Shooting an Elephant

Why Republicans are screwed.

When George Bush and Gerald Ford met this week, it’s unlikely the president asked his predecessor for advice about how to weather midterm elections. In 1974, Ford alienated conservatives by picking moderate Nelson Rockefeller as his vice president. Then he alienated everyone else by pardoning Nixon just two months before the elections, leading to a 20-point plunge in his approval rating. The Republican National Committee could only rally the troops through commiseration, running an ad that asked, “When has it been easy to be a Republican?” Ford’s party dropped 43 seats in the House and four in the Senate.

It isn’t easy being a Republican these days, either. Bush’s approval rating is at an all-time low, gas prices are near an all-time high, and Iraq continues to burn. Voters have an even lower opinion of the GOP-controlled Congress. Ideological disputes within the party make it hard for believers to pick sides, and incompetence at the top makes it difficult to follow through on the agenda items Republicans do agree on, like reducing the deficit. Bad news from Iraq and any number of scandals tied to the GOP erupt regularly. A month ago, the Republican political class was merely worried. Now its members are talking about “avoiding catastrophic losses.” Conversations about the state of the party used to have two parts: all the bad news followed by signs of hope. I’m just hearing a one-act play now.

On the stump, presidential hopefuls John McCain and Newt Gingrich are openly prophesying doom. When party leaders try to act, their base slaps them for it. Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist and House Speaker Denny Hastert penned an urgent letter imploring President Bush to investigate price gouging. The National Review and Wall Street Journal thumped them like a tub. “Few things are less becoming in a political party than desperation,” began the Journal’s editorial. “Republicans can blame business all they want for high [gas] prices, but sounding like liberal Democrats won’t save them in November.” The blogosphere echo chamber has also turned sharply critical.

Diehard conservatives are upset over record spending levels and timidity by their leaders, who they think should have responded to high gas prices with renewed calls for drilling in the Arctic National Wildlife Reserve and streamlined regulation. More moderate and realist-minded Republicans have been turned off by Bush’s aggressive, interventionist foreign policy. Military families may still support the war but are fed up enough with lengthy deployments—particularly of the National Guard and reserves—that it’s possible they won’t turn out. Party inroads with Hispanic voters may have been squandered by vocal members of the GOP who want to seal the border and lock up illegal immigrants. All this has some arguing that the Republicans can’t whittle their coalition down much more. “We’re in a white cul-de-sac,” says John Weaver, strategist for John McCain.

It seems safe to assume that the party with the more motivated voters will win in 2006. Right now, that looks overwhelmingly like the Democrats. Forty-eight percent of voters “strongly disapprove” of George Bush’s performance, less than half of that number “strongly approve.” Democrats are relying on that anger to get out the vote. Republicans will continue to spook their voters with dark images of terror and life under a liberal regime, but while that may bring in cash, it’s not changing public opinion, especially when, on issues from the response to Hurricane Katrina to the Dubai port deal, the administration has created a pretty sorry image of life under a conservative regime.           

So, what can President Bush and his party do? It might help to stop arguing about what will happen if they don’t get elected and start talking a bit about what will happen if they do. It might help to romance the base, which needs to turn out if the GOP is to avoid big losses. But beyond that, there may not be much Bush, Karl Rove, or the congressional wing of the party can do to reverse the tide. The public mood appears impervious to Bush’s many speeches on Iraq. The administration has oversold progress before, and people are reluctant to buy it now even when there is tentative political progress. To address the issue of high gas prices, Bush took the extraordinary step of halting deposits to the strategic petroleum reserve. He also promised to look into price gouging by oil companies and called on Congress to take away from the oil companies about $2 billion in tax breaks over 10 years. None of these moves is likely to have any significant effect. As the president has candidly admitted, “You can’t wave a magic wand.” Prices are likely to stay high for a while, possibly a very long while.

In such moments, politicians have followed a simple formula: Play to the base. Congressional leaders will try to cut taxes and pass a constitutional amendment to forbid gay marriage. Bush’s reported strategy for doing this also includes adding more money for border patrols as a part of immigration reform and boasting more about the Medicare prescription-drug plan passed in 2003. These issues may have broad electoral appeal, but they won’t motivate conservatives to get to the polls. Money on the border will not buy off the armchair minutemen angry that Bush supports what they say is amnesty for illegal immigrants. Whisper the Medicare prescription-drug plan around a fiscal conservative and you’ll get a blizzard of spittle. That was the spending transgression that enraged so many of them. The largest expansion of Medicare ever will cost $792 billion from 2006 to 2015, according to last month’s Congressional Budget Office estimate, and does little to reform the larger program.

If vulnerable Republicans are going to motivate moderates and independents, they’re going to have to do it without the president’s help. Bush can still raise money and turn out a loyal crowd, but there’s not much chance he’ll grow coattails. One top Republican strategist involved in shaping party strategy believes voters have so soured on Bush and the direction of the country that even if the president had more tools to work with, he couldn’t improve people’s feeling about his administration. Short of an announcement that Osama Bin Laden has been apprehended at JFK customs, Bush’s numbers don’t have much chance of settling into the 40s until next year.

George Bush is not the only one responsible for his party’s condition. Faced with the Jack Abramoff lobbying scandal, the GOP Congress missed its chance to enact any serious lobbying reform or change the practice of budget “earmarks.” Republicans were sent to Washington to change it but have become co-opted by it. Even if Bush wanted to suddenly become a fierce budget hawk, Republicans in Congress wouldn’t go along. Congress has expanded federal spending by 45 percent since 2001 with expansive agriculture, education, energy, and highway bills. It has resisted Bush’s spending cuts in this election year and plan to lard as much as $20 billion onto Bush’s $92 billion request for Iraq funding. Included in that grab is funding for the “railroad to nowhere,” the requisite transportation pork that, like the “bridge to nowhere,” seems the perfect metaphor for the directionless GOP.

If Republicans manage to hold on to their majorities, it will be because they have perfected the ability to use gerrymandering, pork-barreling, and other toll-keeping powers to maintain themselves in office, much like the Democrats they turned out of office in 1994. Retaining control by a narrow margin will do nothing to solve the struggle at the heart of the party between moderates and social conservatives, neoconservatives, and realists, and between fiscal conservatives and big spenders or fanatical tax cutters. In some sense, if the GOP wins ugly and keeps control, they’ll be worse off, retaining undivided responsibility, without much actual ability to do anything, heading into the 2008 election. Even the nomination of Hillary Clinton may not unite the factions. Antipathy toward her husband didn’t keep Republicans from a debilitating primary struggle in 1996.

Change may come only if a more bruising internal fight between these factions breaks out into the open. During Ford’s presidency, the ideological thicket was cleared by Ronald Reagan, who spoke out against the sitting president of his own party, declaring that the national government had “become more intrusive, more coercive, more meddlesome, and less effective.” Perhaps no Republican can make a broad assault on GOP leaders while the country is at war. And it may be harder for, say, John McCain, to moderate a reckless, radical party than it was for Reagan to radicalize Ford’s limp, idealess one. But if the GOP doesn’t have that fight this year, it’s going to have it in 2008.