Friday, November 10, 2006

The meaning of it all, Florida fun, and Mehlman's folly

I’m on fumes at the moment, a common condition at the end of an election week, compounded by an early morning deadline for a Sunday print column on how various ’08 Republican hopefuls can benefit from the ’06 Republican meltdown. So consider this a quick survey of the landscape today:

Not surprisingly, liberals are interpreting the midterm election results as a triumph for liberal principles, while conservatives see the results as a reaffirmation of conservative principles. That’s the fascinating thing about politics; there’s selective evidence for every conceivable position.

Paul Waldman, a liberal scholar and author based in Washington, argues today that, even the new Democratic congressional majority does include some freshmen conservatives from the South and the Midwest, “overall it is made up of candidates who held traditional Democratic positions….All of them support increasing the minimum wage, and all oppose privatizing Social Security. Nearly all support embryonic stem cell research. All except a few are pro-choice. And all of these positions enjoy majority support” from the American electorate.

True enough, as far as it goes. But if most of these Democratic candidates nationwide had loudly and repeatedly articulated much of what they truly believe – abortion rights, gay rights, gun control, speedy troop withdrawals from Iraq, cancellation of the Bush tax cuts at the high end of the income scale – I wonder whether they would have attained their majorities. It seems irrefutable that the center of gravity in American politics has edged a few ticks to the right since the era of Ronald Reagan.

Similarly, on the right we have columnist Charles Krauthammer, who says that the results Tuesday night merely underscored his view that America is basically a conservative country. He cites the passage of anti-gay marriage referenda in seven of the eight states that put it on the ballot. He cites the passage of an anti-affirmative action referendum in Michigan. He says that a lot of the House and Senate races this year were very close, and, most importantly, “a switch of just 1,424 votes in Montana would have kept the Senate Republican.”

But hang on: If that’s his criteria, then we could always reargue the 2000 presidential election. We could make the case that, if thousands of little old ladies in Palm Beach County hadn’t misread the butterfly ballot and voted for Pat Buchanan instead of Al Gore, then the latter might still be president and Krauthammer’s conservative thesis would not appear to hold water.

Anyway, nobody ever really wins these arguments. Read them here and here, and decide for yourself.


Speaking of Florida: A great, albeit underreported, story is unfolding as you read this. It’s material grist for a short story writer. First, bring in Katherine Harris. She was the Florida election official who gained national fame (or infamy) for presiding over President Bush’s controversial 537-vote victory during the hanging chad affair. Her high profile later propelled her into Congress, representing the district that includes Sarasota County. This year she left her seat to run for the Senate (she got slaughtered on Tuesday), and that set the stage for a hot House race in Sarasota. So guess what happened in that House race:

The results are all in limbo. The Republican candidate leads the Democratic candidate by only 368 votes, pending a total recount…and an investigation into whether the new touch screen machines failed to record thousands of intended votes, most notably in a predominantly black and heavily Democratic neighborhood of Sarasota. As Governor Jeb Bush put it, the tallies in this district seem to be “an unusual anomaly.” Or, as the French might put it, plus ca change, plus c’est la meme chose.


Ken Mehlman, the peripatetic Republican national chairman, is bowing out after six years on the job, having toiled with mostly great success as Karl Rove’s general contractor. But let it also be said that one of Mehlma’s signature initiatives – reaching out to the African-American community - ended in abject failure.

One of his big ideas was to promote the high-profile candidacies of black Republicans, as a symbol of the GOP’s desire to broaden its appeal. Indeed, there was considerable media hype about Ohio gubernatorial candidate Ken Blackwell, Pennsylvania gubernatorial candidate Lynn Swann, Maryland senatorial candidate Michael Steele, and eight black House candidates.

Every one of them lost.

White voters apparently didn’t believe that the presence of black Republican candidates was proof that the GOP had become a more tolerant party. And black voters somehow didn’t take the hint that they should favor a Republican just because the candidate shared their skin color.

Black votes were undoubtedly influenced by other factors, as well: the slow federal response to Katrina and the needless deaths of black New Orleans residents; the anecdotal and statistical Census evidence showing that the gap between black and white income has widened during the Bush years; the inescapable fact that big government (and federal government employment) has benefited the black workforce. And Mehlman certainly didn’t help his own case, when he defended a GOP campaign ad in Tennessee that resurrected Old South fears about black men consorting with white women.

In the end, the exit polls show that only 11 percent of blacks voted this year for Republican congressional candidates, the usual share. Nor will his successor do any better merely by running black candidates. Nothing short of a fundamental shift in the GOP’s governing credo will really work, but, as the exit polls also demonstrate, the party more than ever is rooted in the Old Confederacy (the only region that voted GOP this year). As the Republicans regroup, the last thing they'll want to do is risk their base. Black voters can expect nothing more than cosmetics for the foreseeable future.

