5/15/2008

A Warning to Republicans

Even though the presidential race is generating the most headlines these days, one of the most important political developments this week has been the special election in Mississippi's 1st Congressional District (MS-1). This district, located in the northern part of the state, has been reliably Republican. In this week's special election, however, Democrat Travis Childers defeated Republican Greg Davis 54%-46%. This is the third special election that Democrats have won this year, thus increasing their majority in the House of Representatives to 236 Democrats to 199 Republicans.

Republicans could blame their previous special election losses on weak candidates and/or more hostile electorates. However, this special election can only be interpreted as a flat rejection of the Republican Party. George Bush carried the district with 62% of the vote in 2004 and the district has been represented by a Republican for more than 10 years. Even Vice President Cheney was sent to the district for a bit of last-minute campaigning, but the GOP lost this solidly Republican district by a very healthy eight points.

Given the overall composition of the district, not just any Democrat can win here. Childers is pro-gun and pro-life, much like other moderate to conservative Southern Democrats. However, Democrats aren't supposed to win these kinds of seats. Democrats and party strategists are surely licking their jowls because there are dozens of congressional districts elsewhere that are less Republican than MS-1 and are currently represented by Republicans. Republicans are justifiably terrified at their electoral prospects this fall because it could potentially be another wave election like 2006. And if that happens, Republicans would truly be in the political wilderness, as Democrats would be tantalizingly close to a supermajority that could override a potential presidential veto from John McCain.

Why are the Republicans losing? Partisan Democrats gleefully cite a tarnished Republican brand for their defeats, but here are a few other reasons along with some actual solutions that Republicans might wish to adopt for their own political survival.

1. There's a lack of new ideas. What is the newest great Republican idea? It seems that all Republicans talk about these days is tax cuts and not "surrendering" in Iraq. These two issues do not offer any vision about where the party wants to take the nation. In the past, especially during the Gingrich Revolution, Republicans were able to articulate bold ideas that excited the electorate. Entitlement reform and personal responsibility were fresh ideas that contrasted greatly with what the Democrats were offering at the time. If the GOP chooses to run on the same ideas that they ran on in 2002, then they had better get used to losing elections.

2. There's a lack of solutions. Voters are angry. They are angry about the economy. They are angry about healthcare. They are angry about gas prices. They are angry about Iraq. They are angry about immigration. They are angry about unsafe and defective Chinese products. They are angry about jobs disappearing overseas. So what did Republicans offer as solutions in the MS-1 special election? Accusations of liberalism, warnings about tax increases, linking the Democratic candidate to Barack Obama, and invoking Jeremiah Wright. Politics is obviously a contact sport, but there comes a point when voters expect those who seek to represent them to be able to offer meaningful solutions to their concerns. The Democrats' ideas are not necessarily good, but at least they are something. You can never beat something with nothing in politics. Interestingly, congressional Republicans seem to be guilty of exactly what they criticize Barack Obama for--offering a lot of talk, but no real solutions. Hearing the word "liberal" bandied about is not what voters want to hear when 80% of voters think the nation is on the wrong track.

3. A vote against a Republican is a vote against Bush. The public knows that the Democrats control Congress. And this Congress is not popular. However, the public also knows that a Republican controls the White House and leads the country. Republicans were tripping over themselves to have Bush campaign on their behalf in 2002 and 2004. But he has since become a radioactive albatross and Republicans down the ballot are paying the price. Bush's approval ratings are now south of 30%. Even though Bush will never be on another ballot, it is possible that voters are trying to vote against him by voting against his party. Bush might not be keen on listening to Democrats, but he should be more receptive to listening to Republicans. It might be in all Republicans' interest to pull Bush aside and tell him about how much he is killing them politically. If Bush were to up his approval numbers to 40%, voters might be a bit less apt to punish his party at the ballot box. Republicans should be more proactive in helping their party's leader right his ship because the further Bush sinks, the further Republicans everywhere sink. Or perhaps they would be better served by not letting Bush speak for them. Could Republicans benefit by going against the President and redefining what it means to be a Republican?

