Monday, May 19, 2008

They Were For President Bush Before They Were Against Him

I send out the columns by email to a list of people who have opted in, but this week I didn't bother creating my own email, I just forwarded the one that John Shadegg himself prepared and sent today as a fundraising appeal. Not what I would have done.

Shadegg described himself as the “voice of reform so desperately needed in Washington, D.C.” That’s even better -- and a bigger triangulation -- than “The Change You Deserve,” the official House GOP slogan (if they can resolve the trademark issues with prescription antidepressant Effexor). It's nice of Rep. Shadegg to get my column in front of people who otherwise wouldn't get to see it.

My suggested headline was above, but the editor had a different perspective. The newspaper version is available here.

East Valley Tribune, May 18, 2008

I eagerly await the fall campaign, when incumbent Rep. John Shadegg, R-Ariz., tries to portray himself as “a new kind of Republican.” That he represents a “Third Way,” between the old, lobbyist-dominated GOP and the slightly younger, lobbyist-dominated GOP. Too bad “incumbent Republican congressman” is a personal smear still suitable for a family newspaper.

After batting oh-fer in three special elections in GOP districts, the National Republican Congressional Committee is low on both money and ideas. The NRCC has spent about 20 percent of its cash on hand in each election, but the Democrat won the Illinois seat held by former Speaker Dennis Hastert, then a Louisiana seat held by the GOP since the 1970’s. Last Tuesday, the GOP lost another special election -- in Mississippi, of all places.

Tuesday’s 8 point Democratic win in Mississippi’s 1st District came where President Bush won in 2004 with 62 percent. The NRCC’s advice afterwards? Look out for yourself, GOP incumbents, we don’t have either money or a clue.

Political handicapper Charlie Cook has a “Partisan Voting Index” that compares partisan performance (or “lean”) in congressional districts to the national presidential vote. Mississippi’s 1st District has a PVI of +10R, meaning it votes 10 points more Republican than the country. Shadegg’s district has a PVI of +6, and Bush got 58 percent in 2004. So if MS-01 isn’t safely red, why wouldn’t AZ-03 also be “in play?”

Republicans complain that moderate-to-conservative Democrats campaign as moderates and conservatives, not recognizing that their “liberal, liberal, liberal” tactics are a tad tired. But Democrats aren’t guaranteed to run against the prototypical anti-choice, anti-gay, Social-Security-privatizing, imperialistic war-loving, health insurance denying, toady-of-the-rich Republican. After all, not every Republican candidate is Shadegg.

If Arizona starts turning against the GOP brand, we’ll just be catching up to the rest of the country. In 2006, I visited Montgomery County, Pa., in the Philadelphia suburbs. It’s a formerly staunchly Republican area which featured an expensive, contested congressional race between a long-time GOP incumbent and a Democratic challenger.

The yard signs caused me some cognitive dissonance, because the Democratic challenger’s used the slogan, “Democrat for Congress,” while the GOP incumbent’s read “Independent Voice for You” -- the opposite of what we usually see in Arizona. But watch that change, even here, if people see the GOP elephant and think, “George W. Bush.”

How does every single GOP candidate, led by presumptive presidential nominee John McCain, try to distance himself from Bush? They all can’t be “a different kind of Republican,” because it’s not much of a brand if every product is unique. And there are limits to the difference here, because every single one of these Republicans -- McCain, Shadegg, Tim Bee -- was really, really for Bush before they were against him.

The problem with all this GOP triangulation (McCain trying to distance himself from congressional Republicans, and both trying to distance themselves from Bush) is two-fold. First, these guys tied themselves so tightly to Bush over the past 7 years that the cake is already baked; it’s too late to pretend you really were a maverick all along. The other is that Bush himself pulled exactly this trick in 2000, slamming the GOP Congress and portraying himself as a different kind of Republican, a “compassionate conservative.” It should be difficult to separate from the failed presidency by using the exact same tactics as the failed president.

But tart-tongued (and gay) Rep. Barney Frank, D-Mass., probably has the better explanation. It’s not that Republicans lack the right slogans, or haven’t been insufficiently lobbyist-dominated, war-mongering, and fighting a class war on behalf of the rich. It’s the substance.

Frank was musing to a reporter the difficulty in trying to get the Bush administration and congressional Republicans to do anything about the collapse of the real estate bubble. The GOP has come around on bailing out banks and hedge funds, but is steadfastly refusing to do anything for actual homeowners.

It’s “like asking me to judge the Miss America contest,” said Frank. “If your heart’s not in it, you don’t do a very good job.”

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