Thursday, November 09, 2006

I hereby nominate the '06 winners and losers

As we continue to sift through the ’06 Republican wreckage, here are some of the people who wound up looking good, and came off looking bad:


1. George H. W. Bush, the former president...I can best explain this one by sharing a garden-variety anecdote from my own youth. When I was 19, I took the family car for a wild midnight spin on a back road. Being 19, I decided to exit the road itself and tear across an open field. But it was literally a dark and stormy night, so naturally the car got stuck in mud and I couldn’t dislodge it. So I hiked a mile to the nearest house, phoned my dad, woke him up, and he came to my rescue with a AAA tow truck.

Similarly, the 60-year-old in the White House is now so stuck in the mud that he needs his dad to bail him out. Dad wrote in his memoirs nearly a decade ago that a U.S. occupation of Iraq would be a strategic disaster abroad and a political disaster at home, and dad’s friends repeatedly echoed this warning before the occupation commenced in 2003. Now dad and his friends have been proven correct, so the next step is to call AAA.

Which is why Robert Gates is going to the Pentagon, replacing Donald Rumsfeld. A member in good standing of the senior Bush team, Gates is from the Republican “realist” school of foreign policy, as opposed to the neocon ideology school; he’s also a key player on the Iraq study commission that is co-helmed by another of dad’s players, James Baker. Translation: Even though dad is still parachuting out of planes well into his eighties, he still has enough leftover moxie to mop up for his kid.

2. Rahm Emanuel and Chuck Schumer...JFK once said that “victory has a thousand fathers,” but Emanuel and Schumer probably deserve the most credit for the ’06 Democratic triumph – Emanuel for his recruitment of House candidates, and Schumer for working the Senate side. They broadened the appeal of the Democratic party by finding moderate and conservative candidates to run in moderate and conservative states and districts, thereby undercutting the party’s liberal stereotype. Liberals were slow to appreciate some of these efforts – in Pennsylvania, they resented Schumer for tapping the socially conservative Bob Casey Jr. to run against Rick Santorum, but in the wake of Casey’s solid victory, I hear no complaints today.

(By the way, on the subject of victory having a thousand fathers, here’s one of the Democrats who’s trying to claim patrimony this week. I will simply quote from the headline on his Wednesday email: “John Kerry’s Commitment Helps Bring Democrats to Victory.”)

3. Joe Lieberman...Last August, President Bush’s favorite Democrat refused to accept the verdict of antiwar Connecticut Democrats when they denied him the ’06 party nomination for another Senate term. He stuck around anyway, essentially created the Joe Lieberman party, and won re-election anyway as an independent. And soon he will be at the fulcrum of power in the Senate; in ’07, he will caucus with the Democrats as they take over that chamber.

In a sense, he owes the Democrats nothing. And now he becomes the crucial 51st vote as they organize their majority. In a closely divided chamber, he will have clout. He can stick with the Dems on some issues, defect to the GOP on others, and, perhaps most often, work across party lines with the GOP moderates. His season of humiliation has passed; as the voters made clear the other day, bipartisan centrism is in. And he has the liberal bloggers over a barrel: they really can't afford to keep harassing him for his past fealty to Bush on the war, because they need him now within the Democratic ranks.

4. John McCain...It was noteworthy, during the ’06 campaign, that he was in far greater demand than Bush. Few candidates wanted the president anywhere near them, whereas they panted after McCain. He earned a slew of IOUs from these candidates, and he can arguably cash them in during an ’08 presidential run. And he can plausibly argue that the GOP’s ’06 debacle was caused by the party’s profligate special-interest spending on Capitol Hill – the pork-barrel earmarks, for instance. McCain has been inveighing against those practices for years, as no doubt he will remind fiscally conservative voters as he stumps for himself in the runup to ’08.

5. Joe Biden...Yes, the Democratic senator from Delaware is sometimes terminally voluble, but the fact is that he will soon become the party’s most visible player in the Iraq debate. The Democratic takeover of the Senate puts Biden in the chair at the Foreign Relations Committee, a national platform. His idea about how to clean up Bush’s mess in Iraq is not universally popular – he wants to create a “federalist” system, with separate regional governments for the Kurds, Shiites and Sunnis – but, unlike most Democrats, at least he has something specific to talk about. And talk about.


1. Dick Cheney....The man who insisted 18 months ago that the Iraqi insurgency was in its “last throes”; who predicted at the outset that we would be “greeted as liberators”; who insisted, long after conclusive evidence to the contrary, that Saddam Hussein agents had met personally with 9/11 suicide killer Mohammed Atta, now appears to be outflanked in the retooled Bush White House. Rumsfeld, who once predicted that the Iraq war would probably not last six months, was Cheney’s kind of guy; Gates, a longtime resident of the reality-based community, clearly is not.

