Monday, May 22, 2006


The GOP's "Optimism" About the Midterms

Today's Washington Post piece on GOP strategy for the midterm elections has Republican officials offering one Panglossian assertion after another about how the party can use the midterms to enable President Bush to stage a comeback. At first glance one is tempted to condemn the piece for giving Republicans so much journalistic real estate to showcase their alleged "optimism" about November, but in truth the piece slyly adds up to a very damning picture of just how desperate and out of gas the GOP is right now.

[S]hort of some event outside their direct control -- such as a dramatic turnaround in Iraq or the capture of Osama bin Laden -- Bush advisers have turned to the election as the most important chance to rewrite the troubled narrative of his presidency and allow him to recover enough to govern his last two years, Republican strategists said...

Bush remains a firm believer in the "Iraq first" strategy. The war has overshadowed everything else and, in the White House's view, to a large extent has poisoned the public against other messages -- to the point that many Americans fault Bush's handling of the economy even though economic performance has been strong. So the White House calculates that if the public sees any improvement in Iraq and a withdrawal of even some U.S. troops, Republicans will be rewarded...

A top adviser said Rove and White House political director Sara M. Taylor are advising candidates not to duck the issue of Iraq but rather to make it a centerpiece of their campaigns.

The Rove-Taylor view is that one-third of Americans agree with liberal Democrats calling for immediate withdrawal and another third support staying the course. The middle third wants a new strategy, but would be leery of pulling out and leaving behind a volatile Iraq, a position strategists believe leaves those voters open to persuasion...

Instead of a verdict on Bush, Republicans want to frame the election as a contest with Democrats, confident that voters unhappy with the president will find the opposition even more distasteful.

"We're moving from a period where the public looks at things and says thumbs-up or thumbs-down, to a time when they have a choice between one side or the other," [Ken] Mehlman said.

This is great stuff. Presuming it really reflects GOP strategic thinking, it shows very dramatically that Republican strategists just aren't prepared to face the reality that the public has broadly concluded that the GOP and its ideas and performance are badly lacking on a whole host of fronts, and that various constituencies have turned on not just Bush, but the party, for all sorts of different reasons. Is Iraq really why the broad middle is upset about corruption, rampant cronyism, and the utter failure to do anything about health care and energy other than let lobbyists write policy to suit their needs? Is it why conservatives are in a lather about immigration and the explosion in spending? This is all just delusional, as is the assertion that the "middle third" is "open to persuasion" on Iraq. Open to persuasion of what, exactly? These guys don't know what to do about Iraq -- whatever it is we're describing as "success" in Iraq likely can't be achieved. So what can they persuade voters of? That things will magically right themselves if we just leave the folks who've failed spectacularly thus far in charge?

And what of the idea that it's a winner for Republicans to frame the election as a choice between them and Dems? That also seems like an ostrich-like refusal to grasp the public's conclusion about their party, not just Bush. Polls consistently show the public thinks Dems have better ideas and wants them to govern. Look, it probably isn't out of the question that Republicans can turn things around in some measure. But with an "Iraq first" strategy combined with a handful of procedural scams on judicial nominations and same-sex marrage and the dark suggestion that if Dems get in, they'll, well, hold Republicans accountable for their failures? That's a heck of a strategy.

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