There were a lot of factors that played into the GOP’s crushing loss last night. The most important of them are as follows:
Bush’s Approval Rating
Unfortunately, George Bush seems to be operating under the assumption that his approval rating is irrelevant since he doesn’t have to run for office again. On issue after issue, he has taken wildly unpopular stands, seemingly without regard to the political fall-out. That has proven to be very unwise not only because Bush turned out to be an albatross around the neck of GOP candidates all around the country, but because as he grew more unpopular, he lost the ability, across the board, to effectively press his agenda.
Conservatives who had a lot of qualms about Bush’s domestic agenda were thrilled when Sandra Day O’Connor stepped down from the Supreme Court because they felt like their support of Bush was finally about to pay off. However, when George Bush passed over a bevy of excellent candidates to select an unqualified crony for the Supreme Court, the conservative commentariat, for the first time, went into open rebellion against George Bush. Given that the selection of a Supreme Court Justice should have been an opportunity to put some salve on the wounds of conservatives who were unhappy with the Bush Presidency, it was a tremendous missed opportunity. Moreover, given that after Miers withdrew, Samuel Alito made it through the confirmation process in the Senate rather easily, the selection of Miers appeared to be an enormous unforced error by Bush.
If Bush Won’t Defend Himself, Then Who Will
When George Bush first came into office, the American people were sick and tired of the venom of the Clinton years. Also, after 9/11, George Bush’s approval ratings shot up to stratospheric levels. Because of those two factors, Bush could afford to simply ignore Democratic attacks without worrying about getting hurt too much.
However, in his second term, after his approval ratings came back down to earth, the Democratic attacks against George Bush started to work. Yet, Bush ignored them, just as he did in his first term. Eventually what started to happen was that the Democrats landed damaging haymaker after haymaker on George Bush while he refused to fight back. A prime example would be the Democrats’ Hurricane Katrina spin. The incompetence of the local government in Louisiana was completely ignored and every mistake they made was pinned on the Bush Administration. Meanwhile, for the most part, W. just stood there and took the damaging hit.
It’s likely that no issue had more of a negative impact on Republican turnout than illegal immigration. In fact, for a while on the right side of the blogosphere, it was rare to run across a post about illegal immigration that didn’t feature a handful of commenters promising not to vote for the GOP this year to punish the Republicans for pushing an amnesty plan. Regrettably, the people who bore the brunt of that protest vote were the Republicans in the House, who stood firm on illegal immigration. Moreover, in a cycle where most of the competitive races seemed to feature both the Republican and Democratic candidate promising to be tough on illegal immigration, having a Republican President who was the biggest proponent of an amnesty plan helped undercut the credibility of GOP candidates on the issue.
The fact that so many Americans had to spend an extra $15-$20 every week to fill up the tank was such an irritant to people that I believe it had a lot to do with masking the strength of the economy. People do vote their pocketbooks and the extra money from that pocketbook that went towards gas really hurt the GOP.
National Security Slippage
The biggest issue of the 2004 election cycle was national security and that, of course, benefitted the GOP. However, we’re now more than 5 years out from 9/11 and there hasn’t been a major attack in the US, which has made people a bit complacent. Then there’s the fact that North Korea’s nuclear program is still ongoing , Iran is still building nukes, and the Bush Administration supported a sham of a UN Agreement that handcuffed Israel and allowed Hezbollah to rearm . Moreover, we can’t forget that the sort of progress many people expected in Iraq just hasn’t materialized and that has caused the American people a considerable amount of angst. Put it all together and the national security issue lost a lot of the potency that it had for the GOP in 2004 and may have, in some races, turned out to be a negative overall for Republicans.
Conservatives expect that one of the highest priorities for Republicans in Washington will be cutting wasteful spending and getting the deficit under control — but that message doesn’t seem to have resonated with a lot of big government Republicans in Washington and there were a couple of defining moments that clearly showed that to be the case. The first was when then Majority Leader Tom DeLay declared that the GOP had achieved an “ongoing victory” against wasteful spending. That was bad enough. But, the “Bridge to Nowhere” added injury to insult. Conservatives were horrified to find out that their representatives in Washington were championing a three hundred million dollar bridge to an island in Alaska with 50 people living on it and they became even more disgusted when, despite an uproar over the wasted money, Republicans in the Senate pigheadedly continued to support the project.
Republicans Behaving Badly
If you look at the House, you’ll see that a lot of the most challenging races were caused by scandals of some sort. Duke Cunningham and Bob Ney went to jail. Tom DeLay left Congress under an ethical cloud. To vote for Joe Negron, voters had to punch page predator Mark Foley’s name on the ballot. Tom Reynolds and Deborah Pryce both had tough races because of their connection to Foley. Don Sherwood was accused not just of having a mistress, which was bad enough, but of trying to strangle her. The FBI investigated Curt Weldon’s daughter because they believed Weldon might be delivering kickbacks to her firm. In fact, the GOP was so tin eared this election cycle that they even managed to turn a Democratic scandal to their disadvantage. When Democrat William Jefferson was caught with bribe money in his freezer and the FBI raided his office, the Republican leadership in the House took the side of the crooked Democratic Congressman over the FBI. Put it all together and not only did these issues cost the GOP a lot of individual seats, it painted a particularly unflattering portrait of an arrogant and corrupt party to the voters.
The bad news is that the American people rejected the Republican Party. The good news is that they didn’t do that because they rejected conservative principles, they rejected the Republican Party, for the most part, for not living up to those principles. That is a problem that can be corrected, especially since the voters don’t like the Democratic Party very much either.