2. George Allen....Only last spring, he was widely viewed as a serious contender for the ’08 GOP presidential nomination; fawning magazine profiles talked about his sunny Reaganesque machismo. But today, having apparently blown his re-election race in pivotal Virginia, the lame duck senator is widely viewed as a joke, and jokes don’t get elected to the White House. Calling a dark-skinned Virginia native “macaca” was bad enough; assailing his opponent for writing fictional material in fictional books was worse (especially since the books are taught in military academies).

Will Allen run for president, anyway? It’s hard to imagine that GOP voters in Iowa and New Hampshire will warm to the man who is perhaps most responsible for ushering in the new Democratic Senate majority.

3. Dennis Hastert....When last seen by photographers, a week or two ago, the House Speaker was slipping into a hearing room to answer for his role in the Mark Foley scandal. (For Republican candidates, that visual was probably as helpful as a video of Bush in his flight suit on Mission Accomplished day.) But now, with the GOP headed for minority status, Hastert says he just wants to return to his first love, representing the people of his Illinois district, and being just one of the backbench boys.

4. Tom DeLay....He’s certainly not acting like a loser this week, because he’s popping up every night on the cable TV gabfests. But the fact remains that, a mere two years ago, he had a nice house on the perimeter of a golf course in Sugarland, Texas, plus a nice job whipping the House Republicans into a disciplined team. Today, he has the nice house in Sugarland, plus lots of free time to sit there with his lawyers and figure out how might be able to beat his indictment for election fraud. Long before Mark Foley became the face of GOP corruption in Washington, DeLay owned that particular title, and starting in January his deeply-red district will be represented in Washington by a Democrat.

It should also be remembered that the revolt of the suburban moderates against the GOP picked up steam in 2005, thanks to DeLay’s vocal insistence that the Republican Congress should intrude into the private life of the Schiavo family.

5. Karl Rove....Well, duh. I won’t dwell too long on the obvious. Suffice it to say that his alleged genius, extolled by many members of the Beltway political press, was nowhere in evidence on election night. Nor was it evidenced during the campaign, either, because Rove somehow kept believing that if Bush showed up to campaign for a candidate, it would be good for that candidate. Tell that to Missouri’s Jim Talent, who will soon be packing up his Senate office. Nor was his genius evidenced last year, when, after guiding his boss to the narrowest re-election victory of any president since Woodrow Wilson in 1916, he somehow believed that privatizing Social Security would be a political winner.

Rove’s aura was essentially based on the idea that swing voters don’t matter anymore, and that you win by merely nurturing and expanding your base. Here is ABC’s Mark Halperin, making the case for Rove last month in a New York Times op-ed column; in his view, Rove magic could well work again in the '06 elections:

“Two years of controversy over the Iraq war and Hurricane Katrina, and the perils of high gasoline prices and low poll numbers, have led many Americans to believe that the Republican Party's strategy of fighting from the base has worn out its welcome. Therefore, this view holds, a campaign that appeals to moderates, one waged from the center, is the only way for the party to maintain control of the Congress. Interesting theory, but it probably won't work. If the Republicans want to keep their majorities in the midterm elections, their best chance is to stick with the old, base-driven electoral strategy followed by President George W. Bush and his chief political adviser, Karl Rove….Bush's opponents may be imprudently lulled by the current storyline and broad national polls, both of which miss the power and consequence of a Republican base that may have one more victory to give.”

I saw the national exit poll this morning. The independents broke for the Democrats on Tuesday night, by 59 percent to 41 percent, and so went the election. And so went the “power and consequence” of Karl Rove.

Wednesday, November 08, 2006

Downsizing the presidential swagger

Just one week ago, George W. Bush was lavishing praise on Donald Rumsfeld for his “fantastic” performance at the Pentagon, bringing to mind the Katrina declaration that “Brownie” was doing “a heckuva job.” The bottom line, according to The Decider, was that Rumsfeld was staying put until 2009, no matter what the cut and run crowd wanted; and Bush’s bottom line, out on the campaign trail, was that a Democratic victory in the ’06 elections would be a bad day for a nation under terrorist threat.

But now that the voters have actually delivered a stinging rebuke – what Bush once called “an accountability moment” – the trademark presidential swagger has been drastically dialed down. Bush basically ate crow at his press conference today, serving notice that he is scrapping the Karl Rove philosophy of partisan governance (tend to the conservative base, write off Democrats and independents) that has sustained him since Day One.

