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Sorry, Senator. Let's Salvage What We Can.
I very much doubt that we will be able to show that same kind of local strength in 2009. The statehouses were the engine of our renewal in the 1990s; the Senate will have to play the same role after this defeat. That's especially true because of two unique dangers posed by the impending Democratic victory.
First, with the financial meltdown, the federal government is now acquiring a huge ownership stake in the nation's financial system. It will be immensely tempting to officeholders in Washington to use that stake for political ends -- to reward friends and punish enemies. One-party government, of course, will intensify those temptations. And as the federal government succumbs, officeholders will become more and more comfortable holding that stake. The current urgency to liquidate the government's position will subside. The United States needs Republicans and conservatives to monitor the way Democrats wield this extraordinary and dangerous new power -- and to pressure them to surrender it as rapidly as feasible.
Second, the political culture of the Democratic Party has changed over the past decade. There's a fierce new anger among many liberal Democrats, a more militant style and an angry intolerance of dissent and criticism. This is the culture of the left-wing blogosphere and MSNBC's evening line-up -- and soon, it will be the culture of important political institutions in Washington.
Unchecked, this angry new wing of the Democratic Party will seek to stifle opposition by changing the rules of the political game. Some will want to silence conservative talk radio by tightening regulation of the airwaves via the misleadingly named "fairness doctrine"; others may seek to police the activities of right-leaning think tanks by a stricter interpretation of what is tax-deductible and what is not.
The best bulwark for a nonpolitical finance system and a national culture of open debate will be the strongest possible Republican caucus in the Senate. And it is precisely that strength that is being cannibalized now by the flailing end of the McCain-Palin campaign.
What should Republicans be doing differently? Two things:
1. Every available dollar that can be shifted to a senatorial campaign must be shifted to a senatorial campaign. Right now, we are investing heavily in Pennsylvania in hopes of corralling those fabled "Hillary Democrats" for McCain. But McCain's hopes in Pennsylvania are delusive: The state went for Kerry in 2004, Gore in 2000 and Clinton in 1992 and 1996, and McCain lags Obama by a dozen points in recent polls. But even if we were somehow to take the state, that victory would not compensate for the likely loss of Colorado, New Mexico, Nevada and other states tipped to the Democrats by demographic changes and the mortgage crisis. The "win Pennsylvania and win the nation" strategy may have looked plausible in August and September, when McCain trailed Obama by just a few digits. Now it looks far-fetched.
But it is not far-fetched to hope that we can hold 45 or 46 of our current 49 Senate seats. In 1993, then-Senate Minority Leader Robert J. Dole (R-Kan.) stopped Hillary-care with only 43 seats. But if we are reduced to just 40 or 41 senators, as could easily happen, Republicans and conservatives would find themselves powerless to stop anything -- and more conservative Democrats would lose bargaining power with the Obama White House.
2. We need a message change that frankly acknowledges that the Democrats are probably going to win the White House -- and that warns of the dangers of one-party, left-wing government. There's a lot of poll evidence that voters prefer divided government. By some estimates, perhaps as many as 8 percent of voters consciously cast strategic votes in favor of division. These are the voters we need to be talking to now.
I'm not suggesting that the RNC throw up its hands. But down-ballot Republicans need to give up on the happy talk about how McCain has Obama just where he wants him, take off their game faces and say something like this:
"We're almost certainly looking at a Democratic White House. I can work with a Democratic president to help this state. But we need balance in Washington.
"The government now owns a big stake in the nation's banking system. Trillions of dollars are now under direct government control. It's not wise to put that money under one-party control. It's just too tempting. You need a second set of eyes on that cash. You need oversight and accountability. Otherwise, you're going to wake up two years from now and find out that a Democratic president, a Democratic Senate and a Democratic House have been funneling a ton of that money to their friends and allies. It'll be a big scandal -- but it will be too late. The money will be gone. Divided government is the best precaution you can have."
It's the only argument we have left. And, as the old Washington saying goes, it has the additional merit of being true.
David Frum is a resident fellow at the American Enterprise Institute and the author, most recently, of "Comeback: Conservatism That Can Win Again." He served in 2001-02 as a speechwriter and special assistant to President Bush.