Former Republican House Speaker Newt Gingrich, whose political acumen is acknowledged even by Democratic detractors, said something last week that had liberals reflexively nodding.
Pointing to the unpopularity of the Iraq War, the excessive federal spending of recent years and the general disenchantment of the conservative base of the Republican Party, Gingrich set very long odds on Republicans retaining the White House in 2008. "You just look at the dynamics," he told the National Journal, "and you have to say the odds are probably 80-20" in favor of the Democrats.
Newt, of course, is right. The Democrats have the inside track. But that doesn't mean they won't blow it. Nor does it mean that a shrewdly run Republican presidential campaign -- helped by trends that might shift over the next 14 months -- can't beat the odds.
The Democrat's dream scenario goes something like this:
Between now and the Iowa Caucuses, the candidates running to the right in the Republican field fight bitterly among themselves, each seeking to emerge as the sole surviving, viable conservative alternative to Rudy Giuliani, who leads the Republican candidates in most national polls. By Super Duper Tuesday (Feb. 5), there is still no consensus conservative contra-Rudy. In fact, there might even be three claimants still standing.
One would be former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney, who now appears the best bet to win in Iowa and New Hampshire. The other two might be former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee and former Tennessee Sen. Fred Thompson, either of whom could seize the early momentum from Romney if they do well enough in Iowa and New Hampshire and then come back and defeat Romney in South Carolina and Florida, which will precede Super Duper Tuesday.
In the Democrat dream, that sets the stage for the conservative claimants to split the conservative vote on Super Duper Tuesday, allowing Giuliani to win most states that day with a plurality.
In the Democrat dream of dreams, one social conservative survives Super Duper Tuesday and wages a last-ditch effort to stop the pro-abortion, pro-gay-rights, pro-gun control Giuliani from walking off with the nomination of a party, whose base -- especially in those states most likely to give it an Electoral College victory -- is pro-life, pro-family and pro-Second Amendment.
Rudy, the Democrats fantasize, finally emerges as a Republican nominee who not only lacks enthusiastic support from his own party's base, but also lacks the appeal on cultural issues that in recent decades has driven socially conservatives swing voters in swing states into the Republican column.
Smart Democrats know this is important because even in their dreams they know their party does not represent the values of Middle America. They know the America that will go to the polls in 2008 is still the same culturally polarized country whose Electoral College map was painted roughly half red and half blue after both the 2000 and 2004 elections. They know many red states are simply beyond their reach. However, they believe the unpopularity of the Iraq War will move enough otherwise culturally conservative voters in key swing states to give them the election.
If Giuliani is the Republican nominee, it will be easier for the Democrats to do this because he will not only alienate these voters on social issues, he will also alienate them because of his positioning on the Iraq War, which is the most easily caricatured of all the Republicans.
In the final days of a general election campaign in which Giuliani is the Republican nominee, you would likely see Democratic ads featuring a clip from the New Hampshire Republican debate on June 5, when Giuliani was asked whether "knowing what you know right now" he still believed it was a good decision to invade Iraq. Giuliani said it was "absolutely the right thing to do."
So, how can Democrats lose?
First, rather than nominate Giuliani, Republicans unite behind a candidate who can persuasively articulate a comprehensive conservative vision: for limited government, economic liberty, cultural traditionalism and an energetic -- but not rash -- foreign policy aimed at defending the United States at a time when Islamic terrorism poses the greatest threat to our security.
Secondly, the trend toward greater security in Iraq, which Gen. David Petraeus testified to last week, continues, while at least some political progress is made in Baghdad, allowing the conservative candidate to plausibly defend maintaining a U.S. presence in that country, while forcing the Democratic candidate to explain why the withdrawal being advocated by that party will not lead to a humanitarian and security catastrophe that will haunt us for decades.
Finally, the Democratic candidate will inadvertently cooperate with the Republican strategy by fooling herself into believing that the advantage her party has because of the Iraq War and national weariness with the Bush administration can be translated into a domestic mandate for the entire left-wing Baby Boom agenda.
She will even advocate socialized medicine.
In that scenario, a nightmare may be averted. Just enough people might go to the polls next November nursing one conviction that trumps all others: There's no way they would vote for Hillary Clinton.