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October 14, 2006

A GOP PRE-MORTEM: So is it over for the GOP majorities in Congress? It's still too early to say, I guess, but when even John Hinderaker is sounding extremely gloomy that's certainly the way to bet.

So I want to stress, for the edification of any Republican leaders who might pay attention, that this is the result of a series of unforced errors on their part. Following is a (partial) list:

1. The Terri Schiavo affair: The bitterness it aroused, which was substantial, opened a fracture in the GOP coalition: Social-conservatives against the rest. And as I noted at the time, the social conservatives were pretty nasty to the rest. No, it wasn't really a case of "theocracy" at work, as people like Ralph Nader agreed with the social conservatives. But the haste to enact federal legislation over a matter of state law, and the mean-spiritedness with which those who disagreed were treated, did the Bush coalition no good. What's more, as I noted at the time (see first link above), this wasn't enough to make the social conservatives happy anyway. Politically, I think this marked the beginning of the end.

2. The Harriet Miers debacle: Plenty of warning in the blogs that this was a big mistake, but all ignored by the White House and Congressional leadership. Social conservatives were mad here, and so was anyone who cared about the credentials of nominees. The nomination was withdrawn, but the damage was done.

3. The Dubai Ports disaster: Here I think that the Administration was on defensible ground from a policy perspective, but its ham-handed approach -- once again ignoring early warnings from the blogs -- turned it into a mess, and cost it major credibility with its national security constituency. The Administraiton was bumbling and inept in addressing this matter, which gained currency because of its flaccid stance on the cartoon Jihad. The consequence: Lost faith from its strongest constituency.

4. Immigration: Another unforced error. The national security constituency once again lost faith in the Administration. You can't talk about secure borders when the borders are porous. The Administration also failed to make a strong clear argument for immigration, outsourcing that to the Wall Street Journal, which did its best but couldn't do the President's job. Again, the White House's position on immigration was defensible in the abstract, but favoring easy immigration is one thing, favoring easy illegal immigration is another.

5. William Jefferson: A Democratic Congressman is caught in a bribery scandal with a freezer full of cash, and Dennis Hastert backs him up, making clear that protection of insider privilege is more important to the Republican leadership in Congress than either party or principle. The White House, at least, intervened here, eventually. Add to this the GOP leadership's failure to follow through on promised ethics reforms, and its addiction to pork-barrel spending, and you've got lots of reason to think that they don't stand for anything except stuffing their pockets.

6. Foleygate: Not much of a scandal in itself, but the last straw for a lot of people. As Rich Lowry noted, a long chain of missteps and self-serving actions has exhausted their stock of moral and political capital, leaving them vulnerable to, well, almost anything. This was probably enough.

At the end of this process, the Republicans have managed to leave every segment of the base unhappy, mostly over things that weren't even all that important. It's as if they had some sort of bizarre death wish. Looks like the wish will come true . . . .

As I've said before, the Republicans deserve to lose, though alas the Democrats don't really deserve to win, either. I realize that you go to war with the political class you have, but even back in the 1990s it was obvious that we had a lousy political class. It hasn't improved, but the challenges have gotten greater. Can the country continue to do well, with such bad political leadership? I hope so, because I see no sign of improvement, no matter who wins next month.

As I wrote earlier, in suggesting that the GOP deserved to lose:

The counter-case is that a Democratic House would be a disaster for the country. I gathered from Boortz's discussion that that's the case that Hannity and Limbaugh were making yesterday. It's a strong argument -- except that if Republican control of the Congress is so all-fired important to the future of civilization, then why haven't the Republicans who control Congress been acting as if it is so important? . . .

Were GOP control of the Congress so important to the country, wouldn't the GOP leadership have exercised a trifle more self-discipline and self-denial? And if it's not capable of doing so, then what kind of leadership is it?

If, as seems likely, the GOP fares badly in next month, it should ponder this point. If it somehow squeaks through -- well, then it should ponder this point just as hard, as it will have squeaked through in spite of its performance, not because of it.

UPDATE: Preston Taylor Holmes adds:

I would add that Bush (and the GOP) not backing up the Bush Doctrine when Israel tried to apply it against Hizbollah should have been included. If you’re not going to back up your own “doctrine” then don’t have a doctrine, you half-assed pansies.

A bit harsh, but it demonstrates the GOP problem with the "war base" that I've mentioned here before. So does this email from a reader named Stacy, in Tucson:

One point I have not seen much in the blogs or elsewhere concerns the Republican handling of the War on Terror. As part of the conservative 'base' I am dissapointed in the administration for not being MORE agressive in fighting the war...it reminds me of the speech by George C Scott in Patton..."Americans love a winner and will not tolerate a loser"...I think that the Republicans could remain in power if they showed more outward signs of strength in the matters of North Korea, Iran and Iraq. If we were fighting to 'win', I think the average american would back the president and congress.

