Spanked. That’s what happened to the GOP yesterday nationally. They got a serious spanking. And they deserved it. (The didn’t get spanked in Utah, of course. Everything remained pretty much status quo here in Utah.)
GOP wonks today are licking their wounds, philosophizing about where they went wrong, badmouthing the Democrats, talking about what to do next, and doing tortured contortions in an attempt to find some kind of silver lining. Some are noting that historically the president’s party loses an average of about the same number of seats that were lost yesterday in the House and Senate. So this is just business as usual, right? Uh, no.
Let’s face it; this is a shellacking for the GOP. The Democrats ran a very tight campaign machine. The Republicans didn’t. The Democrats did not lose one congressional incumbency, while the GOP lost many. Pollsters are saying that the GOP base didn’t turn out well, and that unaffiliated, independent, and moderate voters went overwhelmingly for Democrats.
There are lots of reasons for the loss, of course. It’s hard to pin this failure on one thing. The National Review editors say here, “This defeat had a thousand fathers.” But I think it can be boiled down to two key elements: Iraq and departure from Republican principles.
On #1, the problem is that most Americans think that we’re not winning in Iraq and that we don’t have a strategy that will get us there. Democratic pollster Patrick Caddell said on today’s Bill Bennett Show that while there is widespread discontent about Iraq in every demographic category, only about 20% think that leaving Iraq is the right solution. Most people, including most Democrats, simply want us to engage in a strategy that is calculated to win the war. They don’t think we have that right now.
On a side note, Caddell expressed concern that the new Democratic congressional leaders would misread displeasure with Iraq as anti-war sentiment. He stated that his data did not support that conclusion. James Taranto notes here that pro-Iraq incumbents won while key anti-Iraq GOP incumbents lost. Caddell explained that leadership would come from the most tenured Democrats, which come from the 60s school of liberalism and are far more liberal than the rank and file Democratic members of Congress. He is concerned that these people will push for getting out of Iraq at all costs, which is not a strategy that most voters will approve of.
In a move that was apparently obvious to most Washington insiders as just a matter of time, Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld has tendered his resignation. The lame duck GOP Senate will have to approve President Bush’s replacement nominee, Robert Gates. I would be surprised if they did not quickly try to push through a series of nominees for various positions. Of course, being emasculated may prevent them from achieving this goal.
On issue #2, the GOP Congress has of late been the epitome of mismanagement and lack of concern about Republican principles. Rep. Jeb Hensnarling (R-TX) contritely pledges (here) a return “to the principles of Ronald Reagan and the Contract of America[, o]ur core vision of limited government, individual empowerment, a strong national defense and traditional values….” Well, now is a jolly fine time to do that. Might not 12 or 24 months ago have been a strategically better time to make this move?
The conservative base voted in a dispirited way because their guys in Washington seemed to pretty much ignore them, other than tossing them an obviously token piece of legislation and some worthless lip service now and then. I would argue that it’s not that the GOP majority in Washington has been incognizant of its base. It’s that they became addicted to the perks that go along with leadership. And like an addict that knows that what he is doing is bad for him but finds himself unable to stop it, the GOP majority has simply been unable to turn themselves around.
The voters sensed this, and figured that they needed to sever the congressional GOP’s ties to its cherished addictions. But that alone will not turn the GOP around. The GOP needs rehab. It needs a new crop of conservatives to step forward and wrest control of the party from their faltering fathers. These people won’t simply appear. That will require a lot of work by people with strong ideals. Will that happen? I don’t know. Who is going to take up the charge?
Even now, GOP wonks are consoling themselves with the thought that the next two years of Democratic leadership will be so bad as to cause voters to come running back to the GOP in droves in 2008. They shouldn’t flatter themselves. The seats that they have lost will not be so easily regained. They will have to do far better than just not being Democrats.
Geographical patterns are telling as well, as Fred Barnes discusses here. Concentrating on the South while ignoring the Northeast because it’s too liberal and ignoring the interior West because it seems secure has proven to be a losing strategy. Matthew Continetti says (here), “It would be difficult for the South to become more Republican. But it's easy for New England and the Northeast Corridor to become more Democratic.” And that goes for the West too.
Last year, former Rep. Dick Armey (R-TX) warned Republicans (here), “When we act like us, we win. When we act like them, we lose.” The folks in charge didn’t get the message. Or perhaps they did, but they were already too far gone. And they knew it too. They saw the train wreck coming, but their entire campaign strategy seemed to consist of the message, “At least we’re not as bad as the Democrats.” Obviously, the voters chose to disagree with them.
GOP pundits are saying, “Well, we have two years to get it back together.” No they don’t. Not if they’re talking about 2008. They have about two months to get it together.
The GOP got walloped last night. And they have no one to blame but themselves. GOP diehards are thinking that the phoenix will quickly rise from the ashes of this defeat. Not unless they return to their core principles, exercise serious leadership on important issues, and do a heck of a lot of hard work.