Back then, you may recall, he came to the job after losing the popular vote by 600,000 – and proceeded to reign as if he had won a landslide mandate for conservatism, a strategy only enhanced by the 9/11 trauma. But his penchant for governing without substantive input from the opposition party won’t work anymore, because the voters told him to knock it off.

So today, watching his press conference as he switched to conciliatory mode, here’s what filled my notebook (in chronological order): “Let’s work together with Democrats and independents on the great issues facing this country…We can work together over the next two years…find common ground in the next two years…try to work through our differences…intend to work with the new Congress in a bipartisan way…work together to address the challenges facing our nation…to find common-sense solutions…confident we can work together...”

And my personal favorite: “…I’m confident we can avoid the temptation to divide the country into red and blue.” That, of course, would be the “temptation” that drove the Rove political strategy, which was all about playing to the red base at the expense of the blue.

The new mantra, apparently, is that Bush, seeking to make a virtue out of a necessity, intends to return to the governing philosophy that worked in Texas, when he broke bread with state legislative Democrats. This was a big theme during the distant 2000 presidential campaign (the “compassionate conservative” campaign), when we in the political press were regaled with stories about how Bush always reached across the aisle to crusty Texas Democrat Charles Bullock.

Today, he insisted he can behave likewise with Nancy Pelosi. In the president’s words, “this isn’t my first rodeo.” Hence, as peace offering, the delivery of Rumsfeld’s head on a platter.

When a cocksure guy like Bush admits that he took a “thumping,” you know that the damage must have been bad enough to pierce the presidential bubble. And it surely was: the Democratic takeover of the Senate was made possible by victories in three red states (Ohio, Missouri, and Montana), and an apparent victory in traditionally red Virginia. The decisive Democratic takeover of the House was greased by the defeat of Republican incumbents in red states such as Kansas, Indiana, North Carolina, Florida, and Kentucky. The exit polls showed that nearly 60 percent of the voters were dissatisfied or angry with Bush, primarily because of the war that he launched three long years ago, and there’s nary a Republican in sight who is bothering to spin that one away.

So it would seem that an era of comity is at hand, with a chastened president doing the people’s business with the new guns in town. But don’t be so sure.

There is a lot of bad blood, going back years, and it won’t evaporate just because the votes have been counted. Nancy Pelosi is no Bob Bullock (she hardly fits the profile of a Texas-style Democrat), and she has said some nasty personal stuff about Bush, calling him “incompetent” and “dangerous.” And the Republicans just finished a campaign that sought to paint Pelosi as a wild-eyed loon who’s in hock to the “radical homosexual agenda.” According to a Time magazine report today, Bush’s charm offensive is all about going through the motions; as one White House source told Mike Allen, the Bush strategists are “not in the mood for it, and they don’t think it would work.”

Indeed, Bush’s conciliatory rhetoric contained an important caveat. By talking up his willingness to meet the Democrats half way, he was essentially daring them to match his gesture and give up any impulse to investigate, with full subpoena power, the administration’s past behavior. Only once in the press conference today did Bush make this clear: “The Democrats will have to make up their minds how they are going to conduct their affairs.” He is putting the ball in their court. He is warning that if they start probing and issuing subpoenas, then they will be guilty of reigniting partisan passions, not him.

But how Bush would substantively reach across the aisle without ceding his own ideological principles isn’t clear, either. If he goes to the Democratic majority with a Social Security privatization plan, he’ll get nowhere. If they come to him with something he deems too liberal, he’ll wield the veto pen. As he put it today, referring to Pelosi, “She's not going to abandon her principles and I'm not going to abandon mine.” The grounds for agreement may prove to be quite narrow.

The Democrats now have the upper hand, however, for the first time. And he’s the lame duck, the target of voter ire, and the intended recipient of instructions to govern from the center. If he fails to find ways to do that, his presidency will be effectively finished.

A vote for checks and balances

So much for the purported genius of Karl Rove and his vaunted plans for a permanent Republican majority.

Americans have voted tonight for checks and balances. By turning the House over to the Democrats, and by putting the Senate within reach (thanks to competitive races in three red states, no less), the voters have basically honored James Madison's dictum that it is wise to divide power between "opposite and rival interests," in order to "control the abuses of government."

Americans have put the brakes on one-party rule. They have judged the GOP to be guilty of hubris - a vice that typically afflicts those who wield clout without accountability - and so they have decided on the punishment, which is that now President Bush, in his lame duck years, must share power with those whom he only recently demonized as bad for America. He has basically spent the political capital that he boasted about in November of 2004, and now the bill has come due.

