By most accounts, the Bush administration is now drifting through its darkest days, and what may make things appear most bleak to those vestiges of the Republican Party who still proudly refer to themselves as Bushies is that the silver lining has yet to be detected.
Enter Karl Rove, the Merlin behind the throne who, it might be inferred, may see holding onto Republican control of the House and Senate as the greatest challenge of his political career.
With polls now hovering in the low 30s, things have gotten bad enough to be something of a late night talk show joke. In fact, what must be truly disturbing to the White House is that self-described conservatives are now leaving the reservation, as a recent AP-Ipsos poll shows that forty-five percent of that group disapprove of the president’s performance. To wit, The Washington Post quotes Lance Tarrance, a “prominent GOP pollster,” as saying, “This administration may be over.”
Some vulnerable Republicans have been tacking away from the president for some time, what E.J. Dionne Jr. calls the Great Republican Rebranding. Suddenly, issues such as poverty, environmentalism, and cracking down on corporate abuses are being taken on by Republicans, such as Sen. Rick Santorum of Pennsylvania, nervous about a national backlash this November.
The political game plan for Republicans these days clearly looks to be defense, while the Democrats are gearing up their offense after a long, cold off-season. Names such as Rep. John Conyers and Sen. Patrick Leahy will likely be oft heard from Republican political operatives in the coming months, as they will look to frighten swing voters into locking the Republican majority in for another two years. The idea that will be conveyed: Democrats will waste time holding investigations while the nation’s priorities go untended.
It will likely be a tough sell in districts and states where vulnerable Republicans will be looking to retain their seats. With Iraq, economic jitters, high oil prices, scandal, and basic governmental competence on the minds of voters, Rove will likely look to push Republican candidates to run on local issues on the one hand, while brandishing fears about a Democratic takeover of Congress on the other.
One of Karl Rove’s strengths is his ability to define the opponent and the issues first, while casting – at times cruelly – the opposing candidate’s core strengths as negative attributes. In the most recent midterm elections, in 2002, the shadow of 9/11 still loomed large, allowing Republicans to make gains in the face of a largely stunned and listless opposition.
By contrast, the Democrats of 2006 are feisty, largely united, and confident:
“We are more and more confident that we are going to have the responsibility of leading the House, so we have to prepare,” said House Minority Whip Steny H. Hoyer (Md.).
This confidence stems from a general sense that the American people seek a responsive and accountable government on all fronts, from war policy to domestic crises, from domestic wiretapping to hunting accidents involving the Vice President. One of the feistiest (and raspiest) Democrats of them all, Charlie Rangel of New York, sums up this sentiment:
“I think when the Congress finally joins the American people, this president is going to have to not just show how stubborn he is by sticking out his jaw,” said Representative Charles B. Rangel of New York, who would be in line for the chairmanship of the powerful House Ways and Means Committee if Democrats took the House. “He’s going to have to answer some questions.”
Sen. Chuck Schumer of New York, in the same New York Times piece, says, “The only things they can bring back this year are the old saws… They just won’t play. We’re in a new world.”
This theme, as can be imagined, is echoing and ringing throughout the left-leaning blogosphere. The Anonymous Liberal, for one, points out and dismisses what may be a key stratagem for Rove and the Republicans:
Can we please dispense with the whole “party of ideas” nonsense now? To the extent the GOP has an electoral strategy this Fall, it appears to consist of warning voters that if the Democrats take over, it will result in a number of Congressional investigations into Bush administration activities. That’s quite possibly the most pathetic thing I’ve ever heard.
Daily Pundit defends the notion of the now famous phrase “subpoena power,” writing: “Mr. Bush and his policies deserve to be on trial. It is Mr. Bush and his policies that have created the necessity for ‘re-energizing’ the conservative base.”
So what can Rove do, beyond frightening voters with visions of a Congress led by Pelosi and Reid and Conyers and Leahy? The New York Times reports that the White House will look to tout its ideas for immigration and Medicare reform, ideas that the Sadly, No! blog finds to be “goddamn insane” and a sign that “this administration has grown increasingly desperate.”
Perhaps this is all cause for President Bush to focus on other things, such as his unabashed enthusiasm for the outdoors. When asked what the high point has been since he took over the office of the presidency in early 2001, President Bush related that it was the time he caught a big fish while out at the lake.
The noises of machinations and toil can be heard from behind Karl Rove’s office door even now.