Polar bears, canaries, coal mines, donkeys: Analyzing the GOP prospects in 2008

“… A polar bear and a House Republican walk into a bar …”

Whether pronounced by a high-paid consultant or simply mumbled by the guy on the corner stool at the Dew Drop Inn, there’s one singular, cogent bit of political prognostication that Hill Republicans face these days: These are not sunny days, and dark skies are expected to loom well into the future.

Their leader is an unpopular lame-duck president ensnared in a foreign occupation and beset by a jittery economy. Their Hill leaders stand embarrassed by the recent loss of three congressional seats in “safe” Republican districts.

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Backbenchers mumble in hallways. Another tabloidy double-life sex scandal snags a popular colleague whose seat could now be up for grabs. And the party’s “suffer-no-fools,” anti-earmarking, presidential standard-bearer views them as the problem as much as the answer.  

And after spending months on a top-secret, high-level effort to reintroduce themselves to the public, party leaders discovered too late that their catchy new “Change You Deserve” slogan was already being used by the manufacturer of an antidepressant.

This embarrassing snafu made its way to the late-night joke tellers and onto daytime radio. WMAL, a D.C. radio station featuring former congressman and TV actor Fred Grandy (R-Iowa), even had an on-air poll asking listeners who they thought were the more threatened species — polar bears or House Republicans. Like I said, not fun days, unless, of course, you are already a former House Republican.

But to look on the sunny side, no one on the planet, barstoolers and expert consultants included, expects Republicans to pick up seats come November. So, in the expectations game, the bar is now set so low that if by some chance Republicans were able to defy the odds and steal a few seats here and there, it would be off of the antidepressants and back on champagne and cigars faster than you could say, “Permanent minority.”

All that to say, there will be lots to talk about on the Hill this week as House Republicans huddle in the basement of the Capitol and continue to consider how they might navigate those nasty full-force headwinds coming their way this November.

Most of the buzz on talk shows last weekend (which is likely to continue through this week) is the Jerry Maguire-like mission statement crafted and sent around last week by Rep. Tom Davis (R) of Virginia.

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Slugged “Where We Stand Today,” the 20-page, single-spaced document is a fairly sobering bit of Davis homework exploring Republican prospects this year. To sum up Davis’s findings: Not good.

The document provides more analysis of the GOP’s obvious predicament than it provides easily translatable solutions. But, despite that mild swipe, it is a serious look at the political landscape and worth a serious read.

Stating that the three election losses should not be blamed on “bad candidates” or on being “out-organized,” Davis adds, “They are canaries in the coal mine, warning of far greater losses in the fall, if steps are not taken to remedy the current climate.”

Davis, former head of the National Republican Congressional Committee, who is retiring at the end of this term, sees this election cycle as “the worst since Watergate and … far more toxic than the fall of 2006” when the GOP lost 30 seats and its majority. He offers a serious warning about Hill Republicans, for the good of the party, aligning too closely with President Bush this time around.  

The challenge, as Davis sees it, and as evidenced by the recent election losses: “Change is the order of the day and voters are willing to gamble on change against a party and president they dislike intensely.”

Davis suggests that this change is clearly shown by the money flow: “GOP leaders turned lobbyists, from Bob Livingston to JC Watts, are giving Blue,” Davis writes.

He warns that many traditional GOP interest groups are hedging their bets to “buy in” for a longer-term Democratic majority. For example, UPS, government contractors and FedEx are now giving strategically to Democrats for “protection money.”

Last week when Secretary of the Interior Dirk Kempthorne put the polar bear on the threatened species list, he said his decision was based on the best available science, showing the dramatic loss of sea ice that the bears need.

House Republicans wish they had something that stable.

You can reach Jim Mills at jmills@thehill.com.