4. No one political party can stay on top forever. The Democrats controlled Capitol Hill for decades before finally losing in 1994. Republicans have controlled all the levers of power for most of Bush's presidency. If 2008 is a "change" election, then no matter what Bush or the Republicans do, voters simply might have had enough. This does not mean, however, that Republicans should resign themselves to getting demolished at the ballot box. One of former presidential candidate Mitt Romney's strengths was his ability to adapt to an ever-changing political landscape by repositioning himself and changing his message. Given that the current president is a Republican and that Republicans controlled Capitol Hill until 2006, "change" might be too hard a hard sell for Republicans to make. However, the success of Barack Obama at the expense of Hillary Clinton, the unlikely Democratic victory in the special election in Mississippi, and overall dissatisfaction with the way things are going with the nation right now suggest that "change" is a message smart politicians of all stripes should adopt.

19 comment(s):

Brett said...

Historically, isn't it pretty rare for a President's party to do well in elections after an 8-year Presidency winds down? I remember Bush Sr. was quite an exception.

One thing to keep in mind about elections like the Childers one is that, in a sense, it's not as if the districts have "turned" Democrat. If you look at the history, you realize that in the South, conservative Democrats (in the sense that they are socially conservative but pro-worker, pro-union, and the like) were actually the rule, not the exception (several southern states were more or less one-party states until after the 1960s and 1970s). Since many of the voters who voted Democrat back "in the day" (the "yellow dog" Democrats who made up the New Deal Coalition) are still voting today (albeit in elderly form), and in large numbers, it would stand to reason that if Democrats returned to their roots, so to speak, they would flock back to them. Their connection to the Republican Party has always been very recent and pretty tenuous anyways; Texas was a Democrat-dominated state as late as the 1980s (when Karl Rove and Bush came along).

Good comment, though, about the lack of ideas on the Republican front. McCain may have a bushel of policy proposals, but he only recently has started to really hit on them; a lot of his public propagandizing basically consisted of 1)"I'm a Maverick who will cut pork", 2)"I was right on Iraq and the Surge", and 3)"I won't cut and run on Iraq"/index.html"I'm a war hero with experience".

Brett said...

I should emphasize that I'm referring to the large mass of old "yellow dog" Democrats who defected to the Republican Party after the Democrats turned socially liberal. The South has changed considerably since then, of course; its population is much larger, and it isn't as poor and agricultural as it once was.

Anthony Palmer said...

Very good historical analysis, Brett. You are right that 1988 was the only time since Truman that one party has won the White House three times in a row. The pendulum can only swing in one direction but so far.

And Democrats did use to dominate the South and rural areas like you said until they became socially liberal during the Reagan and Clinton years. Were they the Yellow Dogs, though? I thought they were the Blue Dogs. Or maybe the Blue Dogs are the conservative Democratic coalition currently in Congress? I don't remember.

West Virginia, Kentucky, Ohio, and Pennsylvania are chock full of these voters. Edwards might help Obama appeal to these voters, but Obama might be a bit too liberal for them to be comfortable with. This is what makes Virginia Senator Jim Webb such an appealing VP pick, even though I think he'd be more useful to the Democrats in the Senate. These voters are the reason why Mike Huckabee was so successful. If I were Obama, I'd be really scared of him at the bottom of a McCain ticket.

Thomas said...

What I predict the Republicans doing this fall is to blame everything on "unelected judges." There are a few problems with this argument however. Republicans have controlled the presidency of the United States for 28 out of the last 40 years. In the last 40 years, Democrats have elected two Supreme Court justices - Ginsburg and Breyer. Most of the federal district court judges and appeal court judges are Republican appointees as well.

The second problem with this line of thinking is that the reasons that judges aren't elected is because we don't want them responsive to the flights of fancy of the voters. A judge's only loyalty should be to the law.

As a lawyer, I find Republican smearing of judges pretty rich. They never complain that Scalia or Thomas or Alito or Roberts were not elected by anybody. Conservatives never complain when Scalia wears his politics on the sleeve of his black robe.

It's okay then.

Brett said...

