As Republicans continue to fret about the possibility that they will be subsumed in a political tidal wave next November - swept from power in the House of Representatives, in a mirror image of the 1994 Democratic debacle - it's becoming increasingly clear how they plan to fight back in the months ahead.
Since they arguably can't run on their own agenda - not at a time when they are deeply divided on immigration, federal spending, the Dubai ports deal, and the Medicare drug plan; and deeply worried about President Bush's stay-the-course stance in Iraq - the game plan apparently boils down to this:
Change the subject. Persuade voters not to make the '06 elections a referendum on Bush. Instead, convince them that it's the Democrats who are the real threat to the nation.
As evidenced here in the conservative media, that plan is already in place; some congressional Republicans have reportedly adopted a line that Bush used in a recent meeting - that if the Democrats controlled Congress, they would "raise your taxes and raise the white flag" in Iraq. The GOP message-meisters also plan to warn that if the Democrats take over, the new committee chairmen will be seek to roll back the Bush tax cuts and gum up the government machinery by launching multiple probes of the administration, starting with Iraq.
It's not clear whether that fear message would persuade the independent swing voters, the majority of whom already harbor serious doubts about Bush's overall performance, and particularly his stewardship of the Iraq war (75 percent now believe the U.S. is losing ground in trying to prevent a civil war). And sentiment is strong for substantive troop withdrawals by the end of 2007.
But this message isn't really aimed at the independents - because they're not the dominant voters in midterm elections. The voters that tend to show up are disproportionately the more politically active partisans on the left and right. And the GOP, worried that its base voters will stay home, is mapping a message that will get these folks out of their homes on election day. (Which is also why in the months ahead we'll see a slew of bills on abortion, the gay marriage amendment proposal, the perennial flag-burning ban proposal, among other base-friendly themes.)
Ken Mehlman, the Republican national chairman, also hit the fear-those-Dems theme when he spoke last week at a convention of GOP activists in Memphis. I was there, and his comments wound up in my notes, so this is a perfect time to spring them:
He said that any Democrat who urges "strategic redeployment" of troops from Iraq is really "cutting and running." (Strategic redeployment, which refers to partial phased withdrawals, but only as far a Kuwait and other regional outposts, is a term that was coined last autumn in a policy proposal that was co-authored by Larry Korb, who served as an assistant Defense Secretary under Ronald Reagan.)
Mehlman also hit the flip-flop theme, implying that Democrats shouldn't have a hand in running the war because they lack the resolve: "Would you buy a used car from this party? They say one thing come election time, but their records show that they mean--and will do--another. They were for the Iraq war before they were against it." (That not strictly true, since a majority of the House Democrats voted against war authorization at the ouset. More importantly, Mehlman is actually questioning the American people, the majority of whom were for the war before they were against it.)
Mehlman did tout President Bush at one point, saying that "our nation is safer today" in part because Bush oversaw creation of the Department of Homeland Security. (Actually, the factual record shows that he was against it before he was for it. Democratic Sen. Joe Lieberman proposed it first, and the administration resisted the idea for the better part of a year.)
Mehlman's other theme, bound to be heard this year, is that a Democratic majority would imperil the positive economic numbers that are now being posted (the Dow at near all-time highs, the jobless rate lower than five percent). What's striking right now, however, is that Bush is not getting credit in the polls for a good economy. And Pat Buchanan, a populist conservative, suggests the reason why:
"(W)hile the managerial class sees its portfolio growing smartly, the 80 percent of workers who manage no one and nothing is slipping behind. That average Americans are spending every dollar they earn, saving nothing and borrowing to buy consumer goods, more and more of which are imported, suggests we have arrived at the split-level economy. Thus, making the case that the Bush economy is a triumph may be a waste of time, if two-thirds of Americans start off in disbelief. "
So here's the big question: Can Republicans unite behind Bush and win with a fear-the-Dems message? Will that be enough to stoke a big base turnout in November? Or will some GOP incumbents feel compelled to distance themselves from Bush - in acts of stategic redeployment?