[Those of you who prefer "all cynicism all the time" should just skip this column, since I'm about to get blisteringly optimistic here. You have been warned.]
Maybe this will be Karl Rove's legacy. One can only hope.
There have been three astounding elections recently which are absolutely terrifying the Republican Party. Because they can see which way the pendulum of American politics is swinging, and it is decidedly not in their direction.
First, a Democrat won a special election for Dennis Hastert's House seat. Remember Denny Hastert? Republican Speaker of the House? Lo, how the mighty have fallen, I guess.
Then a Democrat won another special election for a House seat in an equally "Republican-stronghold" district in Louisiana.
Tuesday, a Democrat won the most recent special House election in Mississippi. You can't get much more "red state" than Ole Miss. Democrat Travis Childers won 54 percent to 46 percent, a pretty comfortable margin.
Add to this the fact that in 2006, Democrats had the equivalent of a baseball pitcher's perfect game -- they picked up seats in both houses of Congress, regained control of both houses, and didn't lose a single seat.
All signs are pointing to (are you sitting down?) a landslide election for Democrats this year. We might not just win, we might win big. Very big.
The Republicans are not just terrified of this, they are publicly stating how terrified they are. Newt Gingrich was one of the first to jump in. His whole screed is worth reading if you want to boost your own optimism. In it, he starkly warns the Republicans about their chances this fall:
The Republican brand has been so badly damaged that if Republicans try to run an anti-Obama, anti-Reverend Wright, or (if Senator Clinton wins), anti-Clinton campaign, they are simply going to fail.
This model has already been tested with disastrous results.
In 2006, there were six incumbent Republican Senators who had plenty of money, the advantage of incumbency, and traditionally successful consultants.
But the voters in all six states had adopted a simple position: "Not you." No matter what the GOP Senators attacked their opponents with, the voters shrugged off the attacks and returned to, "Not you."
The danger for House and Senate Republicans in 2008 is that the voters will say, "Not the Republicans."
After the Mississippi loss last night, here is Representative Tom Cole (R-OK), chairman of the Republican House campaign committee (it's his unenviable job to get Republicans elected to the House):
"I think people are concerned legitimately so," Cole said. "We have lost three specials in a row in areas we normally expect to win. Clearly, we have got problems that are deep and serious in terms of how we are going to do in the fall."
But he's got an explanation for the devastating loss -- it's those darn Democrats, running as conservatives! He released a statement which helpfully explains this:
We are disappointed in tonight's election results. Though the NRCC, RNC and Mississippi Republicans made a major effort to retain this seat, we came up short.
Tonight's election highlights two significant challenges Republicans must overcome this November. First, Republicans must be prepared to campaign against Democrat challengers who are running as conservatives, even as they try to join a liberal Democrat majority. Though the Democrats' task will be more difficult in a November election, the fact is they have pulled off two special election victories with this strategy, and it should be a concern to all Republicans.
Second, the political environment is such that voters remain pessimistic about the direction of the country and the Republican Party in general. Therefore, Republicans must undertake bold efforts to define a forward looking [sic] agenda that offers the kind of positive change voters are looking for. This is something we can do in cooperation with our Presidential nominee, but time is short.
I encourage all Republican candidates, whether incumbents or challengers, to take stock of their campaigns and position themselves for challenging campaigns this fall by building the financial resources and grassroots networks that offer them the opportunity and ability to communicate, energize and turn out voters this election.
From Politico, a little honesty from a Republican leader:
Texas Rep. Jeb Hensarling, who chairs the conservative Republican Study Committee, defended the campaign chairman during the closed-door session, saying "the problem was not Cole, but the Republican brand" and the lack of well-formulated policy planks articulated by the party.
See, it's the whole "Republican brand" that's in trouble. And, unfortunately, they just don't have any good ideas to tout in order to turn this around.
But wait! Maybe they don't actually need new ideas! Republican Minority Leader John Boehner, picking up Newt's cue, has the answer to this problem:
The results in MS-01 should serve as a wake-up call to Republican candidates nationwide. As I've said before, this is a change election, and if we want Americans to vote for us we have to convince them that we can fix Washington. Our presidential nominee, Senator McCain, is an agent of change; candidates who hope to succeed must show that they're willing and able to join McCain in a leading movement for reform. We need to stop wasteful Washington spending, fight and win the war on terror, and stop the largest tax increase in history. That is truly the change the American people deserve -- and that is a message on which we can succeed.
