It'll take more than bad news to topple the GOP majority

It is no fun being a Republican right now. 

It is no fun being a Republican right now. 

The year started with high hopes for history-making Social Security reform, but that bubble burst as the war in Iraq was increasingly seen as a mismanaged mistake and the economy wasn’t running on all cylinders.

White House staffers are accused of outing a CIA agent for political revenge, the Senate majority leader is battling charges of insider trading, the House majority leader is under at least three indictments, gas prices have surged, and Hurricane Katrina just won’t go away as an example of government ineptitude. That hurricane has real legs, and there is no sign of a letup as the Federal Emergency Management Agency tries to create mobile-home ghettos in places displaced people don’t want to live and locals don’t want them to be.

A partisan might opine that the best you can say about Republicans these days is that they may be inept but at least they are dishonest. It is no wonder that President Bush’s numbers have plummeted.

His approval ratings are hanging in the low 40s. According to a Democracy Corps poll, fully 45 percent of American voters say they “are finished with him.” Granted, Democracy Corps is far from an independent group, but pollster Stan Greenberg knows what he is doing and is not one to cook the numbers.

Congress, it seems, is in even worse shape than the president. It is obvious that the partisan bickering, brewing scandals and a perception that the legislative body has even less of an ability to fix the country than the president has taken it’s toll.

Several polls have shown a generic Democrat beating a generic Republican by 10 points in what are left of swing or marginal districts. Congressional districts have been so gerrymandered that fewer than two dozen house seats are really up for grabs, but according to Greenberg’s research Democrats could win enough of those to take back the House. His and other polling numbers suggest the same in the Senate.

Could this be a 1994 in reverse?

It could be, but not unless the Democrats find a message. Despite their floundering search for a DeLay replacement, there are still sharp political minds in the Republican Party. And the president has been down before, only to bounce back.

Democrats will not sail to victory simply by “running against a majority party that they charge is arrogant, ideological and out of touch,” to borrow Charlie Cook’s concise description of the GOP strategy a dozen years ago. Newt Gingrich and his strategic team had discipline, but they also had a message. It wasn’t just that the other guys were bad; they had a plan and were willing to sign a Contract with America to implement it.

To date, Democrats have not put forth a compelling vision for American voters. It can’t just be “we’ll do a better job of the same strategy in Iraq.” Americans want that war to be concluded, and Democrats need to give them a plan to do it. The sooner the better.

Given America’s concern with our dependence on foreign oil, Democrats should get more aggressive on that issue. Voter distrust of the linkage between big business and Bush’s government suggests there is room to run here. How about tougher fuel-efficiency standards and big tax breaks for hybrids — both those who build them and those who buy them? Rather than talk about a Mars landing, how about a massive commitment to research and development of alternative energy sources on the scale of President John F. Kennedy’s commitment to put a man on the moon.

It is clear voters don’t trust Congress to investigate why we were so ill-prepared and so inept in our response to Katrina. Democrats should settle for nothing less than a Sept. 11-style commission. And there is broad support for an independent czar to manage the response to Katrina and force through a bureaucracy-free plan to respond to natural disasters or terrorist attacks in the future. Americans do not feel safe now, and they won’t until someone new is clearly in charge.

And most folks are not part of the George Bush-Republican club. They don’t get tax breaks, no-bid contracts or flown to St. Andrews for a round of golf at some lobbyist’s expense. They need someone to fight for them.

There’s a start on a message. If the Democrats don’t fashion one that includes some of these elements they just may miss the first chance they’ve had at a majority in a dozen years.

Goddard is a founding partner of political consultants GC Strategic Advocacy.
E-mail: bgoddard@thehill.com