That's why I find the idea of "electing" judges so singularly appalling. You do NOT want judges thinking, "Hmm, he seems more or less okay, if unsavory, and it's a first time offense - but my election is coming up, so I better 'get tough'" when they are sitting on the bench. You want them to be thinking of how their case will affect the law and society, independent of political pressure (that's why it is usually so difficult to remove a judge).

Oh, and I'm pretty sure the voters were the yellow dog democrats. Blue dog is, as you called it, the name of the conservative democrats' group in Congress.

Dominic said...

Does Pat Buchanan know about this?

Schenck said...

Dominic:

I'm not sure Pat Buchanan knows about anything that occurs further from his big head than the tip of his racist nose.

Anthony Palmer said...

In light of what Thomas said, here's a question for all of you:

If future conservative appointees overturned precedent (such as reversing Roe vs. Wade), would that not be "judicial activism" as well even though that "activism" has the goal of "strict constructionism" in mind?

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Regarding Buchanan, I've found him to be one of the more prescient pundits as of late. He seems to have mellowed out a bit as well--at least based on what I've seen of him on MSNBC.

And Dominic, does Pat Buchanan know about what? What are you asking about?

Schenck said...

Buchanan mellowing out

Thomas said...

Anthony, do you think conservative Republicans are savvy enough to realize that, at least at this point, conservative policies aren't going to sell to the voting public?

For example, I think John McCain may garner more vote by picking a fight with Rush Limbaugh than with "respecting" him. I think the conservative movement's best current hope is to publicly cut off some of their extremists, just like Ronald Reagan did with the John Birchers.

Schenck said...

thomas, I think conservative talking heads like Rush Limbaugh pull a huge weight... millions of hard-line right wing voters (like my father) follow their every word to a T. McCain needs to shore up support in his own party before he tries to reach out to Independents and "Reagen Dems", and dissing on Limbaugh will do the opposite. McCain's in quite a pickle. He has to appeal to a lot of voters with very conflicting views if he wants to have a chance in November. They are ready and waiting to listen, but I don't think McCain is a magician. We shall see.

Anthony Palmer said...

Thomas,

I personally think Republicans would be better off turning against the President. Most of the nation seems to have written him off anyway, so the longer they hitch their wagons to him, the worse off they will be. Conservatism actually makes a lot of sense, and I have a conservative streak. But I think there are two problems with conservatism: 1) letting people fall through the cracks affects all of us, and 2) some of the strongest conservative voices come across quite abrasively, thus scaring a lot of voters into voting Democratic. Obviously, the left has its abrasive wackos too, but the influence of Air America and Michael Moore is a bit weaker than the influence of a Rush Limbaugh or Ann Coulter.

Freadom said...

If a conservative court overturned Roe -v-w Wade I don't think that would be judicial activism at all, especially since R v W should never have come about in the first place, considering the 10th amendment prevents the Federal Government from ruling on anything not mentionined in the constitution (and abortion is not mentioned in the constitution).

IMO

DB said...

McCain is actually doing a better job doing it his "maverick" way supporting a few liberal causes while promising those "non-activist" judges we keep hearing about. To be honest, it is surprising he is doing so well with the state that our country is in and I wouldn't be surprised if he did win. The Reps have no chance anywhere else though. The Dems will still control congress which means that for at least 2-4 years our government will not get along and get nothing done, McCain won't get anything done either and his approval rating will reflect that, and he will not get reelected. Hypothetical of course, but it seems logical.

Mark in Austin said...

db, I would hope that a McC Prez and a D Congress would chose the areas where compromise is likely, for examples, energy/environment policies and closing tax loopholes, and move quickly on them.

A bipartisan commission should readdress the major entitlements with a view to tweaking for solvency in 2011.

A bipartisan commission should readdress undocs and IAs and the borders and ports, with a view toward tweaking in 2011.

Doing quickly what can be done will serve the country better than perpetual stalemate.

The energy/environment compromise could be far reaching as to climate change and as to affecting our national security, our dependence on the Middle East, our international trade structure, our foreign policy, and our debts.

Silence Dogood said...

...and one last tid bit (being equally surprised McCain is doing as well as he is - and thinking he does have a shot to win).

