WASHINGTON -- At Sellersburg in southern Indiana Oct. 28, George W. Bush began 10 days of non-stop campaigning for his party's congressional candidates. That posed a Republican conundrum. Since GOP policy aimed to prevent Democrats from "nationalizing" scattered congressional elections Tuesday, what was the president doing in the national spotlight crowding out House and Senate candidates? Wasn't he playing into Democratic nationalizing efforts?
The approved answer given to me by high-ranking Republican political operatives is that Bush was really furthering the local campaigns and local issues. Actually, the president was trying to change the subject nationally from Iraq to national security. But experienced Republican political leaders privately grumble that Bush has only underscored Iraq as the pre-eminent issue, adding he would have done better to get lost for the past two weeks.
The hard truth apparent to realists in both parties is that, quite apart from what Bush did or did not do, the election has been nationalized around two standards that could not be more unfavorable to the GOP: an unpopular war and an unpopular president. That has generated a rising sense of panic in Republican ranks, with the fear that Tuesday's returns will be either bad or very bad for them.
Denying that reality, Republican strategists have been tied to an enduring political cliche. The late House Speaker Thomas P. ONeill was wrong, as he was in many of his utterances, that "all politics is local." At the National Republican Congressional Committee (NRCC), incumbent House members are viewed as "mayors" who dispense "pork." Rep. Tom Reynolds, the NRCC chairman, in an Oct. 18 National Press Club speech, said 2006 was the third straight election that Democrats were trying to nationalize after two previous failures.
All of this is based on the concept that voters everywhere are more interested in constituent service than their rejection of Bush as a war president. GOP old-timers say they have not seen such an anti-Republican mood since the post-Watergate election of 1974, when Democrats padded their huge House majority by picking up 49 additional seats for a margin of 145. Voters in this or any other country can be counted on to oppose a long, unsuccessful armed conflict. It is likely that Bush is unpopular because the war is unpopular, rather than the other way around.