Two months ago, there seemed no way the Republicans could win the 2008 presidential election.
The polls were awful. Fundraising was hopeless. Twice as many people were voting in Democratic as in Republican primaries.
Today, these objective conditions remain as bad as ever--maybe
worse. In March, the Republicans' presumptive nominee, John McCain,
raised barely one-third as much as Democratic front-runner Barack
Obama. Small donors in particular favor Senator Obama: the Democrat has
raised $76 million in small donations over the campaign cycle; McCain,
only $7.4 million.
George H. W. Bush defeated the
Democratic challenger Michael Dukakis by convincing America that
Dukakis was radically unacceptable: too left-wing, too weak, too out of
touch with the values of ordinary voters.
The energy, turnout, and volunteering on the Democratic side all dwarf anything we see among Republicans.
And yet this month for the first time this year, Republicans are feeling twinges of optimism.
Tuesday's Pennsylvania primary has badly bruised both Senator Hillary Clinton and Senator Obama.
Hillary Clinton has always provoked strong dislike among her
political opponents. Now for the first time her "negative" ratings are
rising among Democrats as well.
Perceptions of Barack Obama are changing too. Senator Obama has
presented himself as a candidate above ideology: a unifier offering
racial reconciliation. Now voters are learning of his long history of
involvement with America's radical left. First it was the revelations
of his church pastor's incendiary anti-Americanism and African
nationalism. Then it was his wife's comment that she had never felt
pride in her country until this year. Now Americans are hearing that
Obama early in his career had accepted the support of Bill Ayers, a
member of the radical Weathernman group, still unrepentant for
detonating bombs in the 1960s.
Obama's reaction? He said in a debate that he also was friendly with
a very conservative member of the US Senate who has made some
incendiary remarks of his own--meaning that Obama equated a
conservative loudmouth with a leftist who had committed overt acts of
Very bad! Bad enough to send hope coursing through many Republicans.
And yet the objective facts of this election continue to be deeply
inhospitable to the Republican party: 80% of Americans say the country
is on the wrong track--and want a change from the policies of George
Bush. Gasoline prices have reached excruciating heights, food prices
are following, unemployment is trending up. And although the subprime
mortgage crisis has not yet inflicted real distress, the crisis has
generated a mood of anxiety that may be more damaging to an incumbent
party than an actual recession--because it leaves more to the
More ominously still, the battering of Sens. Clinton and Obama may invite Republicans to follow a dangerous strategy.
Back in 1988, the elder George H. W. Bush defeated the Democratic
challenger Michael Dukakis by convincing America that Dukakis was
radically unacceptable: too left-wing, too weak, too out of touch with
the values of ordinary voters.
Challengers have often won elections by attacking incumbents. It is
rare for incumbents to win elections by attacking challengers. Yet it
worked--and in working, it left behind the idea that it might work
1988 is very much on the minds of Republican strategists today. John
McCain has not yet articulated an attractive or coherent domestic
policy platform. His main economic suggestion--a big reduction in
America's cripplingly high corporate income tax--is worth enough, but
not obviously relevant to middle-class voters. Meanwhile, the
worries uppermost in voter minds--the gathering recession, rising
prices, healthcare--go unattended by his candidacy.
So, the thought is spreading--can McCain win by doing to Obama what
George H. W. Bush did to Michael Dukakis? If so, then his lack of a
domestic platform may not matter much. Who remembers George H. W.
Bush's 1988 platform?
The trouble is, 2008 is not 1988. Then the economy was prospering.
Today it is wobbling. Then the incumbent Republicans had delivered
foreign policy peace and success. Today Americans have lost confidence
in Republican foreign policy leadership. Then, conservatism was a
rising ideological force. Today it is stagnant and declining.
The old ways will not work again. Republicans need new ways--and new
ideas. John McCain's success or failure will depend on whether he can
find and articulate them.