Entering the weekend before his midterms, George Bush and his party appear fated to lose the House they have held for a dozen years. The Senate is on a knife’s edge.
The latest polls continue to show that by 52 percent to 37 percent Americans wish to see a Democratic takeover. Approval of Congress has never been lower. Americans think the nation is on the wrong track. Support for the war in Iraq has collapsed to a third of the nation.
What went wrong? Certainly, on three traditional Republican issues â€“ strong military, conservative judges and lower taxes â€“ the GOP remains America’s Party.
How do we know? Because no Democrat in a close race is calling, Mondale-like, for higher taxes or attacking Bush for elevating judges John Roberts and Sam Alito to the Supreme Court. In the tight Senate races in Tennessee and Virginia, Democratic nominees Harold Ford and Jim Webb are outspokenly pro-defense.
On immigration, where Bush aligns with Kennedy-McCain, his party has abandoned him. The Republican House stands for border security, no amnesty and no new guest-worker program. Nor is this a losing issue. Even Hillary Clinton voted for 700 miles of security fence on the Mexican border.
What, then, are the causes of Republican malaise?
First is the perception the GOP is no longer a virtuous party that seeks to live up to principles and a high standard of public ethics. The adventures of the Abramoff Gang, Mark Foley, Duke Cunningham and his poker-party pals, of pork barrel and bridges to nowhere have demoralized the Republican base and disgusted Middle America. There is a feeling, even on the right, that if this crowd is run out of Dodge, its expulsion will not be unwarranted.
Second, while the macro economy seems to be firing on all eight cylinders â€“ the Dow has risen above 12,000, and the Misery Index of inflation plus unemployment has fallen to the lowest levels in modern times â€“ not all Americans are participating in the prosperity.
Employment in health care has grown by almost 2 million, but some 3 million manufacturing jobs have vanished. There has been a population explosion among billionaires, but the real median wage of a male worker has not risen in decades. The daily closure of factories here, as more and more Chinese goods show up at Wal-Mart, points to inescapable consequences: The price of the GOP’s free-trade-uber-alles ideology is the loss of the Reagan Democrats.
In Ohio, which was indispensable to Bush is 2000 and 2004, free trade is a millstone around the GOP neck. If Bush loses the House or Senate, free-trade globalism goes on the shelf. Not only will Bush fail to win congressional support of a Doha Round trade treaty, he will be denied any renewal of fast-track authority. The new Congress will not rubber stamp trade treaties, but demand a voice and votes on any new deal the Bushites negotiate on behalf of Corporate America.
But if Republicans are swept from power, the reason will be Iraq. By two to one, Americans have reached the conclusion that the war was a mistake, that taking down Saddam was not worth the price in blood, that the management of the war has been as botched as John Kerry’s joke, that it is time to bring the troops home and let Iraqis do the fighting for their own freedom, democracy and independence.
And the more seats Republicans lose Tuesday, the greater will be the pressure on the party and president to find an early exit.
Yet about the war, America remains divided and conflicted. For the roaring Republican reception to Bush’s calls for “victory” testifies to another truth. While most Americans wish we had never gone in and want out, America does not want to lose the war as we lost Vietnam.
Neither party knows a way to accomplish what America wants: to leave Iraq without losing the war. And the reason neither party knows how to do it is because it cannot be done. Like a patient suffering from cancer, we want an end to the “chemo” â€“ the awful news daily coming out of Iraq â€“ but we do not want the consequences.
What, then, has cost the Republican Party its patrimony?
The answer is, first, hubris. Dominating Congress for a dozen years, the GOP began to behave with the same haughtiness as those they displaced. They forgot who sent them here, and why.
Second, ideology. Bush Republicans refuse even to reconsider, despite contradictory evidence, what their ideology teaches: that free trade is best, that U.S. power is invincible, that all the world wants to be like us, that our motives are always pure and theirs malevolent.
Tuesday will bring the party back to earth. But it will not solve the crises that beset the country. For while the Democrats may be the political alternative, the Democrats’ ideology of big government liberalism is even more bankrupt.