How much trouble is the GOP really in?

With Tom DeLay’s indictment, conventional wisdom has coalesced around the notion that the Republican Party is deeply damaged. This is, no doubt, a gloomy moment to be a member of the GOP. As one veteran Republican strategist outside Washington asked me, “Is this what it feels like to be in free-fall?” Perhaps. The plunge may continue—but a parachute may open. Here’s how both sides see it …

The Good News (if you worry about the polar ice cap melting, support Planned Parenthood, or have a Hillary 2008 bumper sticker on your car):

The Republican Party is a national disgrace. Sure, off-year elections tend to be about local candidates and issues, but sometimes they aren’t. Remember the 1994 election? Democrats certainly hope you do. Only 32 percent of Americans think the country is headed in the right direction. Only 29 percent approve of the job the Republican-controlled Congress is doing, its lowest approval rating in eight years, and 40 percent approve of the Republican president. Democrats will try to run against that broad dissatisfaction with the majority, twining charges of incompetence with corruption and arrogance of power. News of DeLay’s indictment and investigations into Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist fall nicely into this line of attack. The perception of GOP vulnerability makes it easier for Democrats to raise money and recruit candidates.

Sir, the prosecutor is on line two.Open-ended investigations give Democrats ammunition for their narrative and offer little resolution. Tom DeLay needs his trial to start as soon as possible. He says the charges against him are trumped up, but unless and until a jury agrees or a judge pitches them, the public will be suspicious of him. Bill Frist will also have to suffer the drip, drip, drip of scandal without the possibility of definitive exoneration. The investigation into indicted lobbyist Jack Abramoff has already ensnared the head of Bush’s office of procurement, David Safavian, and seems likely to contaminate more in the party, if not the administration itself.

The big question of the fall is how will the investigation into the leaking of an undercover CIA agent be resolved? What has prosecutor Patrick Fitzgerald been up to? He interviewed the president and vice president and helped put a journalist in jail. Such bold moves suggest he’s not going to come up empty-handed—which is bad news for President Bush and the Republicans. Maybe nothing criminal was done, but when the report does come out, George Bush is going to have to reckon with his adviser Karl Rove’s role. Rove said he wasn’t involved. He was. Will the president hold Rove to the exacting ethical standards he set when campaigning for the office or set a new standard?

I keep turning the wheel but nothing happens. Americans think the country is going in the wrong direction and there’s not much Republicans can do about it. The president has admitted this when it comes to lowering gas prices. Bush’s latest gambit was to hint at conservation, but no one seems ready to do that, especially without an ounce of sacrifice from Bush himself. Iraq and government spending are essentially out of control.

I am proud to nominate … Bush elided the basic split in his party with the nomination of John Roberts, but that trick will be hard to pull off twice. If President Bush nominates a fiery conservative to fill Sandra Day O’Connor’s slot on the Supreme Court, he could cement the impression that the far right controls the GOP. Moderate Republicans could bolt, and Republicans would lose the country for being too ideological and ineffective. Or, if he picks a moderate like Alberto Gonzalez, the right may revolt, staying at home for the off-year election.

The Good News (if you use the term “death tax,” support embryo adoption, or think Bill Frist is just dreamy):

I thought we just had an election. It’s 13 months until the midterm elections. That’s an eternity in politics. Eleven months ago the Republicans, now considered shot-with-rot, were judged to be unstoppable. People aren’t paying attention enough yet to buy what Democrats are trying to sell. Plus, the press loves the twists and windy narratives of campaign season. It’s not much of a horse race without a challenger, and so journalists will seek out signs of a Republican comeback. Meanwhile, the troubles and fears of disaster may have given the GOP focus both in Washington and out in the country. “Everyone has broken out of their deer-in-the-headlights, self- and/or Bush flagellation mode,” says one top Republican strategist. “They are sick of being on defense and want to get back on offense … getting past the hand-wringing paralysis is important.”

Name the four things Democrats stand for. Go! Just because people are dissatisfied with Republicans doesn’t mean that they’re rushing into the warm arms of Democratic candidates. Yes, Democrats are seeing visions of 1994, but Newt Gingrich did more than just tear the face off of Democrats in leadership, he nurtured a farm team and presented a set of ideas that dovetailed with his political instinct for the jugular. Democrats have no Contract with America and have to find a Gingrich or some central figure to pitch their message.

I hate them all, but I like my guy. Incumbents win. There are not very many competitive districts. For Democrats to take control of the House, they’ll have to protect their dozen or more vulnerable seats while carrying about the same amount of Republican open seats. The task in the Senate is just as daunting.

I am proud to nominate … If President Bush picks a figure who stirs the base and the Democrats overplay their hand, Republicans will get the best of both worlds. Bush will be able to take the high road, tsk-tsking Democrats who play politics, while the conservative activists who are so important to his presidency and to the party’s chances in 2006 will get exercised and active. The base is already paying close attention, but a tough fight will remind them why it’s important to have officials in Washington who share their values.