Yesterday, I read Bob Novak's column titled "Republican Melancholy," which correctly caught the current depressed mood in GOP circles. President Bush's position on illegal immigration has deeply alienated much of the loyal rank and file Republicans across the country. Key Republican incumbents, such as Sen. John Warner of Virginia and Rep. Debbie Price of Ohio, are announcing their retirements. Sen. Larry Craig's cringe-inducing disgrace only adds to the funereal mood. And, of course, the Iraq War, for all the surge's success this summer, remains vastly unpopular with the public. To top off this GOP discontent, none of our presidential candidates has so far come even close to being seen as our "next Reagan."
It is undoubtedly true that most Republican professional strategists and pollsters are bracing for a potentially grim election night 14 months from now. I share that assessment and that mood.
But it is also true that the mood of an individual, a party or a country tends to be a trailing indicator of reality. A mood is the sum of emotions responding to past and present events. And, just as a 3-year-old child can instantly swing from tears to joyous laughter as soon as he is given previously denied candy or a toy, so can seasoned political operatives and adult voters everywhere switch their moods and their judgments of political events on a dime.
While I am not prepared to predict happy days for the Republicans just yet, let me lay out such a very plausible scenario:
The troika pulling the Republican chariot of despair is composed of: 1. perceived failure or stalemate in Iraq, 2. Bush's position on illegal immigrants, and 3. Republican congressional corruption, big spending and immoral behavior.
While Bush continues to disappoint on illegal immigration issues, at least the failed effort for amnesty is behind us -- and was defeated by a stone wall of Republican congressional opposition. Also, and importantly, the leading GOP presidential candidates are all strongly and loudly for secure borders and against illegal immigration or amnesty. Democratic Party incumbents and candidates for president are mostly on the wrong side of this issue (even for general election voters -- not merely GOP voters). By next November, the politically incorrect opposition to illegal immigration will be a major winner for GOP candidates and will hurt Democrats in competitive districts and states (partially offset by possible loss of a smaller number of some Hispanic votes for GOP).
While it will take years for the Republicans to live down their recent big spending and corrupt ways, their big advantage on this is that they will be running against Democrats -- who have suffered from a justified reputation for similar waywardness for generations, even centuries. Certainly, the current Democratic Congress is already less admired than was the GOP Congress on the day of its defeat last November. Call the corruption issue a draw.
But Iraq failure -- and, as a result, President Bush's approval numbers -- has been the big thumping issue that has been killing GOP chances with independent voters and losing even a third of the Republican voters. Moreover, opposition to the Iraq War slops over and drives down public support for most other GOP issues, such as the economy, education and health care. Worst of all, the Iraq-driven damage to the GOP brand is currently depressing support for Republican candidates.
If by next November the public has a sunnier view of the Iraq War, it is likely to shine that sunshine on other issues and GOP candidates, as well. And, if the economy gets past the housing slump and the financial crisis -- for which there is ambiguous evidence that it just might -- next November would see one of the longest sustained economic growth periods in our history.
My hunch is that the next election may well come down to what the public thinks of "Bush's War" in Iraq -- and also which party is seen as more able on the War on Terror generally.
The public view of Iraq will be event driven -- either it will be working or it won't. Neither malicious mainstream media badnewsing nor White House happy talk will be able to trump reality. The progress in Iraq over the last six months has broken through the media's fatalism. That is why the defeatist Democratic leaders and presidential candidates have felt forced to concede at least "short-term military success."
If military success and growing political success at the local and provincial levels with the Sunni tribal leaders continues and expands its effect to the national Baghdad government -- and we have both military calm and maturing pro-American governance in Iraq -- Democrats from presidential candidate to city council will be in an awful state.
The Republican National Committee doubtlessly has stored all the video of Democratic defeatism from this spring and early summer, uttered not only in Washington but also by local state legislators and city officials (from what I saw this spring, the national Democratic Party defeatism talking points were being picked up by Democratic Party congressional wannabees across the country).
This spring, the Democrats pushed all their chips in for defeat in Iraq. They can't retrieve those chips now. That may well turn out to be the worst political bet since the Republicans stuck with Herbert Hoover for President in 1932.