Tuesday, July 6, 2010

GOP gets ready to nationalize failure

The Republican battle plan for the fall is taking shape. The word’s been out for a while: the November election will be portrayed by the GOP as a national election, a referendum on the policies of President Obama, with the Republicans doing all they can to widen interpretation of the lapses and failures of Democrats generally as an indictment of Obama’s leadership.

Democrats, on the other hand, are ready to narrow the focus — adopting the strategy in the late House Speaker Tip O’Neill’s famous dictum “All politics is local” and concentrating on making the November election a chance to take stock of the individual races state by state.

Interpreting politics as a local phenomenon makes sense for the Democrats; it personalizes politics for the off-year vote, an election that’s already widely expected to result in a far lower voter turnout than the 2008 landslide. There’s hope among Dems that the outcome of congressional races that hang in the balance can be moved to the party's advantage by galvanizing the netroots, independent voters and at least some of the wild-card voters, the younger ones who turned out in droves in 2008.

There’s also justifiable worry that the passion those voters had for Obama in ’08 may not be transferable to less charismatic candidates running in state and congressional races this fall. That prospect — tied to two financially and spiritually expensive wars, and a domestic economy that hasn’t responded to the jumper cables of stimulus — will be keeping Democrats up nights.

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But flip the script sideways. Another look at events since the 2008 vote suggest that the Republicans might want to give the idea of nationalizing the off-year election another look. There’s danger for the GOP in pursuing that strategy, one with the very real possibility of nationalizing nothing so much as its own shortcomings.

Recent polls have indicated that much of the nation has already interpreted Obama’s failure to fully achieve his domestic agenda as the Republicans’ fault; they’ve come to the conclusion that GOP obstructionism is as much to blame for that failure as White House missteps. Since the November 2008 election, that Republican tendency toward obstruction for its own sake has gone from talking point to bedrock edict.

The citizens of a government that depends on compromise to function understand that, and what that gridlock has meant in a variety of ways — from Republican-led opposition to legislation meant to extend unemployment benefits to GOP accusations of White House complicity on the BP oil spill. People know the blame game for its own sake isn’t enough.

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Since the 2008 election, the Republican Party has been subject to internal ... issues that point to an identity problem, one that would loom in stark contrast to the Democrats if viewed through a nationalizing prism of the election. The Republicans are paying for their emotional ties to the Tea Party, the ad hoc union of extremists and badly disaffected independent voters whose hallmark is racist (and sometimes violent rhetoric) against Obama himself. For voters, even independent voters disenchanted with Obama, the question becomes what they’re voting for if they pull the red lever. Is the Republican existential disarray preferable to the Democrats’?

And the GOP has problems with leadership. With Michael Steele at the helm of the Republican National Committee, the money in party coffers has dwindled at a dizzying rate, as donors make contributions directly to a state’s candidates rather than the party itself. And thanks to embarrassing scandalettes like the Voyeur bondage night-club incident, and various bizarre statements from Steele himself in recent months, the brand of the GOP is now in full decline.

For the Republicans, these issues highlight the risk of nationalizing this election; if they do that, they can’t isolate themselves from being seen in the same spotlight. For many of the same reasons.

The Republicans don’t really want to nationalize this election by invoking the state of the economy. Doing that means nationalizing their eight years of shortcoming on wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, and the enduring economic repercussions of those wars. Doing that means nationalizing their own opposition to extending the unemployment benefits Americans need to keep food on the table. Doing that means nationalizing their willingness to blame the unemployed for being unemployed.

That’s hardly a good strategy for turning the Democrats out of office — this year or in 2012.

Image credits: Tea Party protest sign: Via Huffington Post. Michael Steele: ABC News.

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