Every Republican political strategist must read this excellent editorial by David Hill in The Hill. Hill gets why the GOP is in such trouble politically at the moment, and gives the GOP a chance to change the dynamics of this race. At this point, the GOP is in serious danger of losing the House, and if the Republicans want to avoid the national nightmare of a Speaker Pelosi (*shudder*), they’d be wise to follow his advice:
It’s the responses of non-partisans that deserve our attention. And that’s what has me worried. I would imagine that most independent voters want change and feel that the Democrats are the way to get us headed in a new direction.
The key to understanding all this is the pollsters’ right direction-wrong track question about the nation today. For months now, more than 60 percent of all likely voters have been saying “wrong track” while less than half that many have been responding “right direction.” In short, most Americans, particularly Democrats and independents, believe that the status quo is not working out. These wrong-track Democrats obviously want change, hating George Bush like they do. And the vast majority of independents, even if they don’t hate Bush, are dissatisfied with the direction of the country. Republicans, not surprisingly, are more likely to see things in a more positive light.
If nothing else changes, this portends a scenario in which Republicans lose control of Congress this November. If two of every three voters go into their polling places and cast their votes for change, the Democrats will win if the Republicans are stand-patters. There are Republican strategists who disagree, of course. They say that by moving security issues up the issue agenda we will scare swing voters away from voting for the squishy Democrats that might not protect us from terror. I’m less certain about that conclusion than I am about the desire for change. I say the mood for something different will trump even national security.
I think Hill couldn’t be more right. The American people are rightfully sick of the status quo in Washington. The level of partisan rancor is extreme and Congress has approval ratings that aren’t just in the toilet, but halfway down the sewer pipe. The American electorate is pissed, and while the Democrats have as of yet failed to totally close the deal, there’s no room for complacency at all.
The Republicans are doing a good job on running on security. However, they’re not being nearly as bold on other crucial issues — Mickey Kaus suggests that the Republicans need to get tough on the immigration issue — and he’s exactly right. The GOP leadership in Congress is backing away from the immigration issue, which means that the GOP is backing away from one of their key issues. Enforcing the border would appeal to a wide swath of the American electorate who look at the problems that unchecked illegal immigration has created and want the government to do something to stop it. A guest worker program is nice, but if the GOP can’t be the party of law and order in defending America’s borders, what good are they?
Secondly, the GOP needs a strong economic playbook. They let the Democrats frame the Social Security issue, an issue they could have won if they’d even bothered to fight for it. At this point that’s probably not a viable campaign issue. However, if the GOP would get serious about fighting pork, they’d have a major economic issue working to their advantage. Senator Frist, to his credit, is getting serious about fighting pork, but it needs to be front-and-center in the GOP’s playbook. If that means giving Ted Stevens a public spanking, so be it. The American people are sick of Congress’ fiscal profligacy, and the Republicans need to show that they’re serious about limiting the size and intrusiveness of government.
The Republicans are basically locked in a defensive posture in trying to support the President’s agenda. Yes, the critiques of Bush are way off base, but it is foolish to try to tack against the political winds. Bush isn’t on the ballot this year, and his unpopularity does have some effect on GOP political fortunes, even if it isn’t a large effect. In order to win, the GOP needs to be able to capture a goodly number of voters who think that the President has been doing a poor job and are looking for alternatives.
The GOP is currently playing to the base, and while the Democrats are making a half-asses effort at capturing the center, some effort will always beat none. The Republicans need to present a coherent agenda on more than just security if they want to have a reasonable chance at victory in November. The American people are looking for a change. This election could hinge on what party can offer a better solution for Americas problems. That’s what the GOP did in 1994, and that’s what they can do in this election cycle. Given the stakes of having the most irresponsible political party in recent American history take the reigns of power, the GOP cannot afford to screw this one up. The GOP needs a new Contract with America, and one that protects our borders, strengthens our national security, gives a clear roadmap for victory in Iraq, and cuts the fat from government. If they achieve that, they can win. The question is whether they have the political will to make that happen.