By Joe Scarborough
Sunday, September 17, 2006
I can't help but feel sorry for my old Republican friends in Congress who are fighting for their political lives. After all, it must be tough explaining to voters at their local Baptist church's Keep Congress Conservative Day that it was their party that took a $155 billion surplus and turned it into a record-setting $400 billion deficit.
How exactly does one convince the teeming masses that Republicans deserve to stay in power despite botching a war, doubling the national debt, keeping company with Jack Abramoff, fumbling the response to Hurricane Katrina, expanding the government at record rates, raising cronyism to an art form, playing poker with Duke Cunningham, isolating America and repeatedly electing Tom DeLay as their House majority leader?
How does a God-fearing Reagan Republican explain all that away?
Easy. Blame George W. Bush.
Escaping political death by attacking an unpopular president is hardly new -- especially since most endangered politicians have the loyalty of a starving billy goat. But this is Dubya's Washington, where the White House has pushed around, bullied and betrayed GOP lawmakers for years.
Republican House members and senators always believed that this White House took them for granted. But after the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, most of them had no choice but to sulk in their cloakrooms, listen to Debby Boone on their iPods and take it like a man. Bush was a rock star among the party faithful through the 2004 election, so crossing this popular commander in chief was not an option. That's not to say that Old Bulls didn't privately growl about how they were treated better when their old nemesis was still frolicking with an intern. So what if Bill Clinton misbehaved? At least that president found time to personally negotiate terms of subcommittee markups -- even if he was defiling the Oval Office at the same time.
But that kind of give-and-take between presidents and members of Congress ended once Clinton retired to Chappaqua. For the next five years, Republicans on the Hill would do little more than rubber-stamp Bush's domestic and international agenda because lawmakers were intimidated by his power and his popularity with the Republican base.
Even when the administration would not give generals the troops they needed to win the war in Iraq, Republican leaders did nothing. When the president refused to veto a single spending bill while the deficit spiraled upward, Republican leaders looked away. And when chaos was reigning in the streets of New Orleans and across the Gulf Coast in Katrina's horrific aftermath, Republican leaders remained mute.
That silence -- proof that it is better to be feared than loved in politics -- has had devastating results. The United States is more divided than ever, our leaders are despised around the world, our fiscal situation is catastrophic and congressional approval ratings are the lowest ever. Since nothing sharpens the mind like a political hanging, Republican leaders in the Senate and House are finally considering doing what effete newspaper editorialists have suggested for years: throwing Bush overboard.
Of course, the mere suggestion makes some Republican loyalists shudder. Being a faithful follower of Brother Bush has long been synonymous with loving Jesus, supporting the troops and taking a stand against sodomy. But no more. Many of the conservatives who put Ronald Reagan and Newt Gingrich in power are counting the days until Bush goes to Crawford for good. Some mutter that their leader's governing style looks more like Jimmy Carter's every day -- and among that crowd, there is no harsher insult.
I recently ran a segment on my MSNBC show asking whether Bush was an idiot. After the show, I actually received positive feedback from conservative friends, along with the predictable condemnation from White House staffers. The response was telling and suggested that attacking Bush from the right carries no political risk -- a useful pointer for House members facing tough campaigns.
If I were a GOP candidate this year, I would not call the president an idiot (he isn't). But I would spend the next 50 days of the campaign telling conservatives and liberals alike that even though I voted for this war once and this president twice, time has proved that Bush and Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld were wrong to think that the nation could win Iraq on the cheap. I would also look them in the eye and say that our president was wrong to believe that the United States could fight a war, cut taxes and increase federal spending, all at once. I would castigate my president for claiming to support homeland security while allowing our borders to remain wide open.
I suspect that voters of all persuasions would like that message. Independence is almost always rewarded at the polls. I learned this by accident while running for Congress in 1994, when the local, state and national Republican machines worked overtime to elect my opponent in the primary. I was considered too young, too inexperienced and too conservative.
But after winning 62 percent of the vote, I arrived in Washington an independent man. I criticized Clinton for vetoing welfare reform; I went after Gingrich for backing off spending cuts. Both times, my constituents roared with approval. The best part is that I was rewarded for saying what I believed -- another pointer for today's Republicans.
Using a midterm campaign to run away from your party's president is not unprecedented. In 1994, Democrats did it while GOP challengers were busy tying Clinton's political carcass around their necks. Some Southern Democrats were so desperate to run away from Clinton's tax increase and health care debacle that they in effect told White House operatives that any attempt to send Air Force One to their districts would be met with antiaircraft fire.
In the end, Democrats' efforts to save their majorities in the House and Senate were futile. Right-wing barbarians like me were elected because after two long years of political bumbling, voters were tired of Clinton. Unfortunately for endangered Republicans 12 years later, Clinton's poll numbers during that campaign were 15 percentage points higher than Bush's now. That suggests that the Democratic tidal wave this year will rival that of the Republicans in 1994.
But these Republicans have one advantage that Clinton's party lacked in 1994: Their opponents are Democrats. The Party of Pelosi. The party that is so tongue-tied on its best political issue that I still can't tell you where it stands on Iraq. Nor can they explain how they would balance the budget or stop Iran from developing nuclear weapons.
That failure to present an alternative vision is in stark contrast with Gingrich & Co., who spent 1994 drawing up a legislative package, a plan to balance the budget and enough position papers to strip an Amazon rain forest.
This year, maybe Democrats can beat something with nothing. As for Republicans, their only chance of survival is blasting the president for mistakes of the past and attacking the Democrats for their failings of the future.
Of course, you GOP candidates can be sure that such attacks will annoy Bush, even though your survival may be all that stands between him and a crazy Democratic chairman launching impeachment hearings. But if you win this fall only to face his stern rebuke next winter, just tell him it was schadenfreude for all the times the White House treated you badly. With any luck, Bush will think you are talking about that Berlin disco that Moammar Gaddafi bombed back in 1986 and then dismiss you like the worthless billy goat he always suspected you were.
Joe Scarborough, a Republican congressman from Florida from 1995 to 2001, is host of MSNBC's "Scarborough Country."