A consensus has developed that unless something significant happens to break the trend, Republicans are in for a drubbing this election.
As dispiriting as this is for Republicans, they certainly shouldn’t be too surprised. History and circumstances have been their enemy this year. There is the usual “six-year itch,” in which voters tend to vote against the party of the President in his sixth year in office. Add to that the unpopularity of the war in Iraq, voter preferences for the checks and balances of split-party governance, Republican bumbling on a whole series of issues ranging from the response to Hurricane Katrina to out-of-control spending. Garnish all this with a few ethics scandals such as Randy Cunningham and Mark Foley, and you have a recipe for an electoral drubbing.
But, as Michael Barone has pointed out, the 2006 election does not signal anything like a significant realignment in the electorate. In fact, the issue terrain — what Americans care most about — still favors the ideological positions of Republicans. It's just that Americans have lost trust in the electoral branch of the conservative movement to behave as they campaign, and to run the government with a modicum of competency.
Unfortunately, who can blame them for thinking that? Any fair analysis of Republican performance recently would lend strong support for that opinion.
In short, what we are seeing in this election cycle is the Republican Party doing itself in. Sure, the Democrats and the liberal media are doing all they can to undermine Republicans — including using some pretty slimy and underhanded tactics — but that is no different than in any other election over the past 50 years. What makes 2006 so different from previous elections is that Republicans have been providing the ammunition to make the charges of incompetence and malfeasance stick.
So what will it mean if the Democrats do succeed in taking back the House, or even both Houses of Congress?
On most things, the answer is almost nothing. On a few big things, it will make a world of difference. Certainly the Bush Administration will have a miserable 2 years of governing ahead of them. Investigations of the Bush Administration will proliferate like weeds in an empty lot; any chance of major progress on tax or entitlement reform will evaporate; and Bush’s Iraq policy will face much tougher scrutiny in Congress.
In short, Republicans can kiss goodbye to any chance of making progress on their agenda over the next two years. But then again, they made precious little progress over the past two years, so that isn’t much of a change. And Bush’s misery, while frustrating to those of us who are ideologically committed or strong partisans, will have no significant impact on the day-to-day workings of the country.
Even Iraq and anti-terrorism policies will probably not be significantly changed. However vocally the Democrats declaim their opposition to Bush’s Iraq policy, they will almost certainly not be able to actually force any significant policy changes there, and probably wouldn’t want to. Why take the responsibility for whatever bad things happen there, when they can lay all the blame on Bush? The more they do, the more they own the problem.
Similarly with terrorism. What if they force Bush to change paths, and then something bad happens? Chances are they will whine and kvetch, and do absolutely nothing. If they are smart, they will pour more money into anti-terrorism measures, both to shield themselves from any possible blame and as a mechanism to spread some pork around. Watch for more port security money and lots of aid to local first responders.
Perhaps this is why the stock market seems immune to the threat of a Democrat victory in November. To the surprise of many, as Republican prospects have declined, stocks have rallied to historic highs. The market, which has always liked divided government (divided government means gridlock, which is good for the economy), just isn’t that afraid that Democrats will be able to do any real damage to the economy over the next two years. Maybe Bush will even get out that veto pen and do some real good.
So does it really matter if Republicans lose Congress?
It sure does if another Supreme Court seat opens up over the next two years. Bush has done an outstanding job of picking court appointees (the Harriet Meyers debacle notwithstanding), and unfortunately a Democratic Senate will put a formidable obstacle in his way if he needs to appoint another Justice. We will more likely see another Anthony Kennedy instead of a Sam Alito or a John Roberts.
That should really bother conservatives, although the issue has yet to come up in Republican campaign pitches. Since the Warren Court started rewriting the Constitution 50 years ago, conservatives have been working hard to regain a balance of power between the Courts and the elected branches of government. Bush has done more than any President — even Reagan — to change the balance of power on the Court toward judicial restraint. Unfortunately, the greatest loss of this election will be dream of an originalist Court.
And what of 2008? Will the losses of 2006 doom Republican hopes for 2008? Probably not. With no obvious heir to the Bush legacy—such as it is—Republicans will have a chance to redefine themselves by picking a fresh candidate for the Presidency, and it is through him that the Party as a whole will be viewed, not Bush. And the leading contenders for the nomination are so unlike Bush — Rudy Giuliani and John McCain — that the losses of 2006 will have little to no impact on them.
In short, the prospect of a Democrat Congress should more sadden conservatives than scare us. It is difficult to see how Democrats could do much damage to the country over the next two years, but equally difficult to see how any significant progress could be made on tax, entitlement, spending, or judicial reform.
Those issues will be left for the new President and Congress in 2009.