The Nationalized Election

At Sellersburg in southern Indiana Oct. 28, George W. Bush began 10 days of non-stop campaigning for his party’s congressional candidates. That posed a Republican conundrum. Since GOP policy aimed to prevent Democrats from "nationalizing" scattered congressional elections Tuesday, what was the president doing in the national spotlight crowding out House and Senate candidates? Wasn’t he playing into Democratic nationalizing efforts?

The approved answer given to me by high-ranking Republican political operatives is that Bush was really furthering the local campaigns and local issues. Actually, the president was trying to change the subject nationally from Iraq to national security. But experienced Republican political leaders privately grumble that Bush has only underscored Iraq as the pre-eminent issue, adding he would have done better to get lost for the past two weeks.

The hard truth apparent to realists in both parties is that, quite apart from what Bush did or did not do, the election has been nationalized around two standards that could not be more unfavorable to the GOP: an unpopular war and an unpopular president. That has generated a rising sense of panic in Republican ranks, with the fear that Tuesday’s returns will be either bad or very bad for them.

Denying that reality, Republican strategists have been tied to an enduring political cliche. The late House Speaker Thomas P. O’Neill was wrong, as he was in many of his utterances, that "all politics is local." At the National Republican Congressional Committee (NRCC), incumbent House members are viewed as "mayors" who dispense "pork." Rep. Tom Reynolds, the NRCC chairman, in an Oct. 18 National Press Club speech, said 2006 was the third straight election that Democrats were trying to nationalize after two previous failures.

All of this is based on the concept that voters everywhere are more interested in constituent service than their rejection of Bush as a war president. GOP old-timers say they have not seen such an anti-Republican mood since the post-Watergate election of 1974, when Democrats padded their huge House majority by picking up 49 additional seats for a margin of 145. Voters in this or any other country can be counted on to oppose a long, unsuccessful armed conflict. It is likely that Bush is unpopular because the war is unpopular, rather than the other way around.

One prominent Republican, who asked me not to use his name, said the last effective play by the White House came at the end of the summer when it defended its war policy. Then, in all seriousness, he proposed this course of action should have been taken by Bush: "The president should go on a two and a half week vacation, and when he gets back, go right into the hospital for minor surgery. In other words, he should have disappeared."

The fact that Bush did not disappear but took to the campaign trail should not be blamed for rapid deterioration the past week. House districts that previously had been thought safe for Republican incumbents were under assault. Jim Ryun, the old four-minute miler, was trailing in Kansas. A safe Republican seat in Nebraska was imperiled. Moderate Sue Kelly in New York was challenged, and conservative J.D. Hayworth in Arizona was in trouble. That has led to Republican fears of not only losing the House but losing it by a large margin.

There is not much the president could do at this late hour to turn back this spread of Democratic danger. Republican incumbents, accustomed to a friendlier atmosphere, have failed to clearly identify themselves and their opponents to the public.

As Bill Clinton raced across the nation pouncing on targets of opportunity, Bush could go only to places where he would be welcome. The popular first lady, Laura Bush, took up some slack by visiting those places where her husband could not go.

Where Bush went, he showed differences between Republican and Democratic members of Congress on tax cuts, judicial confirmations and national security. But he could not crowd out Iraq as the national issue. George W. Bush’s ineradicable step affecting this election was going to war against Saddam Hussein in March 2003.