Yes, Jacksonians want to fight and win, not just fight. (See this, too.) Meanwhile, over at The Corner, I'm savaged by a reader who emails Jonah Goldberg:

And if it doen't go down, it's becuse it had it coming ? Insipid.

I give Dick Cheney's advice to Leahy to all you boneheads who don't have the courage to stand up for the only political party that responds to Conservatives, as the House did in refusing to support the ridiulous Amnesty bill from the Senate.

Many of you live in the Media and Beltway bubble. You actually shiver when the WaPo attacks relentlessly someone like George Allen. You buy into the smearing of Speaker Hastert. You care what your Liberal friends think of you because of your political beliefs.

What will the Dems do when they lose ? That's the question.

I think it's silly to pretend that the GOP isn't in trouble -- just look at the futures markets, as WindyPundit has. And if they do somehow squeak out a victory, it won't be because they've been doing well all along. As WindyPundit says, "Certainly they haven't delivered much of what they promised."

Reader Stephen M. sees me as a shill for the Democrats: "Are you stumping, knowing that polls are so often wrong? Or is that a pre-Victory lap?"

Neither. But I've seen fumble after fumble and just thought it would be helpful to point them out. Dale Light also thinks I'm wrong:

My reaction -- what self-serving bullhockey!

Are we to turn the party, the government, the conduct of the war, and everything else over to a bunch of narcissistic amateur loudmouths with keyboards?

The Democratic Party is going down that path right now, and the results are not pretty, nor do they promise to lead to good government.

Do we really want a government that responds dutifully to direction by the Kossacks and Move Oners? Neither should we want a Republican majority to follow the prescriptions of the conservative bloggers. There are good and rational reasons for every one of the policy decisions that the Instapundit denounces. Certainly the Schaivo stance was controversial. So was the Miers nomination..., and so on. But in each case the decision was eminently defensible, and I usually supported the leadership's positions.

I applaud the Republican leadership for having the courage to take difficult stances, even if they were unpopular with the ideologues of "the base".

Remember, "al Qaeda" is Arabic for "the base."

Blogging is fun..., I certainly enjoy it. But like journalism it is essentially an irresponsible game. Those who actually have to wield power cannot allow the ideological enthusiasms of their respective "bases" to determine their decisions.

These are, as John Keegan recently remarked, mean and dangerous times. The issues at stake are far too important to be turned over to tumescent fringe elements in either party. The center must hold.

Well, I've got nothing against tumescence. But I don't see the GOP here as having been smart about moving to the center, either. The moves I discuss above were politically dumb. They weren't pragmatic political moves that outraged the fringe -- they were ham-handed moves that angered the base without winning anyone else over.

Sam Lambert emails: "I can't believe you, of all people, forgot the unforced error of pork. This was an issue they could have really pleased their base with."

Well, I mentioned pork above. But it's true that they blew it by not taking on the issue in a bigger way. We saw some modest improvements at the end of the session, but they could have ridden this issue hard if they'd wanted to.

Rebecca Harris emails: "Yes, we are all unhappy at the lack of leadership, the staggering around like a drunk outside a whorehouse, but how can we decry GOP leadership if we are not making our wishes known, loudly and often? They behave as if they have a mandate, which is certainly wrong. There has to be a mechanism for making them understand that they DON'T have a mandate, and that we are not to be taken for granted. What is it, short of the risk of voting them out of power?"

I think the dissatisfaction has been obvious for a while. I think they just haven't cared enough to do anything about it, assuming that people would vote for them regardless rather than let the Dems win. I think the polls and the futures markets indicate that they've hit the limit of that principle.

Fred Boness, however, isn't giving up yet:

As Tip O'Neill said, "All politics is local."

I think as bad as people feel about Republicans in general or Democrats in general they will vote for their own Republican or their own Democrat and see the individuals they know in a better light than they will poll on the generic loathed politician.

The GOP certainly hopes so.

ANOTHER UPDATE: Ed Morrissey thinks that the GOP's electoral woes are overstated. We'll see. But as I say above, even if they win, they need to learn from their mistakes. A last-minute win after four quarters of dropped balls doesn't mean that the balls weren't dropped. Me, I think that although a GOP win (meaning retention of both houses) is possible, it's looking unlikely, and the reason is defection from the base for the reasons I list above.

Interesting discussion going on in Ed's comments. Just keep scrolling. More thoughts here and here. And Ginny at Chicagoboyz has more thoughts, too.

But Thomas Valletta emails:

Man, I'd hate like hell to have you as a coach. Real motivating half-time chat - you're going to lose and here's why you deserve it. I'll respond by telling you that the people do not deserve to lose and that is what happens if the Dems win in November. We lose our money through taxes, our freedoms through Democrat-appointed judges, and we lose our wars with a "cut and run" leadership. I'm sure glad you can take it so calmly, and with such a snooty and detached posture. Well, I'll tell you what, Reynolds, I think Bush and Rush are right and you are wrong. I think the Republicans hold both Houses. I think you then come off as a total idiot. Remind me to write you after the elections.

