It took Conservatives in Great
Britain a decade to restore their party's good name. It is taking Republicans a
far shorter time--perhaps only two years--to begin a significant comeback.
Who's responsible? For sure, John McCain and Sarah Palin have played major
roles. But so has a Republican who was one of the causes of the party's
Republicans suffered from the same
ailment as the Tories. In the minds of millions of voters who once supported
them, Republicans had become the political equivalent of socially unacceptable
people. They were disliked, personally as well as politically. Republicans had
no one but themselves to blame.
The Tories lost three elections
before changing the face of their party with new leaders who stressed fresh
issues (while muting but not abandoning their core conservative principles). In
2006, Republicans lost Congress and numerous statehouses. Now McCain and Palin
have supplanted President Bush and Vice President Cheney as the party's leaders.
They're stressing a pair of new issues: political reform and fixing a
"broken" Washington. Actually, those may be a single issue.
Voters have responded to that and
other Republican changes. Aside from an election, the best test of how voters
feel about a party is whether they regard it and its leaders favorably or
unfavorably. As recently as last June, an NBC/Wall Street Journal poll
found voters with a 28 percent positive/47 percent negative attitude toward Republicans.
By September, after the Republican convention, that had changed to 40 percent
positive/43 percent negative.
Other polls have registered a
similar improvement. According to Pew Research, half of America's registered
voters have a favorable opinion of Republicans (55 percent are favorable to
Democrats). Among independents, Pew found that 50 percent look positively on
Republicans, 49 percent on Democrats--a gain for Republicans of 18 percentage
points since August.
As remarkable as those poll numbers
are, they're just that, poll numbers, not election results. But they do suggest
that Republicans are no longer the pariahs they were in 2006 and indeed earlier
this year. That alone is an accomplishment.
"The Republican brand had taken
a huge hit," says Neil Newhouse of Public Opinion Strategies (POS).
"The convention helped change the brand of the party from George Bush to
In a POS survey in September, Bush's
approval rating improved to 35 percent. McCain, however, has a favorable rating
of 56 percent (Barack Obama's is 54 percent). And Palin has the highest rating
of any vice presidential pick since Bill Clinton chose Al Gore in 1992. She and
Gore tied at 47 percent.
Palin is not only viewed more
favorably than Joe Biden, Obama's running mate (40 percent), in an NBC/WSJ
poll, she towers over the only other woman chosen to run for vice president,
Geraldine Ferraro. Ferraro's average rating in September 1984 was 29 percent.
These poll results show one thing
clearly: Popular leaders with a (partly) new agenda and new talking points are
driving the improvement in the Republican image. But this effect, hyped by the
successful convention, may fade, at least a bit.
Other factors have also been crucial
in the Republican rise. Recall what caused the party to tank in 2006:
corruption and scandal in Congress, excessive spending, a losing war in Iraq,
unpopular leaders. The party had a bad odor.
Those problems either don't exist
any more or aren't as significant in 2008. Congressional Republicans who were
caught up in scandal or outright crimes are gone or soon to leave. The one
exception is Senator Ted Stevens of Alaska, who is under indictment and
awaiting trial as he runs for reelection. Yet he's running even with his
Republicans haven't cured their
addiction to earmarks, which have become the symbol of wasteful spending in
Washington. But their new leaders are on the right side of the earmark issue.
McCain has long opposed earmarks, and Palin, as Alaska governor, gets credit
for killing the most egregious earmark of all, the infamous Bridge to Nowhere
In Iraq, the course of the war has
been reversed and victory is now in sight. The public still believes, by
roughly a 2-1 margin, that the war was a mistake. But the vastly improved
situation in Iraq has made the war far less of an issue than it was in 2006 and
far less of a drag on Republican candidates.
Republicans aren't close to reaching
the enviable position of the Tories. Polls in England have consistently given
the Tories nearly a 20-point lead over Labour for months. Conservatives won a
landslide victory in local elections last May. A national election may not come
until 2010, though it could be called earlier.
While McCain may win the presidency,
Republicans aren't likely to recapture either the Senate or the House. Their
aim is to cut their losses--to fewer than 10 in the House and 3 or 4 in the
Senate--and hope for better times in 2010. With their new and improved brand,
they have at least a shot at this.
It may seem far-fetched, but
President Bush has helped. As Democrats have tried to tie McCain to him, Bush
has mostly stayed out of the limelight. And then there's the surge in Iraq. Had
Bush not ordered it, the situation in Iraq would probably be a bloody mess and
an American defeat. And Republicans would still be suffering.