See, it's all about "change." Barack Obama absolutely owns the word, it's what Americans are looking for, so we've got to get on this bus fast! And Senator McCain is the one to lead us there! He will "change" the way Washington wastes money (even though he's been a part of it for 20 years) by, um... signing all the wasteful spending bills we send him, just like George Bush did when we were in power. Er, no, that's no good... let's try another: Republicans will fight and win the war on terror! By changing. Um, changing the way Bush is fighting the war on terror? No, that's not going to work either. How about this? John McCain will change the economy by keeping George Bush's tax policy... ah... unchanged?
Maybe Republicans should just try redefining the word "change," since by any dictionary's definition it means "something different" and what they (and John McCain) are peddling is exactly the same thing. Which Americans are tired of. But this seems to be their best idea: use the word "change" as much as possible, and people might vote for you. Their new campaign slogan is actually: "Change you deserve."
I sincerely hope that this truly is their election strategy. "Change" that is nothing more than four more years of George Bush. They haven't seemed to realize that "change" means "change" to the American people, and not "more of the same." Because if this is all they've got, this late in the game, we could be looking at a Democratic tidal wave this November.
What would such a victory look like? Let's take the House first. The current split is 236 Democrats and 199 Republicans. A landslide would mean picking up at least 20 seats, possibly even as high as 40. Split the difference, say we pick up 30. That leaves 266 Democrats and 169 Republicans. That's a difference of 97 votes. Think we could get a few things done with that kind of majority? It would still be shy of a two-thirds majority, but since we're predicting landslides here, I'm just going to assume that President Obama won't be vetoing very often, so we don't even really need two-thirds.
In the Senate, it's harder to have a "landslide" because only one-third of the seats are up during each election. But Democrats will have the chance to pick up seats in unbelievably red states this year, due to various local factors. Democrats have been whispering about possibly picking up such shockingly red states as Texas and Alaska. Even Mississippi. Plus, there are quite a few other possibilities such as Oregon or Maine. The Commonwealth of Virginia could have two Democratic Senators come next year.
Sadly, adding all these up, even the most starry-eyed projection will still likely leave Democrats short of the magic filibuster-proof number (60) in the Senate. We currently have a razor-thin one-vote majority now, and at the most Democrats will be picking up six to eight seats. Plus, Joe Lieberman could bolt the party at any time (he's on the campaign trail for McCain, currently).
But still, a 56/44 or 57/43 majority in the Senate would be a lot easier to work with, because then we'd only need to pull three or four Republicans over to our side to get things done, instead of the current nine.
This may be complicated by a subtle part of the pendulum shift. The Republicans do have a point about the Democrats who are winning their "safe" seats. They are awfully conservative. And the Republican Party (with the help of the voters) has been "purifying" itself of late of any hint of moderates or centrists (to say nothing of liberals) in the party.
Historically (this may be hard to comprehend for younger readers) the parties had "wings." There were conservative Democrats and there were liberal Republicans. Seriously! The Republicans changed this dynamic by taking the South while still holding on to the fiscally-conservative-but-socially-liberal Northeastern Republicans. The South, from the Civil War up until Ronald Reagan, was solidly Democratic (Lincoln was a Republican, and memories are long in the South). Even since Reagan, it's been pretty solidly Republican. But now, the Democrats are slowly getting rid of the remaining Northeastern Republicans who often vote with the Democrats in the Senate.
So convincing Republicans to cross the aisle in the Senate will be harder, because the ones that were open to such entreaties may be gone. But still, it'd be a lot easier for Democrats to get things done with a bigger majority in the Senate. Because those Republican Senators who remained would be nervously thinking about their next election -- especially after a landslide for the other team.
And to those who would insist on purity of Democratic issues to incoming Democrats from the South (who may be more conservative than party regulars are comfortable with) -- remember, Democrats are the true "big tent" party. If we had a 97-vote majority in the House, don't you think we could afford to let a few of them vote their conscience on a few issues? Good bills can still get passed with those kind of numbers.
When Karl Rove came to Washington, his goal was a "permanent Republican majority" in Congress. While I hesitate to use the word "permanent" about anything in politics, wouldn't it be awesome if his political epitaph read: "author of the permanent Republican minority"?
Luckily, I don't have to use the word. Newt Gingrich actually used it first:
No Republicans should kid themselves. It's time to face up to a stark choice.
Without change we could face a catastrophic election this fall.
Without change the Republican Party in the House could revert to the permanent minority status it had from 1930 to 1994.
Without change, the majorities of Americans who support the Republican principle of smaller, more efficient, smarter and fairer government will be in for a rude awakening.
It's time for real change to avoid a real disaster.
Pinch me, someone, maybe I'm dreaming.
Chris Weigant blogs at: ChrisWeigant.com