The GOP's Bankruptcy of Ideas

By Harold Meyerson
Wednesday, May 10, 2006

The emerging Republican game plan for 2006 is, at bottom, a tautology: If the Democrats retake Congress it will mean, well, that the Democrats retake Congress. (Cue lightning bolt and ominous clap of thunder.) Karl Rove and his minions have plumb run out of issues to campaign on. They can't run on the war. They can't run on the economy, where the positive numbers on growth are offset by the largely stagnant numbers on median incomes and the public's growing dread of outsourcing. Immigration may play in various congressional districts, but it's too dicey an issue to nationalize. Even social conservatives may be growing weary of outlawing gay marriage every other November. Nobody's buying the ownership society. Competence? Ethics? You kidding?

The Republicans' problem is not simply their inability to run their government and wage their war of choice, it is also their bankruptcy of ideas. On taxes, the Republican legislative leaders' top priorities are to make permanent the tax cut on investment income and to repeal the estate tax -- economics, as ever, for our wealthiest 1 percent. (This at a time when the entire theory of trickle-down has been negated by the propensity of U.S. corporations to use their shareholders' investments to expand abroad rather than at home.) On energy, the notions of tougher fuel economy standards and mandating a shift to renewable energy sources are so alien to the Republicans' DNA that they come forth with such proposals as Bill Frist's $100 rebate, the most short-lived legislative initiative in recent memory.

There's no concealing the Republican collapse. In a USA Today-Gallup poll released this week, the president's approval rating had deflated to a dismal 31 percent -- and to just 52 percent among conservatives. Other recent polls have shown that the public prefers shifting congressional control to the Democrats by margins as high as 17 percent. Numbers can change, of course, but it's hard to see what the Republicans can do to reverse this tsunami. They can mount an October surprise attack on Iran, but that would require someone making a convincing public case that Iran poses an imminent threat to us and that preemptive war is the only solution. And who, in the wake of the deceptions with which they justified their war in Iraq, has the credibility to do that? Bush? Cheney? Rumsfeld? These guys have turned themselves into Lucy holding the football, while the American people no longer afford them a Charlie Brown benefit of the doubt.

And so, to stave off the specter of Democratic rule, Rove has decided that the only way to rally the Republican base is to invoke the specter of Democratic rule. Democrat John Conyers, who would become chairman of the House Judiciary Committee, has spoken of investigating the president for high crimes and misdemeanors. Henry Waxman and Ted Kennedy will get subpoena power if the Democrats win both houses. Unspecified horrors lurk behind every corner if the Democrats take control and hold hearings about the administration's relations with the oil and pharmaceutical industries. A sea of partisan vendetta, Republicans prophesy, stretches to the horizon if the Democrats are allowed to win.

As a strategy, this has its shortcomings. It's not clear how many independents, or even conservatives, will warm to a campaign that focuses on forestalling congressional oversight -- not with gas prices soaring and the American military bogged down in a war with an increasingly undefinable mission. Moreover, the Democrats are now, finally, having some success at defining themselves.

In a recent spate of interviews, Democratic House leader Nancy Pelosi has emphasized her party's fast-forward version of its first Hundred Days in power -- in this case, what the Democrats would do in their first week running Congress. They would raise the minimum wage for the first time since 1997. They would repeal the section of the Medicare drug plan that forbids the government from negotiating lower prices with the drug industry. They would fully implement the recommendations of the Sept. 11 commission, and they would restore the congressional rule, suspended by Republicans, requiring that all new programs be paid for by a specific new spending source or offset by a commensurate cut in another program.

Pelosi doesn't deny that Congress would resume its oversight functions, but she has made clear that any decision to impeach anybody (which is not on her agenda) would be hers and the caucus's -- not John Conyers's, certainly not the Democratic blogosphere's.

Her critics on her left and right notwithstanding, Pelosi is one of the smartest pols on the political landscape -- as is attested by her ability to unify her fractious colleagues and designate John Murtha to attack the administration on the war. Now she's begun to outline the Democrats' own Contract With America. It ain't bad -- and for Republicans, that ain't good.

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