The Reports Of The GOP’s Death Are Greatly Exaggerated

Time has an interesting poll in which they find that the GOP has a slight edge over the Democrats coming into 2008:

So it’s taken almost as a given among the professional political class that the 2008 Presidential election is the Democrats’ to lose. Republicans are so morose in general, and conservatives so unhappy with their current field of candidates, that the assumption of a Democratic advantage has become bipartisan. And with the public so soured on the Republican in the White House, and so many other trends working against them, including an uptick in the percentage of Americans identifying themselves as Democrats, it’s hard to find any good news for Republicans these days. So why, in poll after poll, including the new TIME poll, does that advantage seem to disappear whenever voters are asked to pick a President in hypothetical head-to-head matchups among front-runners with solid name recognition. In our poll, Hillary Clinton loses to John McCain, 42%-48%, and to Rudy Giuliani 41%-50%. Even though Clinton maintains a 7% edge over Obama among Democratic respondents, Obama fares better in the general election matchups. It’s so close that it’s a statistical dead heat, but Obama still loses: 43%-45% to McCain, 44%-45% to Giuliani.

I’m not particularly surprised by these results. It’s important to note that President Bush is basically a lame duck politically — he’s not going to be much of a factor in 2008 for either side. The Democrats continue to run against a man who won’t be on the ballot in 2008, and it’s a lot more difficult to target a party rather than an individual lightning rod.

The factor is that 2006 was not a referendum showing the popularity of Congress, but a referendum showing that the GOP leadership had royally screwed the pooch. Indeed, despite the change in parties, Congress still has abysmal public approval numbers. People aren’t fed up with individual parties, they’re fed up with politics as a whole.

That helps explain the appeal of the various candidates running in the 2008 race. Barack Obama, Rudy Giuliani, and to a lesser extent John McCain all have appeal because they can argue that they are the “outsider” candidates who can transform the sorry state of American politics. In contrast, Hillary Clinton, John Edwards, and to lesser extends Newt Gingrich and Mitt Romney seem to represent the old ways of politics as usual — the last thing the American people want in politics is another Clinton-Gingrich fight.

The reason why this favors the GOP is that the Democrats are currently the party in power — with a White House rendered largely impotent the Democrats have the chance to set the agenda. And the agenda they’re setting is one that prioritizes withdrawal in Iraq and prosecuting the President. Add to that the proposed Democratic tax increases and the Democrats are playing to type exactly in the way the Republicans said they would. That sort of image won’t help the Democrats in 2008.

With the Democrats trying to play to the wing of their party, now is the time that the Republicans have the greatest opportunity to catch the vital center in American politics. Part of the appeal of a Giuliani campaign is that he can capture centrist voters while advancing key issues of concern to Republicans — strong national defense, low taxes, and more fiscal responsibility. The party that will win the election in 2006 is the party that can reach beyond their own base — and right now the Republicans are better position to do so simply because they’re not in the majority and have no choice but to reach out.

Of course, anything can change in the months ahead — the Democrats could implode, the GOP field could radically change, a dark-horse candidate could emerge that changes everything. However, the reality seems to be that the American people are looking for a Presidential candidate that can break the current status quo, and the GOP has more hopefuls who promise to that than do the Democrats.

If that analysis is correct, the Democratic candidate to watch would be Barack Obama who has wisely based his campaign around the notion of changing the political status quo. The problem with Obama is he’s done that by being as gauzy in his political views as possible, and underneath all that soft-focus media trickery is a politician whose liberalism would alienate many. Obama’s appeal may quickly fade once he has to get involved in the rough and tumble of a real campaign — something he’s never had to face.

In the end, this race is still very wide open, but the early trends show that counting out the GOP in 2008 would not be a smart move for the Democrats — not when the early numbers show the Republican slate being quite competitive with their Democratic counterparts in a year following an abject electoral slaughter of Republicans.