January 24, 2006
Where Did the Democrats' Big '06 Go?

By John McIntyre

Somewhere between President Bush’s Veterans Day’s speech last year when he personally fired back at Democrats who had been continually suggesting that he had lied the country into war and the December 16th New York Times revelation of the NSA wiretapping program, the outlook for the 2006 elections began to shift.

Many of today’s pundits are getting side-tracked by the Abramoff scandal and are missing the change in the political terrain. While the Abramoff mess is indicative of much of what is wrong in Washington, it is not the earth shattering political typhoon that is going to wipe out the Republican majority in Congress. There is just no evidence that this issue is galvanizing the public in a way that will cause them to vote out incumbents who aren’t directly caught up in the Abramoff fraud.

This isn’t to say the Republican majority in Congress, particularly in the House, hasn’t lost its way to a certain degree over the last four years, and the Abramoff story does serve to make this point. But Republicans appear to recognize that they have strayed and need some fresh blood in their leadership if they are going to 1) accomplish what they came to Washington to do in 1994 and 2) continue to remain the majority party.

Ironically, in many ways the success of the Democrats and the media in demonizing leading Republicans has worked to help the GOP hold on to power. Gingrich’s departure in 1998 helped the party put a different face on their majority and removed a big public negative. DeLay’s current troubles and his having to step aside are providing Republicans with another chance to rejuvenate their majority. They would be wise to take advantage of this opportunity.

A Shadegg victory in the race to fill DeLay’s leadership post would be the most bullish for GOP prospects because it would signal the clearest return to the spirit of 1994 and a break from the business as usual mentality of the last 2-4 years. But even if Blunt ends up holding on to win, he carries significantly less public baggage than DeLay.

If Republicans are smart they would do more than just make cosmetic changes on private travel and focus on the serious problem of earmarks and out of control spending. At the end of the day, Congress will pass some kind of lobbying “reform” which should be enough to provide members the Abramoff cover they are looking for.

This brings us to the Democrats and their prospects in November. Back in the fall in the aftermath of Katrina, with the White House asleep in defending the War and then culminating in October with the disastrous Miers nomination, the Democrats were dreaming of House chairmanships and Speaker Pelosi. Given where things stand today, let’s just say those expectations need to be extremely dialed down.

In December, as the NSA wiretap story was unfolding and the debate on the Patriot Act was ongoing in the Senate, I suggested that Democrats had walked right into a trap with their relentless attack on Bush and the War:

“Not recognizing the political ground had shifted beneath their feet, Democrats continued to press forward with their offensive against the President. They’ve now foolishly climbed out on a limb that Rove and Bush have the real potential to chop off.”

On Friday, Karl Rove began to saw that limb off. In a speech before the Republican National Committee, Rove made it clear what the Democrats can expect in 2006.

"At the core, we are dealing with two parties that have fundamentally different views on national security….Republicans have a post-9/11 worldview and many Democrats have a pre-9/11 worldview. That doesn't make them unpatriotic -- not at all. But it does make them wrong -- deeply and profoundly and consistently wrong."

The left will scream foul that Republicans are challenging Democrats’ patriotism, but those complaints didn’t save Max Cleland’s senate seat or get John Kerry elected President. Why the Democrats continue to focus their attacks on national security related issues (Iraq, wire-tapping, Gitmo, and torture) is beyond me. I suspect a big reason is the Howard Dean/Moveon.org/DailyKos influence that is becoming increasingly more mainstream in the Democratic Party. And while this influence may bring increased grass roots energy to the Democratic side, it also leads to Democratic politicians in Washington losing touch with where the average American is on these fundamental national security issues. The NSA wiretapping story that the left pounced on as some kind of Nixonian crime is likely going to turn into a complete public relations debacle for the Democrats.

I am not a constitutional lawyer, but it seems clear that there is a gray area as to whether the President’s policy breaks the law. In the post 9/11 world the public expects - in fact, the public demands - that their Commander in Chief do everything in his or her legal power to protect the American people. So when a President gets counsel that he can legally monitor international-domestic communications involving al Qaeda suspects and when he consults with the appropriate leaders in Congress, the only political damage will be to those politicians who demand this type of program be stopped.

We’re a long way out from November and, as the last three months have shown, the political field can change quickly. But Rove tipped the Republicans’ play book when he highlighted the 2006 agenda: national security, the economy and the courts. National security is clearly a winner for the GOP. Economic growth has been booming the last three years and unemployment is below 5%. In the courts the confirmation victories of Roberts and Alito help maintain the energy of the conservative base while sapping the spirit of liberals who realize the federal judiciary is slowly slipping into conservative control.

These are three issues of substance that matter to voters, and if the Democrats are going to give themselves a shot at taking back either the House or the Senate they are going to have to come up with something more substantive than “A Culture of Corruption.” Otherwise, Democrats may end up looking back on the 2006 elections with the same sense of disappointment they now feel over 2002 and 2004.

John McIntyre is the co-founder and President of RealClearPolitics.

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More Commentary

Political Corruption - Thomas Sowell
Rove's Early Warning - E. J. Dionne
Dems Want It Both Ways on Abramoff - Jack Kelly

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