The Magazine

How Bad Will It Be?

The GOP debacle to come.

Oct 23, 2006, Vol. 12, No. 06 • By FRED BARNES
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REPUBLICANS and conservatives, brace yourselves! Strategists and consultants of both parties now believe the House is lost and House Democratic leader Nancy Pelosi will become speaker. At best, Republicans will cling to control of the Senate by a single seat, two at most. For many election cycles, Republicans have been the boys of October, using paid media and superior campaign skills to make up lost ground and win in November. This year, they were the boys of September, rallying strongly until that fateful day, September 29, when the Mark Foley scandal erupted. October has been a disaster so far. A strong finishing kick for Republicans, minimizing Democratic gains, is possible. They pulled one off brilliantly in President Bush's first midterm election in 2002. But recovery will be harder this time, a lot harder.

The press is fixated on the so-called generic ballot--Do you want a Democratic or Republican Congress?--as an indicator of Republican setbacks on November 7. But that gauge has rarely been predictive. Two others are more reliable: presidential approval and party enthusiasm. And they tell an ominous story for Republicans about the difference between 2002 and 2006.

Presidential approval correlates with how the president's party fares in midterm elections. It's simple: High approval is linked to election success, low approval to defeat. In October 2002, with Bush's approval at 62 percent in the Gallup Poll, Republicans won six seats in the House and two in the Senate. Now Bush is at 37 percent in Gallup. The inescapable conclusion is that Bush lacks the clout with the public he had four years ago. To make matters worse, presidents associated with unpopular wars are historically a drag on their parties (Truman, LBJ).

The most overlooked election indicator is the level of voter enthusiasm. In every election from 1994 through 2004, Republicans were more enthusiastic than Democrats. That was a decade of Republican growth. This year Democrats are more excited. And it's measurable. In 2002, 42 percent of Republicans said they were more enthusiastic than usual about the election. Thirty-eight percent of Democrats said the same. In 2006, the numbers have flipped. Republican enthusiasm has dipped to 39 percent and Democratic enthusiasm has jumped to 48 percent. Enthusiasm affects turnout. Gloomy voters are less inclined to vote.

The Foley scandal did two things, both harmful to Republicans. It stopped Republican momentum in its tracks. (Also contributing to this were the negative spin on Iraq from Bob Woodward's book State of Denial and the faulty reporting on the National Intelligence Estimate.) And it changed the narrative of the campaign from one emphasizing national security, a Republican strength, to one emphasizing Republican malfeasance in Washington and dysfunction in Iraq.

Democrats were lucky, as they have been all year. They had fallen into a trap set by Republicans on the interrogation of high-level terrorist detainees. They voted against the compromise reached by the White House and Senator John McCain, choosing to protect civil liberties for terrorists over national security. That issue, a powerful one for Republicans, was pushed aside in the Foley frenzy.

Earlier in 2006, events had intervened to snuff out a recovery by Bush and Republicans in its embryonic stage. After a bumpy 2005 (Katrina, rising Iraq violence, failure of Social Security reform, Harriet Miers), Bush's approval was inching upward, pointing to an end to his second-term slump. Instead, Vice President Cheney's accidental shooting of a hunting pal, the Dubai ports fiasco, and the bombing of the Golden Dome mosque in Iraq combined to prolong the slump--until the short-lived September surge.

If politics were fair, Democrats would be in as much trouble as Republicans. And they'd be just as vulnerable. They've been obstructionist, anti-tax-cut, soft on terrorism, and generally obnoxious. On top of that, Pelosi is the most unpopular national politician in America. But in the sixth year of the Bush presidency, with a GOP-run Congress, Democrats aren't the issue. Republicans are.

This explains why efforts by Bush and Republicans to target Democrats have been so unsuccessful. A veteran Republican consultant says lavish spending on TV commercials in races he's involved in has largely failed to either boost the poll numbers of his Republican candidates or drive down those of Democrats. Worse, in blue states, the Democratic crossover vote on which Republican candidates often rely has dried up. Democrats have gone home in droves.

In his stump speeches, the president concentrates on terror and taxes. And the contrast he draws between terror-fighting, tax-cutting Republicans and wimpy, taxaholic Democrats is reasonably accurate. But it's failing to attract independents or lure disgruntled conservatives back to the Republican fold.