Is McCain Sailing Into a Storm?

Posted: May 11, 2008 12:01 AM
Is McCain Sailing Into a Storm?

The last couple of months have been springtime in paradise for Republicans: the loveliest of all possible seasons. They have been watching two Democratic presidential candidates in an endless battle to destroy each other -- a process that does not appear to enhance the chance that the eventual nominee will win in November.

A recent Gallup poll shows John McCain leading both Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton in a head-to-head matchup. All this before Republicans even begin publicizing the worst that can be said about either of two candidates whose alleged defects provide a supremely target-rich environment.

But it's easy to let the individuals involved obscure larger factors that may prove more important. In a hurricane, even handsome, well-built boats can end up underwater. And right now, the GOP looks as though it may be sailing into a perfect storm.

Currently, 69 percent of Americans disapprove of the way President Bush is doing his job. That is the highest disapproval rating since Gallup began polling 70 years ago -- higher than Lyndon Johnson during the Vietnam War, Richard Nixon during Watergate, or Jimmy Carter during the Iran hostage crisis.

Today, notes polling expert Karlyn Bowman of the American Enterprise Institute, more Americans think the country is on the wrong track than at any time since the late 1970s -- which set the stage for the Republican resurgence of 1980, led by Ronald Reagan. The sentiment is even more negative now than it was in 1992, when the GOP lost the White House. Some 63 percent see the Iraq war as a mistake.

Bush's troubles have sent voters fleeing from his party. In 2004, 47 percent of Americans leaned toward the Democratic Party, with 44 percent leaning Republican -- a 3-point difference. Today, it's 51 to 38 in favor of the Democrats -- a gap of 13 percentage points.

To win, McCain will have to pry away a lot of voters who currently find the GOP unappealing. Obama (or Clinton), by contrast, will have only to avoid alienating those who are already favorably inclined to a change.

Issue after issue also promises to hurt Republicans. Among the topics creating the most anxiety are the economy, domestic matters like health care and immigration, and Iraq. Of those, immigration is the only one that might not favor the Democrats.

Richard Norton Smith, a historian who has run the presidential libraries of Republicans Herbert Hoover, Dwight Eisenhower, Gerald Ford and Ronald Reagan, is pessimistic about the party's prospects. He thinks the correct analogy is not 1988 but 1920 or 1952 -- when an unpopular war and an equally unpopular president spelled doom for the party in the White House. He thinks 2008 is shaping up not only as a narrow defeat for the GOP but a decisive "repudiation."

Many Republicans see Barack Obama as the natural heir of George McGovern -- an antiwar liberal with an avid but narrow base who is perfectly positioned to lose. They are also reminded of Michael Dukakis and his difficulty connecting with white males and working-class voters.

But Smith sees a big difference: In 1988, when Dukakis lost, the outgoing Republican president was popular, with an approval rating above 50 percent. Not so today.

Against trends like this, he strongly doubts that voters will put much weight on factors like Obama's associations with radical preachers or his flag-free lapel. Thanks to the Democratic contest, those matters have been fully aired, without fatal effect, and they are likely to sound stale and irrelevant by November.

In his view, the portents are all ominous for the Republican Party and its nominee. "Why do you think the race started so early? Why do you think turnout has been so high?" he asks. "A desire to put this chapter behind us."

The fallout is already apparent. In recent months, Republicans have lost two special elections to fill seats that had been GOP strongholds. Those shocks prompted former House Speaker Newt Gingrich to warn that come November, his party faces the prospect of "a real disaster."

The bad news for Republicans is that objective factors are conspiring to produce a Democratic victory. The good news? If the Democrats can't win this year, they may never.