On Tuesday voters in Mississippi’s first congressional district elected a Democrat in a special election. Given that this is the third straight loss for Republicans in special elections within “Republican-safe” districts, many political pundits are calling this a wake-up call for the party.
I agree this is a wakeup call for the Republican Party and I offer the following reasons why Republicans are in danger of much greater losses in November.
1. Republicans were swept into power in 1994 with a mandate to change Washington.
Remember the ten point “Contract with America” that brought Republicans to power in the House of Representatives for the first time in 40 years? This was the first significant time in a generation when a majority of the country voted FOR Republicans. Republicans were entrusted with power because they promised specific change, not because they were Republicans.
2. Republicans were favored for a few years while they passed most of the “Contract with America” and held the line on spending.
With their successes, Republicans became more dominant and powerful — even convincing a weakened Bill Clinton to do the unthinkable and sign welfare reform and other significant conservative-leaning legislation.
3. Then a strange thing began to happen as Republicans became part of the Washington Establishment.
After about a decade in power, many Republicans had became overconfident incumbents who enjoyed power. They forgot who put them into positions of power and why they were there. Instead, they shifted their focus onto themselves and began to selfishly act like Democrats and spend like crazy. Ethics took a back seat as corruption and scandal emerged among several high-profile cases (however mild by the standards of some Democrats a decade or two earlier; but as a party of values, Republicans were held to a higher standard).
4. Some conservative-leaning Democrats saw an opportunity to run against fat-cat, do-little Republicans.
By 2006 Republicans were viewed by a majority as corrupt and lazy party in need of reform and in the pocket of lobbyists and special interests. A handful of less-liberal-than-usual Democrats ran on a more conservative agenda and found success in picking off enough Republicans to win back both chambers of Congress.
5. Republicans reacted with more of the same.
Instead of sensing the defeat as a rebuke on the party, Republicans largely explained it away as bad campaigns and negative trends. There were mild shakeups in leadership and token responses to cleaning up ethics. However, there were no really significant reform measures or strong efforts to address earmarks, border control or national security improvements in a way that appealed to a generally conservative majority. Other than unity on funding and supporting the War in Iraq, Republicans did essentially nothing to regain the voter’s trust. Instead, high-profile moves were made that alienated much of the Republican base — social and/or fiscal conservatives and proponents of a strong national defense.
6. Republicans mis-handled the Long War Against Radical Islam.
This War is essential and we must win it; however, Republicans, especially the President, have dropped the ball in communicating the case on why it is so important. Republicans, especially the President, have become weak in the face of the polls and not backed up the Bush Doctrine of going after all terrorists and those who harbor them (like those in Iran, for example). Thus short memories dominate the scene as Americans become increasingly impatient with growing war casualties and grim outlooks for a non-violent Middle East (at least in the short run). Additionally, no spokesperson is sufficiently warning of the long term consequences of failure to win this War. In my opinion, there should be something akin to Roosevelt’s “fireside chats” to keep Americans informed of what is going on and why this Long War is needed. I also argue that we need to be more aggressive militarily and less accommodating to Middle Eastern radicals who view anything democratic and humanitarian as weak.
7. Democrats have co-opted many formerly Republican issues and re-framed them in their favor.
The abandonment of traditional values and failure to adequately build a case for the Long War by the Republicans left Democrats free to swoop in and pick up these issues and frame them in liberal terms. Many voters don’t heavily analyze the issues and have not seen the subtle substitution that has taken place. They hear Democrats talking about conservative issues like traditional values, gun rights, patriotism, national defense and ending the war (notice I didn’t say winning it) and they carelessly think this candidate must be conservative like me. Since Republicans haven’t fixed what they were put into power to fix from 1994 through 2004 then voters are ready to try “new” Democrats who are talking like conservatives and arguing for change. This leads me to my final point.
8. The country remains largely conservative, but conservative doesn’t equate to Republican.
Republicans seemed to think that their election and subsequent reelection for 6 cycles amounted to a “realignment” of the voters from the old Democratic Party loyalties to them. Such was never the case, I argue. Instead, Republicans benefited from their conservative change message in 1994 but when they didn’t deliver, the voters were ready to send them back home and put a new batch of “change” talking Democrats into power. Republicans should have known better and stayed on message.
So what does all this mean for Republicans? It means danger and defeat at the polls this November if they don’t wake up and get back to work.
Is a massive Republican defeat a certainty? Absolutely not. There are incredible problems below the surface within the Democratic Party. Furthermore, many of the so-called “conservative Democrats” don’t have voting records to back up their rhetoric and could be easy pickings for a true conservative candidate.
So what is needed to take the wind out of the Democrats’ sails? A leader who is a communicator with a vision for real change like that promised in 1994. It has to be somebody people can trust. It also has to be somebody who will take the time to talk to them — or more likely convince with a serious “blood, sweat and tears” Churchill-like message — that conservative ideals are best for the long term success of the country.
The Party that reaches out and connects with the conservative majority in America will win in November. While the winner may not be Republican, I predict the message and candidates will at least be crafted in conservative language.