The surprise retirement of House Appropriations Committee Chairman David Obey suggests that even Democrats are counting on a big GOP victory in November. Obey's decision likely was driven by fear of a Republican takeover of the House, which would make him the ranking member of Appropriations, not its chairman. But a lot can happen between now and the election -- and Republicans shouldn't get too giddy over their presumed victory come November.
In order to win control of Congress, Republicans need to turn out both their own base and Independents who are angry at what's going on in Washington. But some of the anger and fear about the future seem to be dissipating. Consumer confidence is higher than it has been since February 2008, according to the latest Rasmussen polls. And, for the first time in a year, Rasmussen reports that more Americans think Republicans in Congress are acting in a more partisan way than Democrats are, which turns off Independents. And while the polls on a generic Congressional ballot show Republicans still ahead -- 44-37 percent -- the GOP hasn't broken the 50 percent mark and has lost the 10 percent lead it enjoyed a few weeks ago.
A number of issues pose a danger for Republicans in the months ahead. Republicans are in a no-win situation when it comes to the current proposals to "reform" Wall Street and the banks. It's clear from watching congressional hearings on the issue that Democrats (and some Republicans) put the entire blame for the economic collapse that occurred in 2008 on the financial industry. The only financial reform being seriously considered would punish banks and overpaid Wall Street execs in ways that could have long-term negative consequences for the economy.
But there is plenty of blame to spread around. Tens of thousands of people bought houses they couldn't afford, lied on their mortgage applications, and borrowed against phantom equity. Sure, the banks lent them the money and investors gambled that the loans were good, but borrowers should shoulder some responsibility for their actions. But instead of allowing these borrowers to reap what they sowed, politicians on both sides of the aisle support bailing them out. The GOP has been content to ride the populist tide in recent months, but populism has its pitfalls. Sometimes the vox populi is wrong.
Immigration is another issue that poses a threat to a GOP victory in November. Going back to 1972 when President Nixon engaged in aggressive outreach to Hispanics, Republicans have shown they can win a large chunk of the Hispanic vote, which is growing at a faster rate than the non-Hispanic vote. Both Ronald Reagan and George W. Bush won over 40 percent of the Hispanic vote. But the immigration debate threatens to put Hispanics solidly in the Democratic column, perhaps for generations.
Arizona Republicans put the issue back on the front pages by passing state legislation to try to drive out illegal immigrants. The legislation was so poorly drafted and ill considered that it had to be substantively amended within days of becoming law. Some 70 percent of Arizona voters initially supported the law, but those poll numbers have dropped precipitously in just two weeks. Only 52 percent now say they favor the new law. The irony is that illegal immigration is down to levels last seen in 1975 and the border is more secure than it has ever been. What's more, most Americans favor legal immigration reform, including large majorities of Republicans. But if Hispanics angry at Republican rhetoric on immigration turn out in Arizona, Colorado, Nevada, and elsewhere, they could be the decisive vote against Republican candidates in tight races.
So what can Republicans do to solidify their chances to win control of Congress? The most important thing is to quit relying solely on voter anger against the Democrats and come up with a positive agenda that Americans voters can support. In 1994, Republicans were facing a much tougher battle to take back control of Congress, and they did it by forging a Contract with America. It's time Republicans starting thinking positively again. As the mood of the country improves, Republicans can't be seen simply as naysayers. They need to tell voters what they're for, not just what they're against.