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The Great Divide

Populists versus elitists in the Republican party.

Nov 18, 2013, Vol. 19, No. 10 • By FRED BARNES
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The least interesting thing that happened in the odd-year election was Chris Christie’s reelection as governor of New Jersey. It was like a football game between Alabama and Vassar: A Republican governor with extraordinary political skills and an impressive record in his first term crushes a throwaway Democratic challenger in a blue state. This was totally expected, thus devoid of excitement or drama.

Cuccinelli: The truce fails.

Cuccinelli: The truce fails.

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So we move on. There were two discoveries in the election, one a joy to Republicans, the other a help to Democrats. The first is that Obamacare moves the numbers. Two weeks before the election, Republican Ken Cuccinelli declared the Virginia governor’s race a referendum on Obama’s health care law. Attacking Obamacare furiously, he surged. He didn’t win but gained 10 percentage points or more almost overnight and came close. And he demonstrated that Obamacare is an issue with a future. Democrats are terrified.

The second is that Republicans are as clueless as ever in combating the charge they’re waging a “war on women.” Mitt Romney failed last year to deal with it. He went limp. This year Cuccinelli did the same. He ignored the charge and paid a heavy price. Now Democrats have every reason to continue using the tactic. 

It was surprising that Cuccinelli hadn’t focused on Obamacare earlier. He had a legitimate claim on the issue. As Virginia attorney general, he filed the first lawsuit in 2010 seeking to have the law ruled unconstitutional. And Obamacare is as unpopular in Virginia as everywhere else. Yet Cuccinelli was slow to embrace the issue, doing so only when his campaign was behind and desperate.

Might he have defeated Democrat Terry McAuliffe if Obamacare had been the centerpiece of his candidacy all along? We’ll never know. Cuccinelli didn’t have enough money left to run TV ads on Obamacare in the final weeks. Overall, McAuliffe outspent him nearly 3-to-1. But money isn’t everything in politics. A powerful issue can overwhelm it.

Cuccinelli’s finishing kick left Democrats shaken. With hundreds of thousands losing their health insurance because of Obamacare—despite the president’s repeated promise that no one would—the issue has taken on a raw intensity. A split among Democrats is spreading. Senators up for reelection in 2014 want the president to delay the law or at least restore insurance to those who’ve lost it. But Obama has shown no mercy. He refuses to yield.

The president’s strategy is to brazen his way through this crisis of his presidency, figuring the fickle press will soon turn to other issues. This has worked for Obama before—on Benghazi, on Syria, on the IRS scandal, on the slumping economy. Changing his policies or apologizing for their failure seems to be the farthest thing from his mind. He’d rather blame Republicans.

Obama refuses to acknowledge that his vow to let thousands keep their insurance was a lie. And he’s put Democrats and members of his media claque in the awkward position of having to argue that his lie wasn’t a lie. This has made the furor over the insurance cancellations linger. 

Meanwhile, not only has Obama’s job approval dipped below 40 percent for the first time, his personal popularity has also dropped. His “image has taken a big hit,” GOP pollster Ed Goeas says. “The president no longer has a reservoir of personal goodwill that he can use to turn around dissatisfaction about his job performance.”

But Democrats shouldn’t be seen as helpless. The idea of a Republican “war on women” may be ridiculous. But phony issues are hardly new to politics. Recall, for instance, John Kennedy’s claim of a “missile gap” in the 1960 presidential race. 

Cuccinelli adopted what some Republicans call the “truce strategy.” It assumes that if a GOP candidate declines to discuss social issues like abortion, contraceptives, and divorce, the Democratic opponent will go along. Only it’s a one-sided truce. Democrats don’t honor it. They never said they would. Obama didn’t last year in his attacks on Romney. McAuliffe didn’t this year. His campaign spent an estimated $7 million on ads tarring Cuccinelli as a social issue radical, “too extreme for Virginia.”

By not fighting back, Cuccinelli allowed the charge to sink in. And McAuliffe found himself in a situation candidates dream about. On social issues, he could say what he wanted about Cuccinelli without being rebutted. “The truce strategy can only work if the other side isn’t kicking the crap out of you,” says Jeffrey Bell of the American Principles Project, a group that advises Republicans to speak out on social issues.

Their advice makes sense. In response to the torrent of Democratic ads, Cuccinelli might have targeted McAuliffe’s position on abortion and dubbed him the “real extremist.” McAuliffe supports abortion on demand with no exceptions. So he was vulnerable.

At one point, the pro-life Susan B. Anthony List conducted a focus group of Democratic-leaning women. They hadn’t a clue about McAuliffe’s stand on abortion. When informed, they were appalled. Told of this, Cuccinelli still declined to go on offense against McAuliffe on abortion.

Two other troubles for Republicans were exposed in last week’s election. One is the GOP slide in the suburbs. Cuccinelli got clobbered in Fairfax County, the big, wealthy suburb outside Washington. Republicans don’t have to win a majority of the Fairfax vote to win statewide in Virginia. Roughly 43 or 44 percent will do. Cuccinelli got 36 percent. Four years ago, Republican governor Bob McDonnell carried Fairfax. 

Since 2010, a divide between Republican populists and elitists has been growing. It’s likely to grow more in the wake of the national GOP’s failure to fund Cuccinelli’s campaign in the closing weeks and the U.S. Chamber of Commerce’s intervention in an Alabama congressional primary to defeat a Christian conservative with Tea Party leanings.

Populist Republicans blame Cuccinelli’s loss on establishment Republicans for abandoning him in October. In truth, they had an excuse. A month out, Cuccinelli looked like a loser. Once the Obamacare issue took off, however, he could have used their support. The money they put into Christie’s campaign, which Christie didn’t need, could have been shifted to Cuccinelli’s.

A populist backlash against what happened in Alabama didn’t erupt immediately, but it’s likely to. That means Republicans are probably in for a rough season of primary clashes, conventional Republicans versus insurgents, in 2014. It could get ugly.

At least Republicans won’t have to worry about Christie. He’s riding high. He’s on his way toward a bid for the Republican presidential nomination. No surprise there.

Fred Barnes is an executive editor at The Weekly Standard.

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