Tuesday, March 21, 2006
The New "Pro-Choice" Party...
At the moment, the 2006 midterm election is framed as a referendum on the Bush administration and congressional Republicans, putting Republican candidates on the defensive. Party strategists, led by chairman Ken Mehlman, want to rejigger the debate so it's about a choice between candidates, putting Democratic candidates on the defensive as well. In short, they want it to be a choice election, not a referendum election.Of course, the one problem with making something a "choice" election -- under the current circumstances -- is that, by definition, this becomes a "negative" campaign: I'm bad, but the other guy is far worse, becomes the implied message.
This is not a new idea. Republicans brought about a choice election in 2004. Democrats believed they were a cinch to win a referendum on President Bush's first term, and Republicans worried they were right. But Republicans were able to make Democrat John Kerry at least as much of an issue as Bush was, especially on national security.
Republicans have done little to hide their strategy. At the Southern Republican Leadership conference in Memphis recently, Mehlman spoke repeatedly about "choice" in the 2006 election. Voters, he said, "can see the difference between leaders committed to winning this war [on terror] and politicians who will say anything to win the next election. The war on terror is not the only area where we face an urgent choice in 2006."
Mehlman asked, rhetorically, if voters "want the chairman of the tax-writing committee in the House to be someone who said that tax increases would spur the economy. Do you want the speaker of the House to be someone who said, less than a year after 9/11, 'I don't really consider ourselves at war.'" That, Mehlman said, "is the choice we will make in 242 days."
Mehlman is convinced the emphasis on choice will work. "The ultimate referendum election is a presidential reelection," he says. "If you can make that into a choice election, you can make a midterm election into a choice election."
This is quite different than the 1994 congressional race. Yes, Republicans "nationalized" the race, turrned the Contract With America into a de facto platform and offered the Democrats a stark choice. The Contract itself was evidence that there was a positive agenda as part of the "choice."
However, there doesn't seem to be much on offer this time around -- on either side. Not surprisingly, some House Republicans want to resuscitate the spirit and language of the "Contract."
On the other hand, the Democrats, as yet, have no version of their own "Contract" (admittedly, twelve years ago, the Contract wasn't unveiled to the public until late September, so Democrats may be playing it safe.
Meanwhile, completely separate from the president, congressional Republicans have to defend "bridges to Nowhere," several corruption cases and a general sense of misplaced priorities.
The GOP would be unwise to depend merely on the Democrats' uncanny ability to continue screwing up the politics of the day (hey, they've done it for two elections and counting! Why stop now?) Furthermore, Bush was the more-than-equalizer in the 2002 and 2004 campaigns. When a president signs on, it much easier to turn an election into a referendum. The combination of the overriding issue of national security and the public's view of Bush as both honest and competent made for a potent 1-2 strategic punch to take around the country.
Unfortunately, the latest ratings show how much Bush's personal qualities of honesty, leadership and competence have all taken major hits. The Dubai controversy briefly created a circumstance where one (GOP-friendly) poll had the Democrats inching ahead on the national security question.
That may not be the case at the present time. However, the numbers between Democrats and Repubicans on who is better suited to keeping the country safe is far closer than it has been since th 9/11 attacks. What happens this November if the public is faced with a choice that comes down to the "evil of two lessers"?
What choice do they make?
UPDATE: Today's Washington Post also outlines exactly how difficult it may be for the GOP just to make the election about "choice":
The struggles reflect philosophical differences among competing factions within the party, but they also underscore the political consequences of holding power. Republicans insist they remain united around core principles of smaller government, lower taxes and a strong national defense, but can no longer agree on how to implement that philosophy and are squabbling over their delivery on those commitments.Tags: politics, Republicans, George W. Bush, Congress
One Republican strategist, who asked not to be identified so he could speak openly about the party's problems, said divisions between moderates and conservatives have left the House and Senate Republican conferences in disarray. "Getting consensus on policy matters . . . is very difficult," he said. "That has caused stagnation and led to perceptions that Republican governance is going nowhere."