’05 Elections a Mixed Bag

Andrew E. Busch

November 1, 2005

The Democrats look to next year’s midterm elections with glee. Democratic candidates just won big gubernatorial races in Virginia and New Jersey. President Bush was of no help to GOP nominees. A (nominal) Republican won the New York City mayoral election, but otherwise, it was a gloomy night for the party faithful. The chairman of the Democratic National Committee argues that the election results show Bush is no force to be reckoned with, and will do Democrats no harm on election day one year hence.

It is November 2001.

As we all know, future events did not quite turn out as Terry MacAuliffe predicted.

This is not to say that Republicans are not in some real trouble today. Not least, George Bush’s approval ratings are in the high 30s or low 40s rather than the 70s or 80s as they were two months after 9-11. In 2001, Bush hurt the Republican candidate in Virginia, then locked in a tight race against Democrat Mark Warner, by not campaigning for him in a nod to wartime bipartisanship. In 2005, he did campaign (at the last minute) for the Republican candidate, who lost anyway. And in California this year, Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger’s reform agenda went down in flames, an event without a counterpart in 2001 (and an event that throws serious doubt on both the Governator’s political viability and the degree to which Republicans can put California in play at the national level).

Nevertheless, it is premature to see in the election results the foreshadowing of an unstoppable Democratic tide. As in 2001, there were too few races nationally to draw clear conclusions. In any event, through American history, it is typical for the out-party to do well in odd-year elections.

A closer look at the results shows, perhaps more than anything, an electorate searching for something solid and predictable. There was no partisan turnover in the big three races—New York City, New Jersey, or Virginia—despite the fact that two of the three were open races without an incumbent. Initiative activity also saw a strong trend in favor of the status quo. Not only did all of Schwarzenegger’s propositions fall, but every one of the eight propositions on the California ballot was defeated, including some liberal measures on prescription drugs and energy regulation. Even an apparent change—passage in Texas of a state amendment banning same-sex marriage—did nothing but preserve the status quo by clarifying it.

Perhaps the most striking example of this tendency was the defeat in California and Ohio of ballot initiatives that would have changed the legislative redistricting process in hopes of creating a larger number of competitive districts. In California, the redistricting reform was backed by Schwarzenegger; in Ohio, by Democrats. In both states voters, alleged by the major media to be fed up with partisanship and rigged elections, turned their backs on reform, preferring tried and true methods with all their flaws. In Ohio, redistricting reform was joined on the ballot by three other Democratic-backed electoral “reforms,” all of which also failed. In general, as several clever headline writers noted on the morning after, voters around the country just said no.

Where does this leave Bush and the GOP? Where it should not—and almost certainly will not—leave them is complacent. The night was not the wipeout depicted in the media and was even to be expected given historical patterns, but it was certainly no victory for the White House, either.

How can Bush and the GOP hit the comeback trail?

First, the President and his allies must do a better job of communicating what is going right. One can hardly imagine Bill Clinton enjoying an economy growing as robustly as ours is today and allowing the public to forget it. To some extent this truth reflected a troubling narcissism at the heart of Clinton’s persona, but it also reflected the fact that he well understood how to frame an issue for maximum public appreciation.

Second, Republicans must launch a much more effective counterattack against Democrats seeking to demagogue the prewar intelligence issue. They need to do this for political reasons, but they also owe it to their country to do it. Democrats who are following the new party line are recklessly endangering American troops and bringing disrepute on the nation in the eyes of the world in order to score cheap political points. This species of Democrats are once again proving, as they did in Vietnam in 1974-75, in Central America in the 1980s, and in Iraq during 2004, that they would rather lose a war than lose an election, and they need to be called to account for it. Tied up in this issue is Joe Wilson, who has some very serious questions to answer.

Third, Bush and Republicans have to decide what they stand for. The blind obstructionism and leftward lurch of the post-Clinton Democrats has left Republicans off the intellectual hook for some time now. This has not served Republicans well, and their reprieve from serious debate may be coming to an end soon. It is said that House Democrats plan to unveil a 2006 campaign document to rival the Republicans’ 1994 “Contract With America.” It would be imprudent to bet a large sum of money that the Democrats’ midterm platform will be a ringing clarion call that could ignite an electoral stampede to the left. On the other hand, it would be imprudent to bet the House and the Senate that it won’t be.

Just as for Democrats in the early 1990s, small-bore politics, clever legislative maneuvering, and incumbency advantage have long trumped principle as the tools of choice for Republicans seeking to hold their congressional majorities. In 2006, that may not be enough. Republicans from the White House down will have to brace themselves for the possibility that they may have to make an argument. Conviction and persuasion may once again be important.

Perhaps Republicans should write a midterm platform of their own, not a dull laundry list but a short and readable statement of principles and legislative priorities. Bush’s State of the Union Address in January, as he well knows, will present an excellent opportunity to amplify those positions and seize control of the agenda. And the Alito confirmation process will provide an opportunity for Republicans to contrast their understanding of constitutional government in America with that of their rivals. It is never too soon to start.

Andrew E. Busch is a Professor of Government at Claremont McKenna College and an Adjunct Fellow of the Ashbrook Center.