Americans decided tonight that Bush should be held accountable for the $2-billion-a-week stasis strategy in Iraq, and that his party should be held accountable for the institutional corruption in Washington. They did not signal a rejection of conservatism per se, nor did they endorse a return to liberalism. Their essential message was far more practical. They said to the ruling Republicans: you had your shot at doing things your way, you've screwed up, so now the other side gets a chance.

That's generally how the system crafted by the Founding Fathers has always worked. As a guide to his final two years, Bush might want to read the Federalist Papers. Number 51.

Tuesday, November 07, 2006

A short bellwether list for a potentially long night

Anybody who is dying to know, at the earliest possible moment tonight, whether the Democrats are actually going to win something significant (or whether they ought to be consigned to the ashbin of history, along with the Whigs) would be well advised to consult a handy tip sheet of bellwether House and Senate races. Troll through the newspapers and cyberspace long enough, and you’ll find all kinds of advice on the best campaign indicators.

I have come up with my own likely bellwethers. It’s not nearly as comprehensive as some of the others out there, but, in the interests of personal sanity, this is my list and I’m sticking to it.

First, regarding the fight for control of the Senate: This is the potentially the easier task. The Democrats can’t win this chamber unless they essentially run the table, by defeating six Republican incumbents while successfully hanging on to virtually all of their own existing seats. Therefore, to best chart the Democrats’ fortunes on the Senate side, I plan to keep a close watch on one seat they are trying to defend.

Watch Maryland, in other words. The Republican candidate, Michael Steele, has been running a strong race in a heavily blue state. Steele, who is black, has been buoyed in recent days by support from influential members of the state’s African-American political establishment. And his opponent, Democrat Ben Cardin (who is seeking to move up from the House) is not an inspiring campaigner. If Steele pulls off an upset here – and this is possible – Democrats might as well say goodbye to their dreams of a Senate majority, because it would then mean they need to knock off seven GOPers.

And, speaking of knockoff targets, watch Rhode Island. Defeating Republican Sen. Lincoln Chafee is essential to the Democrats’ national hopes, and this task seemed to be a slam dunk a few weeks ago, particularly since Chafee’s party leader, President Bush, is more unpopular in deep-blue Rhode Island than anywhere else in the land. But Chafee, who is personally popular, and is recognized statewide as no mere Bush rubber stamp, has reportedly closed the gap. If he survives tonight, that’s another major blow to Democratic majority dreams.

And watch Virginia, where the polls close early, at 7 p.m. Democrats need to defeat incumbent Republican George Allen, and for that they will need a massive turnout in the populous (and increasingly Democratic-trending) suburbs of Washington. If the Democrats come within sight of winning the Senate, their hopes will ultimately hinge on the results in Virginia, Missouri, and Tennessee. They will need to take two out of three. Tennessee appears to be the toughest (will Tennesseans really elect the first black senator from the Old South since the Reconstruction era, 130 years ago? I doubt it), so also watch Missouri, where Republican incumbent Jim Talent is imperiled in part because his staunch opposition to advanced stem cell research has turned off a lot of science-friendly suburbanites.

All told, here’s the potential road map for Democratic Senate victory: Hold every existing seat, and defeat GOP incumbents in Missouri, Montana, Ohio, Pennsylvania, Rhode Island, and Virginia. Rick Santorum in Pennsylvania and Mike DeWine in Ohio are deemed to be toast, but the overall Democratic hit list still seems like a tall order to me.


On the House side, I list 10 races that could signal whether the Democrats will (a) take the chamber at all (because I make absolutely no assumptions), and (b) win the chamber so decisively that it can safely be said that the election constituted a national rebuke of Bush and his performance in Iraq. Democrats are clearly gunning for (b), but, given their track record of disappointments, they would probably settle for (a) and try to spin it as (b).

At minimum, the Democrats need a net gain of 15 seats. But before I list my 10 pet bellwethers, I would advise everybody to start the night by watching Indiana.

This traditionally red state finishes voting at 7 p.m. EST, so we may see results there before anywhere else. And Indiana features three imperiled Republican House incumbents: Mark Souder, John Hostettler, and Mike Sodrel. In good years, all three have been buoyed by having a popular president leading the charge. Not so this year; at last check Hostettler was down by seven point in the polls, and Sodrel was down by five. If all three of those guys, or even two out of three, wind up biting the dust, then it could portend a good night nationally for the Democrats. (Ditto Kentucky, where the polls also close early. If Democrats can take out one of three imperiled GOP incumbents, that would be a bonus.)

Indiana and Kentucky aside, here’s my alphabetical top 10:

Arizona, 5th district. There are reliable reports that Republican incumbent J. D. Hayworth, an anti-immigrant conservative and national talk-show regular, is in deep trouble; apparently he has some ethics baggage, due to some ties to disgraced GOP superlobbyist Jack Abramoff, but, more importantly, his seal-the-border rhetoric has not been the clincher that everybody expected. And Latinos, a growing electoral force, are unhappy with him. If Hayworth loses, that’s probably one symptom of a major Democratic wave.

