, as well, that in that same year Arkansas dumped Republican Sen. Tim Hutchinson, Iowa retained a supposedly vulnerable Tom Harkin, Louisiana kept Mary Landrieu in a December runoff, and deep-red South Dakota narrowly re-elected Tim Johnson. Already in 2006, Rick Santorum is trailing challenger Bob Casey, Jr., who has taken a position on almost nothing so far, by double digits. This does not augur well, at least for Santorum.

While I personally continue to support Bush in general, including on most aspects of the war on terror, I nevertheless doubt whether using the president -- at least in ways similar to 2002 -- will benefit Republican candidates. For their own reasons, particularly because his approval ratings are so low, Democrats want the midterms to be about Bush. Do we also? I'm not saying we must or should reject him and his policies, but some distance is in order. We've already seen this in the widespread GOP opposition to the ports deal. That's no accident: does anyone think that, had the deal been made sixteen months ago, so many Republican representatives and senators would have bolted?

The case for optimism is delusional.

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