A great irony of the Bill Clinton era was that period when his approval rating was soaring to death-defying heights even despite the Monica Lewinsky scandal (and many others), while the numbers for the Republican Congress were correspondingly bad.
Though this in itself was (and is) hard enough to fathom, what truly made the poll results incongruous was that the public’s view on a whole range of issues — both economic and social — reflected the conservative values championed (more or less) by the Republicans, and thoroughly scorned by Clinton and the Democrats.
Strangely enough, it appears that a similarly puzzling phenomenon is taking place at present, and this situation represents both a danger and an opportunity for Republicans trying to maintain their congressional majority in the midterm elections.
Though certainly the Democratic Party is not held in anything like the high esteem in which Clinton so curiously seemed to be, the Republicans appear in disarray over near- subterranean poll numbers on issues such as Iraq, the economy, and immigration.
Of course, these numbers several months prior to the elections are not necessarily a harbinger of the actual results, but the fact remains that the current situation is being viewed with concern by many Republicans — especially those of the conservative stripe.
So how should the Republicans respond to this in order to emerge victorious in November?
First and foremost, conservatives disappointed with the Republicans on spending-related issues must not bite off their figurative noses to spite their collective faces by staying home and thus paving the way for a disastrous return to power by the Democrats.
But beyond that, the strategy to be employed by the Republicans bears careful scrutiny.
At this point, the approach being embraced by both the national Republican House and Senate committees seems to be based on two fundamental pillars: the advantages built in for incumbents brought about by congressional district reapportionment, and the fact that this is an off-year election where voters are selecting their own particular representatives — who tend to be much more popular with the locals than the party at large.
Thus, a strategy appears to be emerging to emphasize local issues where Republicans might fare better, rather than on national issues where the Democrats are perceived to have the upper hand.
And here is where the previously cited irony from the Clinton era is relevant. Namely, that ceding the advantage to the Democrats on national issues ignores the fact that, despite any unfavorable reaction to the Republicans’ handling of certain issues, the public still emphatically favors their positions over those of the Democrats.
Therefore, for the Republicans to even appear to be forfeiting this arena not only fails to acknowledge that the public is receptive to conservative views — but also gives the impression that Republicans are either too ashamed or too afraid to stand up for those views.
Either perception could be fatal to their chances of holding onto their majority — and even if they somehow manage to cling to power under these circumstances, the notion that they did so merely on the basis of local issues will greatly hamper their ability to govern.
Therefore, Republicans must not forego energetically engaging the Democrats on national issues as well as local ones.
Indeed, a very powerful case can be made in their favor on these issues — a fact that makes the seemingly inexplicable Republican reticence simply maddening for conservatives.
The most obvious case-in-point is the economy. Though poll data shows widespread public discontent, this is primarily attributable high gas prices that are likely temporary and, at any rate, are largely the result of a self-induced supply-shortage for which the Democrats are chiefly responsible, not any failure of Republican economic policy.
The truth is, most likely voters understand this, and are not going to buy the infantile notion that the job performance of the President and the Congress fluctuates weekly with the price of gas.
In addition, the stark reality is that the U.S. economy is by any traditional measure one of the strongest in the nation’s history. With the stock-market nearing uncharted highs, inflation under control, robust GDP growth, and unemployment well below 5%, it’s truly hard to see how any informed person can actually believe the economy is "on the wrong track."
Of course, the major impetus for all of this had been the Republican-enacted tax cuts that would never have occurred under a Democrat-controlled Congress.
So how about a campaign strategy of trumpeting the successes of the Republican-led economy, together with calls for continued progress on making the tax cuts permanent and increasing domestic oil production — rather than relinquishing the issue to the Democrats?
When crunch time arrives, this message will resonate with the electorate.
Iraq presents much the same scenario.
Despite the constant drumbeat of negativism emanating from the media, the truth is that great progress is being made — from successful democratic elections (even at the risk of life and limb to those casting the ballots), a major breakthrough in forging a governing coalition, further progress in training Iraqis to maintain their own security, and of course the toppling of the ruthless and dangerous Saddam Hussein.
It should never be forgotten that these things are absolutely vital to achieving the goal of establishing a bulwark of freedom in the Middle East to help counteract the tyrannical spread of radicalism — and thereby, to protect ourselves from terrorism.
This very debate was waged in 2004 and Republicans convincingly won. Why should they retreat now when there is still more reason for optimism, and when the Democratic alternative apparently remains to merely cut and run?
On the related issue of immigration, there is certainly room for debate over the desirability of guest-worker programs and pathways to citizenship. But at least the Republicans — spurred largely by conservatives who believe (along with the vast majority of voters) that the border must be secured — seem on the verge of taking some kind of substantive action along those lines. Again, this is in stark contrast to the Democrats, whose primary approach to the issue has been to issue drivers licenses to illegal aliens, along with access to American government services and higher education — and often on a better basis than our own citizens receive.
The Democrats would undoubtedly be in ecstasy should the Republicans choose to simply bow to them on this.
Finally, Republicans can proudly point to the fact that two fine new justices have been added to the U.S. Supreme Court — as well as a number of excellent appellate judges. These individuals will likely help reverse the terribly damaging trend of activist judges making policy decisions based on their personal preferences rather than on the Constitution.
Once again, one can very fairly surmise that these people would not be on the bench today if the Democrats controlled the Senate. And here again, the country at large is overwhelmingly with the conservatives.
None of this is to denigrate the notion of exploiting local concerns beneficial to Republican candidates. But they should do this in conjunction with, not at the expense of, aggressively asserting conservative positions on national issues.
They will undoubtedly win such a debate — if only they can stop quitting when they’re ahead.