Colorado, 7th district. If Democrat Ed Perlmutter wins this traditionally Republican seat in the Denver suburbs, it would demonstrate that the Democrats are making inroads in the interior West, which has been inhospitable to the party for decades. This district has been changing rapidly; independent voters are flooding in, and, reportedly, a lot of Republican voters this year are fed up with the Iraq war. If Perlmutter loses, it’s another potential indicator of a bad Democratic night.

Connecticut, 2nd district. This state also features three imperiled Republicans – Chris Shays, Nancy Johnson, and Rob Simmons – but the 2nd district’s Simmons, who represents the eastern side of the state, has generally been viewed as being in the best shape, particularly because he has always brought home the bacon to the defense industries in his district. But can even a likeable Republican, running in a heavily Democratic district, survive a potential wave? If the Democrats are going to score big tonight, they will need to defeat people like Simmons and thus solidify their growing dominance in the Northeast.

Florida, 22nd district. Republican incumbent Clay Shaw has held the seat for 13 terms. But plenty of seniors are reportedly upset about some of the key provisions of the GOP-enacted Medicare drug prescription plan, and there is plenty of anger over the Iraq war in this district – where voters favored John Kerry over Bush in the 2004 election.

New Hampshire, 2nd district. Republican incumbent Charlie Bass has become more imperiled with each passing day, according to state pollsters. There’s nothing particularly wrong with Bass, politically, except for the fact that he shares the same party affiliation with the broadly unpopular Bush. If Bass goes down, that would be symptomatic of a pro-Democratic national wave.

New York, 26th district. The upper Empire State is normally strong GOP turf, but this seat in Buffalo currently belongs to one of the GOP congressional leaders who missed the obvious warning signs about the predatory Mark Foley. If incumbent Tom Reynolds loses his seat as a result of voter disgust, the national symbolism would be obvious.

North Carolina, 11th district. If the Democrats are going to gain a seat anywhere in the Old South, it will be here in the mountains on the western side of the state. This race is a virtual laboratory for the Democratic strategy of recruiting candidates who can fit the district. Hence, they came up with ex-NFL quarterback Heath Shuler, who is pro-gun and anti-abortion, and runs TV ads about his “mountain values.” There can be no big national Democratic wave unless they can defeat GOP incumbent Charles Taylor, who has been trying (in vain, according to the polls) to link Shuler to the national Democratic party’s alleged “homosexual agenda.”

Ohio, 15th district. The polls in this key state, as well as the polls in North Carolina, close at 7:30 pm EST, so these might provide more early readings. The GOP incumbent in Ohio’s 15th is Deborah Pryce, a prominent player in the House leadership, and her seat is imperiled, again, largely because of the seemingly pro-Democratic mood. It’s not just about Iraq, though. Ohio Republicans have been demoralized for several years by widespread corruption in the state government under their control. (Pryce holds one of three imperiled Republican seats in Ohio. If the Democrats sweep all three, that's 20 percent of the seats they need to take the House.)

Pennsylvania, 8th district. I could have singled out a number of races in Pennsylvania, another northeastern state where the Democrats absolutely need to make gains – and appear poised to do so. (And no wonder: GOP incumbent Curt Weldon's defense is, "The FBI investigation against me is really a liberal conspiracy," and GOP incumbent Don Sherwood's defense is, "I did not try to strangle my mistress.")

But the 8th district race in the Philadelphia suburbs is well worth watching, because Republican incumbent Mike Fitzpatrick seems to be in the best shape to survive. He separated himself early from Bush, stressing his independence by running TV ads about a new course in Iraq, and he seems to have gained some traction by painting his Democratic challenger as a novice carpetbagger with no firm stance on Iraq. But if Fitzgerald loses anyway, that also portends a strong Democratic wave.

Virginia, 2nd district. A freshman incumbent Republican, Velma Drake, who supports the Iraq war and off-shore oil drilling, is being seriously threatened, even in a heavily-Republican enclave centered around Virginia Beach. She’s depending on a big turnout from the religious conservatives who like her opposition to gay marriage and federal stem-cell research. This race could be a key test of the Christian right’s enthusiasm level. A Drake loss would also portend a Democratic wave.

Lastly, here’s another potential indicator: If the Democrats get through the night without losing any of their House and Senate incumbents, that too would signify a national wave (just as the GOP caught its own wave in 1994, when not a single Republican incumbent was defeated). On the other hand, if the Democrats cough it up tonight big time, suicide counselors will be standing by. And those despairers who decide to live another day might well feel compelled to console themselves with this little holiday item.


