The good news for the national Republican Party is the bad news.
No political party in history goes into a congressional election carrying heavier freight. Nearly two-thirds of the people think that the president, its standard bearer for six years, is doing a lousy job. They hate and fear a war that the president and the party lied to get them into and that now drains the nation’s treasure, youth and world leadership. For the average American, the economy under an unencumbered Republican government is the most dismal in 65 years and the debt-ridden future looks far grimmer. Evidence of corruption, from influence peddling and cronyism to outright bribery, spills from the executive and legislative branches almost daily. The Republican leader of the House of Representatives and three other ranking GOP members resign ahead of the posse, and still others feel its hot breath. Almost weekly, a new book from the formerly docile media brings fresh accounts of recklessness, bungling and intrigue in the formulation and implementation of the policies that brought the government so low.
All it means is that the party’s narrow control of the House is in slight jeopardy and that Democrats have only a very long shot of capturing the Senate by a margin of one. Democrats can regain numerical control of the House by winning just 15 seats and of the Senate by six, but they may do neither. That is the amazing good news for the GOP.
Remember when the last political tsunami swept through Washington? President Clinton had failed to get a universal health-care plan that embroidered on the present private employer-based system through the Democratic Congress but had persuaded Democrats to pass a tax increase aimed at the well to do, which produced a balanced budget and the longest period of economic growth in history. But those and a mini-scandal involving both Democrats and Republicans in the abuse of House members’ check-cashing cooperative and post office were enough to cost the Democrats 54 seats and control of the House. You may recall the biggest abuser of the bank: Arkansas Republican Tommy Robinson, who kited 996 checks.
Of that raft of books, the least publicized but most instructive is “One Party Country” by Tom Hamburger and Peter Wallsten, Washington reporters for the Los Angeles Times, because it explains how the Republicans achieved the perverse but remarkable ability to withstand electoral accountability for failures.
Many Arkies may remember the brilliant young Tom Hamburger, who started his reporting career at the Pine Bluff Commercial and attracted national attention covering Washington for the Arkansas Gazette.
Hamburger and Wallsten recount the slowly developing conservative strategy begun after the Republican debacle of 1964 and perfected finally in the ’90s by Karl Rove, President Bush’s political genius, and Grover Norquist, the right-wing ideologue who commands a tightly policed confederation of conservative interests in the service of Bush and the party.
You already know not the mechanics but the outlines of the strategy: the development of a Republican-dominated media commentariat and right-wing think tanks to buttress conservative policies; turning Democratic amendments to the Voting Rights Act aimed at increasing black and Hispanic representation in Congress into a dramatic Republican advantage through massive gerrymandering in Southern and seaboard states; turning corporate America into a bank for Republican campaigns; putting programs of the federal government and taxpayers’ money at the service of Republican political interests; and perfection of the election science of identifying voters and their habits and targeting them with special appeals. We will soon see the most effective get-out-the-vote apparatus in history.
But Hamburger’s and Wallsten’s careful reporting are what make the book a good read for Democrats. They detail how Rove’s sessions with political appointees at federal agencies produce federal action that give Republicans the margin of victory: diverting the Klamath River in Oregon into farm irrigation canals that caused one of the largest fish kills in history but that gave Sen. Gordon Smith the votes he needed to survive, dispensing faith-based money to black churches in Wisconsin, Ohio and other states to swing votes away from Democrats and for Bush.
Hamburger and Wallsten had extraordinary access to Norquist at Americans for Tax Reform, where weekly meetings of business conservatives and religious and social conservatives for a dozen years have lined up active help for the Republican and White House agenda. Norquist related how he had helped the big automakers stop Bill Clinton’s plan to raise fuel-efficiency standards of cars to reduce America’s dependence on Middle East oil. He persuaded social and religious conservatives that Detroit’s was their fight, too, and they delivered. He explained to Phyllis Schlafly of the Eagle Forum that fuel-efficient cars often were too small to haul around a big passel of kids so it was a vital family-values issue.
“I hate those cars,” Schlafly responded, so hers and evangelical groups marched on Capitol Hill to keep Americans safe from conservation. How will Democrats ever counter such impervious logic?