The best of times or the worst of times for the GOP?

The Baehr Essentials

The mainstream media are full of news stories, written with barely concealed glee, suggesting a GOP crackup is near. The accepted story line is that far right Christian conservatives have rocked the political boat too hard, and moderate Republicans and independents are slipping away. Considering the public response to the Congressional action in the Schiavo case, the President's faltering Social Security reform effort with private accounts, Tom DeLay's ethics problems, John Bolton's confirmation problems, and polls showing low approval ratings for President Bush, and low levels of popular support for changing the Senate's filibuster rules, it might appear that GOP efforts are stalled across the board.

With so much to celebrate, the editorial board of the New York Times may be breaking out the bubbly earlier in the day than normal. But a more sober assessment of the current political climate does not create nearly so bleak a picture for the President and his party.   

To begin, pollster John Zogby has an interesting poll out this week. If the 2004 election were rerun today, Bush would win again over John Kerry, but this time by 5%, not the 2.5% margin he won by in November. Considering that Zogby consistently underestimated Bush's support level in last year's election, and is no friend of the President, this might mean that if a real election were held again today he would whip Kerry by more than 5%. Now part of this, of course, is that once an election is over, one guy gets tagged with the loser label. Much like Al Gore after the 2000 race, Senator Kerry has been working diligently since November to make sure everyone now knows that this label really fits him as well.

The next Presidential election, while more than three years away, is already creating furious speculation about every gesture or feint by Hillary Clinton, Bill Frist, and other possible contenders. So it might have come as a shock to some Democrats that Senator Clinton, their all but anointed Presidential candidate for 2008, and the savior of their political fortunes, trails 68 year old Senator John McCain by 7 points in a head—to—head match—up, and also trails former New York City Mayor Rudy Giuliani by two points. With her early well—publicized dive to the political center, the new ' love the military' and 'abortion is always a tragedy' Hillary might have been expected to be cruising in high gear against her potential Republican opponents.

And then there is the filibuster fight. To begin with, I suspect most Americans do not have a clue about what this is all about, so I do not trust any network or newspaper poll on the subject. I have watched enough 'Jaywalking' segments on the Tonight Show with Jay Leno to be aware that political sophistication levels are generally low (and lower still in Los Angeles).  The idea that a fairly worded poll on this subject would get a knowledgeable response from many Americans defies belief.

Some friends and family who are fairly involved with politics, and oppose the Republicans' effort to end the use of filibusters to block votes on judicial nominations, have explained to me quite confidently that to make this change would be unconstitutional. The fact that filibusters are never mentioned in the Constitution, but are merely a Senate rule, changed many times before, seems to have been missing from their education. Alternatively, the articles they read on the current controversy in the newspapers, or the stories on NPR and Nightly News, have not adequately explained that the real change that has occurred has been the unprecedented use of filibusters by the Senate Democrats to block votes on Appeals Court nominees, not the Republican effort to get up—or—down votes on nominees who reach the floor, which has a more than 200 year tradition.

In any case, if the Republicans are doing so badly with their threat to change the Senate rules by a majority vote to end the filibusters on judicial nominations, one must wonder why the Democrats have suddenly started talking compromise, such as allowing a few nominees through for up or down votes if no vote to change the filibuster rule is taken.

It seems to me the Democrats fear they hold a losing hand.  The GOP has 55 Senators, and could lose five of them, and still win on the Senate floor with Vice President Cheney casting the tie breaker. At the moment, only 3 GOP Senators (McCain, Chafee, and Snowe) have indicated their discomfort with the rules change, with Susan Collins perhaps also in that corner.

If Cheney casts a tie—breaker vote, the screams about Republicans trampling over the supposed 'separation of powers,' and limiting the rights of the poor downtrodden Senate minority, would last for weeks. But Bush would have won, and the deck cleared for his judicial nominees.  And Cheney would have performed his Constitutionally—mandated role in the Senate to break ties.

Arguably, it would be better for the President and his party if the Democrats were to cave in, and to need no vote on the filibuster rule change. That would be having your cake and eating it too for the President. Republicans may be in the minority some day, and if they do not change the rule, one would hope that the chorus of elite opinion who are so opposed to the idea of changing the filibuster rule today would still be there to protect them and their minority rights in that situation.

Of course the last time the Democrats were in power, and the Republicans used the filibuster (though not to block judicial votes) the New York Times wanted the practice ended for all time.  If the GOP again became the minority and used the filibuster for whatever reason to block a Democratic President and his Congressional initiatives, the Times could again call for the practice to be eliminated and argue it was being consistent with its original position.

Finally there are the Congressional elections in 2006. In the House, fewer than 10% of all races were competitive in 2004 (competitive meaning the winner received 55% or less of the total vote).  There are at least as many seriously endangered Democratic—held seats as Republican held seats among this small number. Assuming there is not a huge tidal wave supporting the Democrats, it is hard to see how the Democrats could come back to power, and pick up the net 15 seats they would need. In Georgia, a new redistricting plan could create an additional one or two Republican—leaning districts, making the Democrats' job tougher still.

In the Senate, right now things are leaning the Republicans' way.  Five Senators have announced they are retiring, and four of them vote with the Democrats (Corzine in New Jersey,  Sarbanes in Maryland,  Dayton in Minnesota and Jeffords in Vermont). The GOP is slightly favored in Minnesota, having cleared the field for Representative Mark Kennedy.  If the Republican governor of Vermont, Jim Douglas, runs for that open seat, he could be competitive with the likely Socialist candidate Congressman Bernie Sanders. The Maryland race is also a tossup. New Jersey leans Democratic for its open seat. Bill Frist term limited himself in Tennessee, but the GOP has won the last ten open Senate seat races in the South, and will be favored here again.

Among Senators running for re—election, Republican Senator Rick Santorum is clearly in trouble in Pennsylvania, against Bob Casey, Jr. But other Republicans who won narrowly last time — Conrad Burns in Montana, Jim Talent in Missouri, and George Allen in Virginia — all seem like solid bets for re—election this time, as does Lincoln Chafee in Rhode Island.

The Democrats on the other hand have several endangered incumbents including Maria Cantwell in Washington, Bill Nelson in Florida, Ben Nelson in Nebraska, and Debbie Stabenow in Michigan. None of these four Democratic incumbents broke 51% of the vote in 2000.  There could be one more endangered Democratic incumbent if North Dakota Governor John Hoeven can be persuaded to take on Senator Kent Conrad.

So looking at the broader picture, the President has almost his entire term left in office to set the agenda and pursue it both domestically and in foreign policy. To date the Democrats have been unified in opposition to Bush but have offered little or nothing policywise of their own.  This might explain why Bush's slight drop in the polls has not lifted the Democrats back up.  The GOP has just expanded its Senate majority and has good prospects of increasing it again in 2006. The GOP control of the House seems likely to continue after the 2006 election. The GOP seems poised to get most of its blocked judges through either by the Democrats getting out of the way, or by a rules change in the Senate. 

Does this sound like a party on the verge of a nervous breakdown?  The safer forecast is for more mental health days for the party of the donkey.