Of course, I reserve the right to tear up this list and start over if election night becomes totally unpredictable. I am going to attempt some live blogging; the rest of the time, I will be in the studio at WHYY in Philadelphia (Channel 12), helping with live TV commentary between 9 p.m. and midnight. Other guests will share the burden.

Monday, November 06, 2006

The libertarian factor: Can the Democrats actually win seats in the interior West?

Twenty four hours to go. Political junkies are busy drawing up their lists of bellwether states and districts, in the hopes of divining, at the earliest possible moment, whether the Democrats are really destined to share power during the final two years of the Bush era. I’m in the process of listing my own bellwethers; they will be posted here tomorrow. But there are many other ways to look at these elections, starting with the electorate itself.

One can slice and dice the electorate in all kinds of ways. How will the suburban “security moms” of 2004 (suburban women with kids who gave President Bush the benefit of the doubt) opt to vote in 2006? Will Latinos, angered by the GOP’s strong anti-immigrant rhetoric, break heavily for Democratic candidates in new swing states such as Arizona and Colorado? Will Christian conservatives shrug off their multiple grievances with the GOP and become sufficiently enthused at the eleventh hour? Will African-American voters, mindful of Bush’s Katrina legacy, vote en masse to punish Bush’s party – while, in Maryland, sparking a GOP victory by helping to elect black Republican senatorial candidate Michael Steele?

But there’s another grouping of voters that has been somewhat overlooked in recent months, and they definitely deserve a mention. They don’t fall neatly into either the liberal or conservative camp. But they number in the millions, and while many live in pivotal northeastern congressional districts (in the Philadelphia suburbs, for instance), they are particularly populous in the interior western states – places like Colorado, Montana, Nevada, New Mexico and Arizona. And their restiveness this year may well help the Democrats gain ground in these states, which have not been particularly hospitable to congressional Democrats in recent decades.

These voters – typically nicknamed “libertarians” – are classic believers in small government. They are fiscally conservative (they like balanced budgets), but they are socially tolerant (they want the federal government to stay out of their private lives). In the past, they have generally voted with the GOP, because they saw the Democrats as big government spenders. But now their sentiments may be shifting – because the governing GOP of the Bush era has become the party of big spending and record deficits, and the party of big government intrusion into private lives.

The Cato Institute, arguably the only Washington think thank that devotes itself exclusively to libertarian concerns, released an October report which cited broad voter disillusionment with the GOP’s “overspending, social intolerance, civil liberties infringements, and the floundering war in Iraq…The libertarian vote is in play. At some 13 percent of the electorate, it is sizeable enough to swing elections.”

One of the big reasons why President Bush and Vice President Cheney have spent so much time this past week in normally red states such as Montana, Colorado, Nevada, and Idaho is precisely because Republican incumbents are imperiled by the shifting mood of western libertarians. Ryan Sager, a conservative analyst (and author of a new book, The Elephant in the Room: Evangelicals, Libertarians, and the Battle to Control the Republican Party), wrote in a New York Post column yesterday that these voters “are sick to death of a party that has dispatched with any and all concern for cutting the size of government, and instead spends its time perpetuating its majority and pandering to the religious right.”

That last factor is potentially important. In an article last week about a bellwether House race in a Seattle suburb, where a Democrat might win the seat for the first time, some libertarian voters sounded off about the religious right’s influence in the national GOP. A services manager at Microsoft complained about Republican intrusions into personal affairs: “The Schiavo case. Tapping people without a warrant. Whether or not people are gay. Let people be free! It’s not government’s job to interfere with these things.”

Others, citing the issue of stem cell research, complained that the GOP was allowing religious morality to trump science. A partner in a software firm, whose father had Alzheimer’s disease, said that he was “outraged that a mere politician would interpret science for me.”

But the GOP, recognizing that these voters are crucial out west, still has a weapon in its arsenal. Bush stopped in Montana the other day, seeking to shore up support for embattled Senate incumbent Conrad Burns, and his main pitch was that Democratic challenger Jon Tester, if elected, would vote to raise taxes, just as he voted to raise taxes as a state legislator. This argument was seconded in Republican TV ads – and it might be working.

A few weeks ago, Burns was deemed to be toast, a casualty of the Jack Abramoff scandal, but now he appears to have a decent shot at survival, because the GOP is pushing libertarian buttons about those high-taxing Democrats. The question is, will the traditional libertarian fear of the Democrats to trump their misgivings about the track record of the party in power?

If Bush and the Republicans escape major damage tomorrow night, or even manage to hold both congressional chambers, it will probably mean, particularly out West, that most of the libertarians came home.

