The late Lee Atwater used to say that “issues win campaigns”, and he was exactly right. While on the face of it, that may not seem like the most brilliant political wisdom ever uttered, they are simple, profound and accurate. And much of the Republican leadership seems to have either forgotten them or just refuse to pay heed.
From Senate races all around the country comes word of Republican incumbents in tight races, with several of them in danger of losing their seats this fall. And nationally, the President has been doing good to bump up against a 40% job approval rating, depending on the poll in question.
So how do we win in this political environment? You do it by changing the environment. While we can and should do all the get-out-the-vote hocus pocus we can, in the end it takes issues. And just what are the central GOP issues this year? Those of us who are familiar with the inside baseball of politics can pretty much quote the laundry list we would (and should) hear in response to that question. National security, Iraq, “values” issues, such as abortion and gay marriage, and judges. But what is the general public actually seeing and associating with the Republican party?
Sure, we have had a few votes on bills dealing with important social issues, but almost all of them go down to defeat. All we get are token votes that can be highlighted in the fall, but nothing that has truly excited the party base, much less the general public.
In fact, the issue that’s drawn the most attention in Congress and the highest public profile, immigration, has been one where the GOP isn’t unified and where the base is adamantly opposed to half of what is being proposed.
The problem is that we haven’t had a galvanizing and unifying fight lately, and on most issues the Democrats have wisely avoided such public political brawls. They are all too happy to let things coast as they are now on through November.
For our part, we can’t simply sit back and try to run out the clock. For that to work, you’ve got to be ahead in the game. And we can’t win by playing defense either. You don’t score points that way. We have to go on offense and take the initiative away from the other side.
Simply put, we cannot afford the status quo. We need a fight. And if the Democrats don’t want to give us one, we have to go and pick one with them on an issue they can’t afford to ignore. And we have to pick an issue that presents us with favorable terms of debate and that fires up our troops.
That issue is judges. Specifically, Senate confirmation of conservative judges. It is an issue that has united Republicans all across the country and helped produce victory in three succeeding elections. Most recently, before the 2004 election, the GOP Senate leadership kept it on the front burner by forcing the issue of up or down votes on President Bush’s judicial nominations. It was something near and dear to the party base, but it was also easily understood as an issue of fairness by many in the general public.
The issue worked and we still have a Republican President and a Republican Congress – not to mention two new conservative justices on the Supreme Court. It’s hard to argue with results.
I sincerely hope we don’t look back on the results of the 2006 elections in ten years time and realize that this is what kept us from being able to solidify a truly conservative majority on the Supreme Court for the first time in generations. We’ve lost such opportunities before. As a result of losing the Senate majority in 1986, President Reagan’s 1987 nomination of Judge Robert Bork to the Supreme Court was defeated at the hands of the Democrats. After the smoke cleared, we ended up with Justice Kennedy, hardly a conservative stalwart.
Close your eyes and imagine a Justice Bork sitting along side Justices Scalia, Thomas, Roberts and Alito. The mere thought makes conservatives giddy. It’s what could have been, if we had a Republican majority at the time.
There’s a scene in the movie "Braveheart" where William Wallace is about to ride out and meet the British general for a parlay, and he is asked by his friend where he was going. “To pick a fight”, he replied. To which his friend said, “Well, we didn’t get dressed up for nothing”. Exactly. They needed a fight because the status quo was unacceptable and the only way to change it was by fighting.
Unless something changes, and the leadership gives the party base something to fight for, come November we may have gotten dressed up for nothing.