The Dems might not get straight of fillibuster proof after this election, but no matter who wins the presidency the Democrats stand a very strong chance to pick up at least 3 if not more Senate seats, making it very tough for the next president to be so perefectly uncompromising on any point of politics as the current one (i.e. a few Arlen Spector types in addition to a 54-57 majority of Democratic Senators) would make Presiential veto's or threats there of difficult to weild as effectively as Bush has been able to since 2006.

Mark in Austin said...

Anthony, Typically we would say that devotion to precedent is "restrainist". If the underpinnings of the precedent have changed, a "restrainist" judge could vote for a concurrent change in the law.

In Roe, the distinction made about viability outside the womb permitted states to outlaw abortion in the third trimester. Suppose that in 2010 viability outside the womb begins three days after conception, thanks to the miracles of modern medicine?

A restrainist would have no difficulty in applying that evidence of changed circumstance to
permit states to outlaw abortion, except for fear for the life of, or serious health complications to, the mother.

Anthony Palmer said...

DB and MIA (welcome back!),

A McCain presidency would devastate the Democrats. Even though he would almost certainly only be a one-term president, the psychological wounds the Dems would feel from losing a very winnable election would push the party to the brink of dissolution. A McCain presidency would be neutered a bit by large Democratic majorities, so McCain would have trouble making Bush's tax cuts permanent and drilling in ANWR. However, the Democrats would not be able to exit Iraq, thus giving the GOP a huge advantage in 2010 because the Dems promised the moon in 2006, but will not have been able to deliver. McCain would get at least 1 (and maybe 2) Supreme Court appointee(s), but the Dems would probably (and unfairly) block the appointee if he didn't uphold Roe vs. Wade. If the Dems do that, it would set a dangerous precedent because it's the President's right to nominate whoever he wants. As long as the person is qualified to serve, then ideology shouldn't matter when it comes to these individual issues.

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Silence,

2008 is really the best chance for the Dems to make it to 60 seats in the Senate because the party holding the White House almost always loses seats in the first midterm of a new presidency. The best 2010 pickup opportunity is probably Florida, but like what the GOP is dealing with now, the political pendulum will undoubtedly swing back away from the Dems in 2010 or 2012. Republicans complain about McCain and his insufficient conservatism, but I think the GOP voters serendipitously nominated their most electible Republican. Thompson, Romney, or Huckabee would have been absolutely DESTROYED this fall.

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Freadom,

So you define judicial activism in terms of deviating from the original Constitution, rather than deviating from precedent, huh? I guess the true test of this argument would be if "judicial activism" brought about more conservative policies and people did not complain even if these rulings were not in line with the original Constitution. We shall see!

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MIA (again),

I've never heard of the term "restrainist," but it makes a lot of sense. Thanks for teaching me something! So this would suggest that the Supreme Court's recent rulings on abortion-related cases are more restraintist than liberal simply because no new freedoms are being granted (which would be liberal), but existing ones aren't curtailed even though the Constitution doesn't provide for them. You're not a law student, by any chance, are you? Thanks again.

Mark in Austin said...

Anthony, I have been practicing law for forty years come September 6.

"activism" and "restraint" do not mean "liberal" or "conservative" to lawyers.

Frankfurter was a liberal restrainist. Scalia is a conservative activist.

The IN voting registration ID case is an example. The statute is not invalid on its face. However, when the state conceded that it had no history of voter fraud to support the statute, an activist liberal might say "there is no evidence to support the statute, thus the voting rights proponents have a low evidentiary hurdle to clear before we find the statute unconstituional in its application." A restrainist of any stripe would still say that the voting rights proponents had to provide a preponderance of the evidence that a material and substantial impediment to voting was raised.
Stevens, a liberal, took the restrainist position. Scalia and Thomas took activist conservative positions that were intended to change the future ballgame in concurring, they did not see how such a statute could ever be unconstitutional in its application. Breyer, Souter, and Ginsburg took activist liberal positions that the state having failed to show justification, the proponents only needed a scintilla of evidence, which they thought had been produced.

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