Wednesday, May 10, 2006

Battling for the 'burbs

Check out these proposals, currently being readied for the legislative mill on Capitol Hill:

A bill that would help preserve open space.
A bill that would promote tax-free college savings plans.
A bill that would help local officials conduct background checks on teachers and coaches.
A bill that would create a better database to track sex offenders.

These ideas, and five others, all slated to be formally unveiled today, have been cooked up by 50 House Republicans who call themselves the Suburban Agenda Caucus. It doesn't take a genius to see what's going on:

1. These 50 GOP lawmakers know that success or failure in the 2006 congressional elections will hinge on their performance in the suburbs, where most of the electorate now lives.

2. Many of their suburban districts, once reliably Republican in sentiment, have now become more competitive (many moderate Republican voters have been turned off by the GOP's social conservatism; and there has been an influx of Democratic voters, relocating from nearby cities).

3. Eighteen of these 50 lawmakers have been specifically targeted for defeat by national Democratic strategists, and a number of non-partisan analysts consider those Republicans to be vulnerable. The overall Democratic list includes Deborah Pryce (suburbs near Columbus, Ohio), Michael Fitzpatrick and Jim Gerlach (both in suburbs near Philadelphia), and Christopher Shays and Nancy Johnson (both in the Connecticut suburbs).

4. All are generally fearful that the 2006 congressional elections will be a disaster if they are forced to run on the legacy of their leader in the White House. So naturally they are anxious to distance themselves from President Bush, by steering the subject away from the national issues that appear to be working against them (Iraq, gas prices, Iraq, Katrina/competence, Iraq, Jack Abramoff, and Iraq).

Which brings us to these very Clintonesque suburban proposals, all designed to show that Republicans care, that they feel a real connection with their constituents' everyday concerns. Why do I call their approach Clintonesque? Because the president whom they impeached is the same guy who pioneered modest, bite-sized, poll-driven policy ideas back in 1996 (remember his ideas -- or maybe they were pollster Dick Morris' ideas -- about school uniforms and mandatory school curfews?). And now the Republicans find his approach to be useful, to save their own skins.

As Robert Lang, who studies the suburbs at the Metropolitan Institute, tells the Chicago Tribune today, "The outlook for the Republicans is grim, unless they are able to connect directly to local constituent concerns, quality-of-life issues and solving problems that seem apolitical."

The problem, however, is that these nine suburb-friendly bills might not be enough to cancel out the national trends that seem to be breaking against the GOP. It is noteworthy, for instance, that this suburban agenda doesn't even mention cultural issues. There's nothing here about abortion, or stem cells, or gays.

And it's easy to see why: the national party keeps taking conservative stances on those issues, and those stances turn off a lot of suburban voters, particularly those who live in the socially tolerant inner suburbs near big cities. (In my own backyard, I am thinking of Bucks and Montgomery counties, outside of Philadelphia). Yet, sure enough, the Republican leadership has scheduled an early-June vote on a federal amendment to ban gay marriage. From, the perspective of the Suburban Agenda Caucus, that might not be the ideal focus.

By the way, on the topic of President Bush today, is America ready for this?