Washington Matters


GOP's Hole Just Gets Deeper



John McCain ought to quit worrying about how he can distance himself from George Bush and figure out if there's a way to divorce himself from the entire Republican Party. Last night, Democrats snatched a House seat in Mississippi from the GOP -- the third Democratic gain in two months, all in districts regarded as Republican strongholds. That makes it official: The Republican Party's "brand" has all the drawing power of a fast food chain suffering a salmonella outbreak.

The loss -- Democrat Travis Childers won by a surprisingly large 54% to 46% margin -- confirms Republicans' worst fears. This is a party in such deep trouble that it's difficult to find words strong enough to describe it. Even top-flight spin artists were at a loss. Witness the statement by Rep. Tom Cole of Oklahoma, captain of the House GOP election effort: "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."

Turnout was a huge factor. Democrats, including many African-Americans, voted in huge numbers while many Republicans stayed home, despite an 11th-hour appearance by Vice President Dick Cheney in an attempt to rally them. Republicans fear this trend will play out across the country in November.

The loss came on the same day that a Washington Post-ABC News poll showed that Bush had reached the lowest approval ratings in the poll's history. Ditto with confidence in the GOP. Asked which party they trusted most to handle the nation's problems, 53% of those surveyed said the Democrats while 32% said Republicans. That spread is also the largest in the poll's history.

The one encouraging sign for the party is that McCain, who many conservatives used to mock as a RINO (Republican In Name Only), seems less tainted than Bush or the rest of the GOP. In the same poll, he runs close to both Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton. Plus, McCain measures nearly off the chart when compared to Obama on the question of who has the better experience to be president, 71%-18%, and he beats Obama 46%-42% on who is the strongest leader. But that's where the good news stops. Consider:

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  • Of seven key issues, McCain was trusted more than Obama on just one, the war on terrorism, 55-34. Obama edges him out on handling the war in Iraq 46-45 and leads by 5 to 24 points on the remaining five.
  • More than eight of 10 Americans say the country is on the wrong track. That's a harrowing number for the nominee of the incumbent party under any circumstances. It's downright deadly when you're facing an opponent who is seen as best able to bring change to Washington by a daunting 2-1 margin (59-29).
  • McCain is trying to distance himself from Bush, but he has also joined himself at the hip with the president on the two foremost issues of the race, the economy and the war in Iraq.
  • The poll was taken just after Obama had just gone through the toughest period of the campaign -- rough treatment by the media, the controversy over ugly comments by his former pastor, the Rev. Jeremiah Wright, a big loss to Clinton in Ohio and Pennsylvania and questions about his appeal to white blue collar workers -- and he still led McCain 51-44. On top of that, Republicans tried mightily to tie the candidates in the Mississippi and Louisiana House races to Obama and still lost.
In truth, the only really good news for Republicans right now is that the election is six months off. And as the old saw goes -- and as the previous six months have demonstrated to startling effect -- that's several lifetimes in politics. McCain is displaying the only political daring by a Republican right now, trying to shake things up by proposing a series of unusual, free-wheeling debates with Obama over the summer.

But Republicans as a whole seem oddly determined to rely on decades-old polarizing lines of attack and tired policies. The extent of their political creativity appears to be to cross their fingers while praying for Obama to stumble or for some game-changing development to erupt.

If that's the best they can do, it's more than likely that the only thing that will stop their nosedive is the ground. And they'd quite likely drag McCain along for the ride.






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