The conventional wisdom seems to be that the Democrats will put in a good showing in the midterm elections next November. Maybe so. But with 10 months to go in the election cycle, President Bush, who has been slammed in the polls for the past year, is mounting an impressive comeback. The only question now is whether or not he can continue along this recovery path -- and I wouldn't bet against him.
In numerous speeches and proactive press conferences, Bush closed the year in campaign style, shifting from commander in chief to salesman in chief in order to merchandise and market his successes. Even while acknowledging some miscues, he answered his critics by hammering hard on an Iraq strategy for victory -- not retreat. On the domestic front, he at last highlighted the strength of the U.S. economy, which is undoubtedly the single most underrated good-news story of 2005.
Polling data show this strategy to be working -- Bush's favorables have moved up about 10 points to nearly 50 percent in only a few weeks. A string of positive economic reports bolstered the president's case at home, while a third successful election in Iraq underscored the potential for optimism there.
The Democrats, meanwhile, are helping Bush and the GOP by reminding the electorate that they remain soft and untrustworthy on national security and the terror war, while policy-less and obstructionist on budget and tax issues.
In particular, the Murtha-Pelosi obsession with immediate troop withdrawal in Iraq is playing poorly nationwide -- even splitting the Democrats internally. Worse, the Democrats' ACLU-type response to reports of National Security Agency eavesdropping without court warrants is a huge mistake. The latest Rasmussen poll reports that 64 percent of respondents believe the NSA should be allowed to tap cell phones and e-mails in order to intercept communications between suspected foreign and domestic terrorists.
The key word here? National security. The key thought here? Carping Dems are not to be trusted. The key political issue here? There's a good reason why the United States has not been attacked since 9-11: Tough security policies by the entire U.S. government, at home and abroad, designed and administered by the Bush administration, are in place.
In order to build on their recent polling successes, as well as their policy gains, the Bushies need to articulate a few basic points and then package them into a national message. In other words, they must nationalize the midterm elections of 2006, just as they did in 2002 (when they discussed terror war security) and just as the Gingrich Republicans did in 1994 (when smaller government, lower taxes and no socialized healthcare took center stage).
Staying the course in Iraq (where victory in terms of democratization and reconstruction is increasingly possible), withdrawing troops as the generals believe prudent and maintaining tough security measures to guard the homeland (by way of the Patriot Act, etc.) is the right wartime prescription. The Democrats will only be able to counter with more negativism and defeatism.
On the economy, Bush's pro-growth strategy should stress large-scale budget cuts (such as, for the first time, real cuts in pork-barrel spending, including corporate welfare) and permanent tax relief to sustain economic growth. The Democrats have no budget-cutting policy whatsoever, nor are they capable of developing one, while on tax cuts they have no answer except the tiresome mantra of tax hikes for the rich.
Citizens Against Government Waste calls 2005 a record year for pork. The group identified 13,997 pork projects in the fiscal 2005 appropriations bills, costing taxpayers $27.3 billion, an increase of 31 percent over fiscal 2004. These are sickening facts. The president must work overtime to erase them in 2006 and truly produce a taxpayer protection budget.
If Bush embraces such a Rep. Mike Pence approach, championed by the House Republican Study Committee, of shifting big-government conservatism back to limited-government conservatism, he will rejuvenate the GOP base. Moving government out of the way of the free-enterprise capitalist economy, while strengthening after-tax rewards for work and investment, is the best prescription for long-run growth. Clear progress on budget-deficit reduction will also impress independent voters, as will lower unemployment and continued job creation.
On both war and prosperity, Bush can craft a national message that will bring a GOP win, or at least a break-even result, in the 2006 midterms. There's also immigration, where Bush must stand his ground by strengthening border security law enforcement without harming the legitimate needs of American businesses. He must also stand firm on the confirmation of Judge Alito to the Supreme Court, and on protecting the unborn and traditional marriage. Aggressive campaigning on all these themes will do the trick.
Fundamentally, President Bush must rally the nation to his big-picture themes of victory, optimism, growth and progress. Democrats are pessimistic, negative and defeatist, so the contrast couldn't be clearer. If the president produces the policy merchandise, and makes the national sale, 2006 could be a very surprising political year, where once again the conventional wisdom is proven wrong.