The Blog

Can the GOP Make a Comeback?

The recipe for Republicans is to stop acting like, well, Republicans--that is, Republicans of recent vintage.

12:00 AM, Aug 22, 2007 • By FRED BARNES
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IT'S NOT PARTICULARLY visible at the moment, but there is a road to political recovery for Republicans. Chances are they won't get far enough down it to recapture the House or Senate or even hold the White House in 2008. But they might.

Three things have to happen for Republicans to recover--in effect, a political hat trick. Events must work in their favor, notably in Iraq. Democrats must screw up badly. And Republicans must change their ways, in a compelling fashion. This last requirement may be the toughest.

Let's start with events. The debate over whether a war gone bad in Iraq was the primary cause of sweeping Republican losses in last year's midterm election will never be resolved. Clearly the war hurt, more than a little. Just as clearly, a turnaround in Iraq would help enormously.

But even if the "surge" is as successful as it appears it might be, there's a problem. While public support has increased recently, the war still faces deep-seated opposition. There's a widespread view that its cost in lives, money and national prestige has been too high. This won't change overnight. Public opinion isn't quite that fickle.

It's not immutable, however. What if military success by Gen. David Petraeus, the American commander, is matched by a political breakthrough engineered by Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki? Or matched by the acceleration of political reconciliation at the provincial rather than the national level in Iraq? Either scenario is possible.

Grass-roots reconciliation is already spreading at a pace not far behind military gains. And this, after all, is the formula on which the surge was based--that success in fighting al Qaeda, Sunni insurgents and Shiite militias would be accompanied by, or lead to, political progress. Should the situation continue to improve, American attitudes about the war, President Bush and Republicans, would surely improve, marginally at least and perhaps a bit more.

Nothing would boost Republicans more than visible progress in Iraq, yet other conceivable events would help. Mr. Bush can't erase the memory of his inept handling of Hurricane Katrina. But if another disaster occurred and the president responded effectively, that would counteract the memory of his Katrina performance.

So would a serious confrontation with Congress over spending, assuming Mr. Bush and Republicans win public approval as thoughtful budget cutters. And so, too, would the absence of an economic downturn as the president prepares to leave office enhance the reputation of Republicans for pursuing sensible economic policies. In short, a positive turn of events, while unpredictable, is the best hope of the GOP.

A spectacular Democratic blunder? Republicans shouldn't count on it. Democrats have downplayed cultural issues like abortion and gun control that alienated voters in the past. They championed organized labor's agenda, but the most egregious items (ending secret ballot certification elections and unionizing Transportation Security Administration employees) failed to pass and are now forgotten. Democrats tried mightily to force a troop drawdown in Iraq and failed there, too. This may revive, over the long term, their reputation for weakness on national security. For now, they're OK.

There are traps Democrats must avoid. When Gen. Petraeus reports next month on progress in Iraq, it would be dangerous for them to question his truthfulness, as Senate Democratic Leader Harry Reid already has, and dispute his advice. The general has far more credibility than they do. Nonetheless, if Gen. Petraeus voices optimism about winning in Iraq, Democrats may be irresistibly tempted to ignore him and press again for retreat. That's one trap.

On fiscal issues, Democrats foolishly dismissed the president's insistence on cutting $22 billion from overall discretionary spending, claiming it was a puny amount. To them, it is. To the public, it's not. A veto war on spending bills is likely to work in Mr. Bush's favor, though not if weak-willed congressional Republicans cut and run. Should it lead to a government shutdown--call it the shutdown trap--that would be all the more harmful to Democrats.

On taxes, Democrats appear confident there's no trap at all, so long as they don't raise taxes on the middle class. Thus congressional Democrats have felt free to pass tax hikes this year on energy companies, foreign corporations and cigarettes, and they're poised to repeal the Bush tax cuts for those earning more than $200,000 a year.

Republicans believe Democrats have misread their mandate on taxes. We'll see.