For Bush, a Test in the Midterms

By E. J. Dionne Jr.
Tuesday, January 3, 2006

Elections at midterm can be low-interest affairs or immensely important. This fall's congressional elections will be a big show with large consequences, because 2006 is looking a lot like the political years 1958, 1966 and 1978, all of which heralded major political transformations.

The Democratic sweep in 1958 presaged the party's strength in the Kennedy-Johnson years. Democratic dominance peaked in LBJ's 1964 landslide. But just two years later, big Republican gains signaled problems in the Democratic coalition that the party struggles with to this day.

The 1978 elections during Jimmy Carter's presidency marked the emergence of a powerful New Right that swept Ronald Reagan into office in 1980 and continues to be the dominant force in the Republican Party.

The 2006 elections will be a test of the audacious Karl Rove-George W. Bush plan to launch a long-term Republican Era. They foresee an alliance of corporate interests and religious conservatives, with the South as its home base. Business provides the money. Middle-class traditionalists furnish the troops.

But the alliance always threatens to disintegrate because its wings have very different priorities and competing values. Moreover, conservatives can't win elections on their own. They need moderate votes, and significant support outside the old Confederacy. Bush's carefully cultivated image as a strong, trustworthy leader in the war on terrorism brought around enough middle-of-the road voters to create the Republican monolith that is now our national government.

The 2006 elections will determine whether Rove's brilliantly constructed machine has staying power or falls apart in the face of adversity. And there was adversity in abundance during 2005.

Bush and Rove's careful management of the politics of moral issues -- show the religious conservatives you're with them without alienating moderates -- collapsed during the Terri Schiavo controversy. The administration and its allies turned out to be well to the right of the national consensus on end-of-life issues and were widely perceived by moderates as pandering to the religious right.

The president's Social Security privatization proposal reminded many blue-collar and middle-class voters why they had once voted Democratic. Such voters did not trust the free market enough to agree to cuts in their benefits.

The increasing unpopularity of the war in Iraq has struck at the heart of Bush's appeal to the center. The controversy over how we got into Iraq has undermined the president's reputation for trustworthiness. The continuing violence alongside political instability in Iraq creates doubts about Bush's capacity as an effective leader. And much of the country listens to the president's promises with far more skepticism. The messy occupation without an end in sight flies in the face of the administration's happy talk before the war about a peaceful, prosperous Iraq that would be a model for the Middle East.

Note that each of these issues upsets the careful balance Rove had to achieve to get Bush to 50.8 percent in 2004. Three strikes and you're out: The social-issues right can't help Bush if its support drives away too many moderates. Pro-business economics can't help if it drives away many in the middle class. And the war on terrorism doesn't help if Bush is seen as managing it badly.

This last is critical, which is why Zalmay Khalilzad, the U.S. ambassador to Iraq, may be the most important figure in the 2006 elections. Khalilzad needs to get Iraq's dominant Shiites to make concessions to the Sunnis and create a semblance of political peace. This is more important to the future of Iraq than any amount of training for Iraqi forces -- and more important to the American elections, given the role Iraq will play this fall, than almost anything that happens during the campaign.

It is customary in columns of this sort to say somewhere around now that the Democrats will need to come up with a plan, a message, a program, etc., etc. I'm all for such things. But in 1958, 1966 and 1978, the out party gained ground largely by exploiting the failures of the party in power and exacerbating the contradictions in its coalition. If the Democrats prosper in 2006, it will be because whatever program they come up with achieves those goals.

The obvious way for Rove to get his new era is for Bush to do a whole lot better in 2006 than he did in 2005. Failing that, Rove has to hope the Democrats will get in their own way and lose the chance to make this election a referendum on the course Bush has charted.

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