Sunday, November 05, 2006

"It may not be popular with the public. It doesn't matter..."

As I contended this morning in a new print column, nobody should assume that the war planners in the Bush administration will budge an inch on Iraq even if the ’06 elections signify a massive public repudiation of their behavior in Iraq.

It’s clear that the people running this war – most notably, Vice President Cheney – view Tuesday’s event, in which voters exercise their traditional democratic right to have a voice in the affairs of their government, as an irreverent trifle that will have no bearing whatsoever on how they choose to proceed in Iraq.

And it's clear how the Bush team plans to spin a bad election night. If the Democrats retake the House, the team will merely say: So what?

Cheney virtually said this today on ABC News. When it was pointed out to him that the vast majority of Americans have broadly turned against the war (either because of the Bush administration’s inept execution, or because it should not have been initiated in the first place), Cheney simply replied:

“It may not be popular with the public. It doesn’t matter – in the sense that we have to continue the mission and do what we think is right. We’re not running for office. We’re doing what we think is right.”

It may not be popular with the public. It doesn’t matter….That remark encapsulates the governing philosophy of this administration – that, as an expression of the public’s desire for accountability, this election will not matter. Cheney was clearly signaling that, even if Bush is humbled by the voters on Tuesday night, he will not humble himself by substantively shaking up his approach to Iraq.

In other words, anyone who thinks that Bush will react in that fashion is probably dreaming. Take David Gergen, for example. He has served in virtually every White House going back three decades, most visibly for Ronald Reagan. He wrote the other day that if the Democrats win big on Nov. 7, Bush would be smart to humble himself. Here’s the speech he envisioned Bush delivering:

“My fellow Americans, I have always believed in the wisdom of the people. You were the ones who first gave me a chance to become your president and by your overwhelming vote, you returned me to this office. Now, in your wisdom, you have spoken again—this time to send a clear message that you want a change of course in Iraq. You have sent many new Democrats here to Washington to carry that message for you. I have heard you loud and clear and I respect what you say. Therefore, I am embarking tonight on a serious re-evaluation of our policies in Iraq and I am asking Democrats in Congress to join me in shaping that policy.”

Don’t bet on anything like that happening, no matter how politically isolated Bush might be. And there are indeed fresh indications this weekend of the extent of his isolation. It’s one thing if Democratic and even independent voters dismiss the Bush team as incompetent, because, at this point, that’s to be expected. But when the neoconservative thinkers, who wanted the Iraq war in the first place, start publicly complaining about Bush team incompetence…well, that’s worth noting.

Most of the leading neoconservatives will speak up in the January issue of Vanity Fair, but the magazine has released excerpts. Here’s neocon and former Pentagon insider Kenneth Adelman, who predicted before the war that Iraq would be a “cakewalk.” He sounds like he belongs in a Democratic TV ad: “I just presumed that what I considered to be the most competent national-security team since Truman was indeed going to be competent. They turned out to be among the most incompetent teams in the post-war era. Not only did each of them, individually, have enormous flaws, but together they were deadly, dysfunctional.”

Here’s neocon Richard Perle, surveying the bad decision-making and then contending, “At the end of the day, you have to hold the president responsible.” And one other little detail: he now thinks that maybe we shouldn’t have launched this war after all. In his words, “Could we have managed that (Saddam Hussein) threat by means other than a direct military intervention? Well, maybe we could have.”

But, on ABC, Cheney dismissed them as well: “I think there is no question that it is a tough war, but it is also the right thing to do.” So the unhappy hawks don’t “matter,” either. (Perle and some other neocons issued a statement today, released by the White House, complaining that Vanity Fair had broken a promise not to release any quote excerpts prior to the election. Perle also wanted to make it clear that he opposes a precipitious withdrawal. Adelman did not sign the statement.)

Cheney, in his ABC interview, also managed to undercut some prime administration spin. When the topic of World War II came up, he said that he rejected any "analogy" between the fight against fascism in the '40s and the fight against terrorists today.

And yet, back in late August, the administration's entire PR strategy was based on drawing exactly that analogy. For instance, Pentagon chief Donald Rumsfeld specifically invoked the Nazi threat in an Aug. 30 speech, and said: "I recount that history because, once again, we face similar challenges..." Bush invoked the same analogy that week, in a speech to the American legion. But it would not have been in character for Cheney to acknowledge that what he was saying now was flatly contradicted by what the administration was saying before. To acknowledge such a thing would be tantamount to saying that somebody was wrong.

All told, it’s clear that even if the Democrats take the Hill this week, they will have a tough time in ‘07 dealing with a White House that has stacked the sandbags against all critics and retains unshakable faith in its own rightness.