Slouching Toward November

The gallows mood among Republicans — driven by polls, political consultants and an incessant media drumbeat about voters' unhappiness — is epidemic.

Inside the beltway the question is not whether the Republicans will lose but by how much. The Democrats are celebrating prematurely, their amen chorus among the media debating gleefully what the Democrats will do first after they take control of the House. But there are a lot of "what ifs" between the current wisdom of September and November 8.

It may be that the Republicans get whacked in 61 days, but if momentum shifts mean anything, the past few weeks haven't been kind to the Democrats. The Israeli war against Hezbollah terrorists in Lebanon drove home the reality of the war to every American. But the Ned Lamont moment energized the Republicans' base, and combined with the arrests of the London plotters measurably increased Republican energy. There was no good news for the Democrats .

About two weeks ago, a Gallup poll showed that the Democrats lead (more than a dozen points) in national polls had disappeared. This was a poll of 1,000 adults, not likely voters. If only likely voters had been polled, the Democratic advantage would probably have morphed into a small Republican lead. This, despite bad news from Iraq, high gasoline prices and voter disgust with Congress. Why? Because world and national news is trumping small issues the Democrats want to campaign on.

On Monday, a Washington Post front-page story referred to a "...strategist who has worked as part of Bush's campaign team," who "...believes there is a 9-in-10 chance Republicans will lose their 12-year-old House majority." The same day, a New York Times front-page story said, "The strategic imperative facing the Republicans, many analysts say, is clear: transform each competitive race from a national referendum on Mr. Bush and one-party Republican rule into a choice between two individuals — and define the Democratic challengers as unacceptable." But what happens if congressional Republicans decide to do the opposite? What if they read the Gallup poll and decided to nationalize the election? What if they started firing consultants and hiring historians?

Churchill said the keys to statesmanship are in history. So are the keys to this election. They're in 1980, 1986 and 1988, in the speeches and campaigns of Ronald Reagan.

In 1986, Reagan — in the same stage of his presidency as Bush is today — wanted to nationalize the mid-term election, making Democrats the issue. The Republicans' big buck consultants — whose track record then was as bad as Bob Shrum's is today — advised against it. The party listened to them and they achieved disaster by small margins: by only a few thousand votes in many states and the GOP lost several key senate seats all because the base didn't turn out.

It was more than Reagan's unflagging cheerfulness that propelled Republicans in 1988. It was his use of "the 'L' word." On the eve of the 1988 Republican convention, Ronald Reagan gave what was probably his best stump speech ever. He said, "It's time to talk issues; to use the dreaded "L'' word; to say the policies of our opposition and the congressional leadership of his party are liberal, liberal, liberal." Democrats are the party of the ACLU. Against liberal elitists in 1980, Republicans managed to knock out some of supposedly unbeatable old Senate's liberal lions such as Frank Church, Birch Bayh and George McGovern. This was the work of NCPAC in their tv ads. What if the Republicans went after some of today's?

What if this year's Senate contest featured an ad with Bob and Elizabeth Dole talking about how the Senate works? Most people don't realize that senators vote twice: before anyone votes on any bills or nominations, every senator votes for the leadership and the committee chairmen. Will Nebraska's Ben Nelson vote for Patrick Leahy to be chairman of the Judiciary Committee? Will North Dakota's Kent Conrad vote for Carl Levin — who has made a career of opposing missile defense — to be chairman of the Armed Services Committee? Of course they will. But the voters of their states probably don't remember that. What if Republicans remind them?

Democrats want the president to fire Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld and replace him with a real tough guy like, maybe, Susan Estrich. Democrats can't refute these charges because they happen to be true. Republicans made some good moves, forcing symbolic votes on the flag burning and gay marriage amendments, and the Dems' "cut and run" plan for Iraq. How many Republican candidates will challenge their opponents on those issues in clear and uncompromising terms? Remember, too, that in 2000 Bush's lead had been shrinking in states such as Florida when 60 percent of Americans bought Gore's claim that he was a moderate. When Gore's liberal credentials were plastered all over the tv screens, Bush recovered his lead in Tennessee, Florida and elsewhere. The Democrats are the "L" party, with an elitist bent. What if Republicans didn't let anyone forget that?

Given Republicans' sorry track record on pork-barrel spending, the choice this year isn't as clearly between liberal and conservative, but it is, as Reagan said, between strength and " weakness and accommodation, and always, always, always, blame America first." Democrats have spent five years blaming Bush for 9/11, UN absurdities, fading European alliances, Iraq's slow progress and everything else without — once — offering a plan of their own to win the war. "Victory" and "winning" aren't words that pass their lips. And there's reason to believe that the Democrats know — despite all their campaign chatter — that they can't win on the war issue.

No, Rumsfeld didn't call the Democrats "cheese-eating surrender monkeys." He didn't even refer to them when warning against the 1930s-like appeasement that has taken hold in the West. But the Democrats' hair-trigger overreaction to his remarks about appeasement were worthy of a teenage girl on prom night whose dad says, "sweetie, your hair isn't quite right." The screams and hysterics bespeak a deep-seated concern. I'm betting that the Democrats have some non-public polls that show voters aren't buying their "we'll win and they can't" war talk. Thanks to Murtha, Kerry, Durbin and the whole sorry lot, they've proven that they still are what they have been since 1972: the party of retreat and defeat. Their new Labor Day plan for Iraq amounts to withdrawal and booting Rumsfeld. Some plan.

The Democrats will continue to fumble and stumble because their congressional campaign chairman, Rahm Emmanuel, is a smart ideologue but no genius. He keeps making the wrong calls, like attempting to make Republican corruption the main issue of the year, failing when Democratic corruption overwhelmed the story line. His anti-Rumsfeld obsession has put the Democrats on the defensive for weeks, with even the most liberal media forced to quote Rumsfeld's speech before or alongside the Dems' ritual denials that they are the appeasers Rumsfeld described.

Emmanuel — and the 527 Media — are leading the charge into the fall. Republicans need to take the offensive because their candidates can afford to support their national party. Democrats can't. Will Missouri Democratic Senate candidate Claire McCaskill say she's in favor of gay marriage and will filibuster judges who aren't pro-abortion? Will Washington's Maria Cantwell vote again for amnesty for illegal aliens? Of course she will.

Republican consultants, always looking to the next election, will counsel against taking on the political activist 527 Media. But what the consultants resist is, in this case, what the voters want most. So many of those voters who seem angry with the president really aren't. They're angry with him for not taking on the media that leaks our nation's most valuable secrets, contrives stories and invents "facts," and chuckles condescendingly about the values we hold dear.

It could all come down to what may have been Reagan's greatest campaign moment. In one 1980 debate with Jimmy Carter, in response to another Carter distortion of his record, Reagan said, "Well, there you go again." What if it was repeated to the Democrats — and the 527 Media —- a few hundred times between now and November 7? We may never know. But we do know one thing: Ronald Reagan wouldn't be slouching toward November.