Labor Day weekend. The traditional start of the political campaign season. The president of the United States delivers a relatively bland eleven-minute address to a hand picked audience and disappears for the weekend. Hardly what one would expect in an election year that could change the complexion of the Congress.
A little over a week ago the president launched what was previewed as a new campaign to rekindle Republican dominance behind the threat that Democrats would be weak in the war on terror. Terrorism and turnout were the “two t's” that have been credited with GOP dominance in the last three elections. The president, his chief strategist Karl Rove and his closest political advisers have signaled their determination to use the same strategy in a come-from-behind victory for Republicans in November. But a lot of voters aren't buying it.
Two years ago Republicans held a twenty-point advantage, give or take, over Democrats on fighting terrorism. A number of recent polls show that lead has slipped to within the margin of error. I suggest two reasons for this dramatic slide. First, the continuing violence in Iraq. America's inability to either keep the country under control or provide Iraqi forces with the will and the where-with-all to do the job has greatly undermined the president's support, even in America's heartland, home to a disproportionate portion of America's soldiers and America's casualties. Second, the administration's response to Hurricane Katrina created a perception of incompetence that lingers still and has spread to voters' view of the administration in all its' activities. Americans have begun to believe the president can't win wars abroad or respond to natural disasters at home.
Add to that the poisoned political environment in Washington, scandal on Capitol Hill and a Congress that won't deal with issues that impact voters' personal lives and you have a minefield for Republicans facing November. Right now many incumbent and challenger Republicans don't think they can count on the White House to lead them out. In fact, the reverse is happening. Candidates are willing to have the president quietly drop into town for a fundraising event, but would prefer a quite farewell on the tarmac to a media-heavy photo op.
Early advertising by incumbents and challengers shows where their political survival instincts are taking them. For example, Deborah Pryce (R-Ohio) is chairwoman of the House Republican Conference. Her job is to rally GOP colleagues to the party message. Two years ago her campaign featured photos of her with the president. This year her TV ads describe her as an “independent” and emphasize that she stood up to her own party and the president to support increased funding for stem-cell research. So much for “rally round the party” back home in Ohio. Now, admittedly, she represents a marginal district - but one in which she believed the president could increase her margin in 2004. Not in 2006, it seems.
In scores of districts across the country GOP incumbents are taking pains to show their independence from the president. “I'm with the president when he's right, I tell him when he's wrong.” they say. South Florida veteran GOP Representative Clay Shaw openly criticizes Bush policies and says, “I represent the state of Florida, not a political party.”
“All politics is local” goes Tip O'Neill's well-worn bromide and it is clear that candidates for Congress believe that to be true. Polls show growing numbers of voters in traditional Republican areas believe the president and his party are increasingly out of touch with their needs. Nearly 60 percent of rural voters think the President is looking out for big business, not them. It is even worse for the party. Over two thirds of these voters believe Republicans favor big business and 55 percent think they're out of touch with local needs.
Voters are concerned with jobs, healthcare, education, Medicare, Social Security and the cost of gasoline. Sure, they are fearful of terrorism but they're less confident Bush and his Republicans will keep them safe than they were a year ago. That raises serious questions about the White House strategy of frightening their way to a majority in Congress. With voters less sure the president will protect them and more concerned about shrinking jobs amidst growing corporate profits it may well be President Bush should back off his terrorism tour and adopt the Labor Day strategy. Show up. Smile. Say a few words. Go home and hope for the best.
Goddard is a founding partner of political consultants Goddard Claussen Strategic Advocacy.