POLITICS IS PRETTY SIMPLE. If the debate in an upcoming election puts your party at a disadvantage, it makes sense to try to change the debate. At the moment, the 2006 midterm election is framed as a referendum on the Bush administration and congressional Republicans, putting Republican candidates on the defensive. Party strategists, led by chairman Ken Mehlman, want to rejigger the debate so it's about a choice between candidates, putting Democratic candidates on the defensive as well. In short, they want it to be a choice election, not a referendum election.
This is not a new idea. Republicans brought about a choice election in 2004. Democrats believed they were a cinch to win a referendum on President Bush's first term, and Republicans worried they were right. But Republicans were able to make Democrat John Kerry at least as much of an issue as Bush was, especially on national security.
For 2006, the Republican National Committee, the White House, and most Senate and House Republicans are on board with the choice strategy. In fact, some members of Congress are already repeating a phrase first used by Bush in meetings with congressional allies. It's an assertion that Democrats would "raise your taxes and raise the white flag" in Iraq.
There's another part of the 2006 Republican strategy. This spring and summer, Republican leaders in the Senate and House plan to bring up a series of issues that are popular with the Republican base of voters. The aim is to stir conservative voters and spur turnout in the November election. Just last week, House Majority Leader John Boehner and Whip Roy Blunt met with leaders of conservative groups to talk about these issues.
House Republicans, for their part, intend to seek votes on measures such as the Bush-backed constitutional amendment banning gay marriage, a bill allowing more public expression of religion, another requiring parental consent for women under 18 to get an abortion, legislation to bar all federal courts except the Supreme Court from ruling on the constitutionality of the Pledge of Allegiance, a bill to outlaw human cloning, and another that would require doctors to consider fetal pain before performing an abortion.
Two pollsters consulted by Mehlman on the choice strategy said it would be counterproductive for Republican candidates to concentrate on highlighting their differences with Bush or congressional Republicans. Of course this is not exactly disinterested advice. Mehlman and company all want to help the president, who stands to lose most from Republicans' adopting an "I'm not like Bush" strategy.
Dave Sackett of the Tarrance Group said, in a memo to Mehlman, that distancing oneself from the president is a "flawed strategy" and would not protect a Republican candidate "from the generic backlash against the administration or the congressional leadership." Rather, it would turn the campaign into "a national referendum on President Bush and the policies of the administration and the congressional leadership"--just what Republicans fear in 2006. Jan van Lohuizen of Voter/Consumer Research said a campaign that becomes a referendum on Bush could also chill Republican voter turnout. "Anything we do to depress turnout, by not running as a unified party, for instance, could very well lead to serious consequences in November."
Republicans have done little to hide their strategy. At the Southern Republican Leadership conference in Memphis recently, Mehlman spoke repeatedly about "choice" in the 2006 election. Voters, he said, "can see the difference between leaders committed to winning this war [on terror] and politicians who will say anything to win the next election. The war on terror is not the only area where we face an urgent choice in 2006."
Mehlman asked, rhetorically, if voters "want the chairman of the tax-writing committee in the House to be someone who said that tax increases would spur the economy. Do you want the speaker of the House to be someone who said, less than a year after 9/11, 'I don't really consider ourselves at war.'" That, Mehlman said, "is the choice we will make in 242 days."
Mehlman is convinced the emphasis on choice will work. "The ultimate referendum election is a presidential reelection," he says. "If you can make that into a choice election, you can make a midterm election into a choice election."
Some Republicans insist it doesn't matter whether Democrats finally offer a party agenda. "The question is not what they promise," Mehlman told me. "It's what they are going to do" that is important.
Blunt, however, wants to force Democrats to present an agenda. Contrasted with Democratic plans, "our ideas always look better," he says. "Their best day will be the day before they release their agenda. Suddenly [Republican] policies will look like the policies that would work best in the future."
A White House official says the choice strategy "is the means to go on offense," instead of merely defending the controversial or unpopular actions of the Bush administration. There are numerous "luscious targets" offered by Democrats, including the fact that two-thirds of House Democrats voted against the reauthorization of the Patriot Act and three-fourths of congressional Democrats opposed the president's tax cuts.
One issue that needs to be developed is the economy, according to Blunt. "People take a strong economy for granted. We have to show that this didn't just happen," but is the result of Republican policies like tax cuts. Republican candidates will argue that if Democratic policies had been followed, a strong economic recovery would not have occurred. And job creation--243,000 in February--would have been weaker.
Mehlman's confidence notwithstanding, will Republican efforts to keep the election debate from focusing on Bush really work? The media undoubtedly won't play along. Some Republicans are bound to trash Bush, figuring that it will give them the best chance of winning. Worse, if Bush falters badly, a referendum on him may be unavoidable. Still, is there a better strategy for Republicans in what looks like an unfriendly year for them? If there is, I haven't heard of it.
Fred Barnes is executive editor of The Weekly Standard and author of Rebel-in-Chief (Crown Forum).