I'm not a coach, or a cheerleader. I call 'em as I see 'em. But even if Valletta is right, the GOP has gone to the "Democrats are worse" well about as much as it can. It's true, the Democrats are worse, but lots of people are starting to feel taken advantage of by that approach, as the GOP shows no signs of trying to get, you know, better.

Likewise, reader Mike H. writes:

All the perfection in the world won't do any one, any good, if there isn't a culture to support the perfection. The Democrats want to cut and run from not only Iraq, but the War on Terror. Explain how the resultant chaos will allow us to clean up pork? Explain how the multicultural nightmare that is Europe would be the role model that would be desirable for the US. We should welcome the rapes in Sweden and the riots in France? We should welcome the chance to buddy up to Chavez? We want to go with a party that thinks the military are a bunch of jackbooted nazi's?

Oh well, so be it. The perfect is the enemy of the good.

I'm not asking for perfection here. Just a little effort.

MORE: Barry Dauphin emails:

I think the reasons you listed possibly represent the dissatisfaction of many core Republicans. I don’t think they are reasons so much as examples of something. Yes, there has been a hamhandedness on the part of Republicans, and I think that spending and immigration are really big base issues (the other ones are fleas by comparison).

However, should the Republicans lose Congress, the elephant in the living room is Iraq. If we are in a war, people have to pick sides even if one’s side has substantial problems. I believe that many supporters of Bush have become demoralized by the pace of progress in Iraq and the drumbeat of media negativity. I think that many people implicitly believed that this would be tough, but that we would prevail in a more demonstrable way and sooner. Instead the picture painted is that of an endless pit of commitment. When the Baker workgroup is making policy recommendations that look an awful lot like “cut and run”, it is easy for loyal supporters to get down. It is difficult to develop metrics for the kind of war we are in, but the public needs metrics of some sort to get a sense of where we are at.

I don’t think the Administration being “tougher” is the issue. I’m not sure what toughness is missing, frankly, and what the Jacksonians wish the US to do that is realistic and that wouldn’t lead to a copious amount of other problems. We need a causus belli for Syria and Iran, and the US population is no where near that yet. We cannot fight that kind of war without the support of the public. At some point we have to remember that the public is us.

However, having said that, those who support the WoT and Iraq should decide if they want to take the risk of having the Dems chair all the committees, distract the efforts of the Administration, further polarize the country, etc. Those who choose to sit home are essentially voting for Speaker Pelosi and Majority Leader Reid; committees chaired by Conyers, Dingell, Kennedy, Waxman, etc. Those are the choices. Maybe we can try to understand why the Iraqis are having difficulty developing the democratic process when we stop and think about our own choices. We can be demoralized, or we can be grownups and act.

If the Reps lose, it will be because the “base” allowed it to happen not because the Dems command a lot of support. If the “base” chooses to sit and pout, they have no right to complain about the results, but they will. And the op-ed people will continue to make a healthy living “defending” the base.

Well, there's something to that. But nobody likes feeling taken for granted, and a lot of people feel that way. The sense is that support for the war is being abused, in order to keep Republican leaders from having to deliver on other promises. As I say, I think the GOP leadership has taken that as far is it will go.

This says it all: "Yes, I would prefer (R)'s to win this election, but, if they do they should fall on their knees and thank god because they 'deserve' to win like I 'deserve' to get freaky with Inara from Firefly. . . . As to tantrums? This argument keeps bobbing to the surface like a dead cadaver, and it stinks just as bad. Tantrum? Is it a tantrum to hold an intervention for a good friend who has become lost to himself through drink or drugs? To confront a good friend who seems to have lost his principles? To have lost his way?"

And C.J. Burch emails: "The folks that are giving you a bad time for pointing out the Republicans' ineptitude need to read Bill Quick. Come to think of it, the administration needs to read Bill Quick. Those are the folk the Republicans have alienated. They better hope they don't need them in November. At this point I'm just hoping that after the election is over we will have one party that is responsible and sane. I don't care which party it is. Recent history seems to indicate I will be disappointed, though."

One reason that a lot of people see me as cheerful and optimistic is that my expectations are really rather low. I know that a considerable level of ineptitude and shysterism is normal in almost every sphere of human affairs, and that's tolerable so long as the important stuff gets taken care of. Nonetheless, I've been disappointed myself.

FINALLY, FINALLY: Here's a Bill Quick post on the war that further illustrates what some emailers said above: Bush has indeed lost many of his former supporters on the war, but in many cases it's because they don't think he's fighting the war aggressively enough, not because they've somehow become antiwar.