American Enterprise Online | 10.19.05
By Alan W. Dowd

If President George W. Bush and his supporters think 2005 has been a long, sour year, they would do well not to look ahead to what awaits them in 2006. In short, next year is shaping up to be a treacherous one for Republicans. Consider just a few of the troubles facing Bush and his party:

•           Depending on whom you ask, Bush is accused of under-achieving on Hurricane Katrina or over-reaching in trying to repair what Katrina left behind. Recall that in September, Bush was lambasted by big-government types for failing to override the weather or overrule the plodding political leaders of Louisiana. Now, Bush is being pounded by small-government types for promising to pick up Katrina’s $200-billion tab amid Washington’s soaring deficits.

•           The economy is limping, owing largely to energy prices and Katrina. In Katrina’s wake, the US economy lost jobs in September for the first time in two years; some economists are warning that the high cost of petroleum will soon have a ripple effect on delivery-dependent goods and services, as well as plastic-based products; and as the New York Times gleefully reported last week, inflation “surged at a pace not seen since March 1980.”

•           As fiscal conservatives draw the line on spending, social conservatives in the GOP seem deeply troubled by Supreme Court nominee Harriet Miers. (With a seal of approval from Senate Democratic Leader Harry Reid, perhaps that’s understandable.) While the Republican base is probably not starting to fracture, it’s possible that part of the base could simply stay at home in November 2006.

•           According to a USA Today poll, 54 percent of Americans now think the Iraq war was a mistake; the president’s sagging approval ratings reflect this. (Whether or not the American people are right in their assessment is a subject for another essay.)

•           The picture is worse for the GOP-controlled Congress, where the perception of scandal and mismanagement has yielded a 32-percent approval rating. Last month’s indictment of House Republican Leader Tom DeLay on fundraising charges followed a week when Senate Republican Leader Bill Frist was forced to explain his sale of stock ahead of a summer price slide. Sadly, the perception was enough for the Securities and Exchange Commission to take a look. (That Frist is forced to prove his innocence is yet another example of why more of America’s best and brightest simply pass on public service.)

•           The perception of scandal also hangs over the White House, with the mainstream media openly rooting for an indictment of Karl Rove and/or Lewis Libby in the never-ending case of the “outed” CIA operative.

•           Finally, as The Wall Street Journal reminded readers in a recent analysis, the party controlling the White House has lost an average of 24 seats in midterm elections since World War II. Democrats need a net pickup of just 15 to wrest back the House majority.  Now that one of the GOP’s most tenacious campaigners—DeLay—is distracted, and a plurality of Americans are telling pollsters they want a Democratic Congress, that feat appears within reach. 

Add it all up, and you have the ingredients for a perfect political storm.

However, there are some silver linings in these storm clouds for the GOP: First, the months between now and Election Day represent an eternity in the world of politics. The GOP may surge up and down and back up before November 2006.

Second, if 2006 becomes the “Katrina Referendum,” as many in the Democratic Party apparently want, the GOP could offer voters a stark contrast between how Republican governors in Florida, Mississippi, Texas and Alabama handled the hurricane disasters of 2004 and 2005—and how a Democratic governor and mayor responded in Louisiana.

Third, Democrats still lack a unifying theme or issue. However, that may be changing. Just as Newt Gingrich once pounded Jim Wright and Dan Rostenkowski for ethics problems, House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi is now criticizing her Republican counterparts for “a culture of corruption.”

If that label sticks, if Iraq continues to bleed, if the White House continues to flounder, if the conservative base fractures, Republicans could lose the House. To be sure, that remains an unlikely prospect given the makeup and configuration of current districts; of course, so was the prospect of Democrats losing the House and Senate in the autumn of 1993. 

Bush backers should be concerned, because there’s more at stake here than simply which party holds the Speaker’s gavel. It is not unthinkable that a House Democratic majority would launch impeachment proceedings against the president. After the political wars of the late 1990s and bitter election of 2000, Democratic back-benchers certainly have the motive. They are now marshaling the means: More than 80 House Democrats are pushing a measure demanding that the president turn over all communications with the United Kingdom relating to the Iraq War. Plus, the Democratic heir-apparent to chair the House Judiciary Committee is Rep. John Conyers, who believes there is “a prima facie case of going to war under false pretenses.”

The only thing Bush’s political opponents lack now is the opportunity. That could come after next fall’s elections.