The Republican Panic
May 15, 2008

If there is such a thing as a useful election defeat, then Tuesday's Republican loss in a special House election in Mississippi would qualify. Maybe this thumping in a heretofore safe GOP seat will finally scare the Members straight, or at least less crooked.

Democrats won with 54% of the vote in a district that a Republican won with 66% in 2006 and that President Bush carried in 2004 by 25 points. It was the GOP's third special election loss this year, and it has Democrats predicting that November will be another rout of 2006 proportions. Oklahoma's Tom Cole, who runs the National Republican Congressional Committee, captured the GOP reaction when he declared that "There is no district that is safe for Republican candidates."

This is the lesson Republicans should have learned in 2006, but the Members preferred to blame their failure on President Bush and Iraq. House Republicans pooh-poohed their own earmarking scandals, spending excesses and overall wallowing in the Beltway status quo. Rather than rethink their habits, they re-elected the same party leaders and even kept Jerry Lewis as their chief Appropriator. Congressman John Shadegg of Arizona is right when he says that "Since the 2006 elections, Republicans have done absolutely nothing to redefine themselves. We can't even get behind an earmark moratorium bill."

They've also been content to replay their same losing political attack strategy. In 2006, they thought they could save their majority by donning a Nancy Pelosi fright wig and shouting "liberal, liberal, liberal." This year they're wearing a Barack Obama mask, and that isn't working either.

In the Mississippi race, the national GOP tried to link Democratic candidate Travis Childers to Barack Obama and Reverend Jeremiah Wright. One TV ad declared: "Travis Childers: He took Obama's endorsement over our conservative values." But Mr. Childers was well known as a cultural conservative who favors gun rights and opposes abortion. In a year when Americans are mad as hell, such a negative attack strategy merely reminds voters that Republicans have run out of ideas.

Maybe it's time for Plan B. One immediate temptation will be for Republicans to abandon Mr. Bush and start voting with the Pelosi Democrats to claim they're doing something about health care, gas prices, and so on. But this will only further alienate the conservative voters they'll need in November.

The better strategy is to offer a reform agenda of their own, especially one that begins to speak to the economic anxieties of the middle class. This includes doing some homework on health care for a change, instead of ceding that field to the Democrats. One of Tom DeLay's great blunders, among many, was failing to do anything about health care when Republicans controlled Washington in 2005. This year, John McCain is offering them a policy lifeline, and they should grab it.

Mr. McCain is also proposing to veto all earmarks, and you can hear the grating of teeth in the GOP caucus on that one. Yes, the "real money" is in entitlements. But there's nothing independent voters hate more than the self-dealing and incumbent protection that earmarks represent. An earmark ban would be potent political symbolism – and substance.

Democrats and the media want to cow Republicans into believing that tax cutting doesn't sell anymore. But tell that to Republican Mayor of Indianapolis Greg Ballard, who won an upset victory last year by calling for lower property taxes. The GOP should expand its tax cut message into a larger tax reform theme that also hits at the corruption of tax loopholes for the rich.

Voters are especially angry about rising prices for food and gasoline, and here too Republicans can start speaking for the middle class. The weak dollar policy of the Bush Administration and Federal Reserve has helped to cause the price spike, and Republicans on Capitol Hill should start talking about how inflation punishes those who work and save. With oil at $124 a barrel, voters are also willing to listen to a message that encourages more domestic energy production across the board – oil, natural gas, coal, shale and nuclear.

Democrats have settled on a formula of running as cultural conservatives in GOP districts, and as economic populists on "fiscal discipline," trade protection, corporate bashing, and "middle-class tax cuts" paid for by taxes on the rich. If Republicans can't trump that message with an agenda of low taxes, health-care affordability and portability, jobs and stable prices, they will be routed again in November.

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