Monday, September 25, 2006

How Dems Can Win the Midterm Elections

By Eleanor Clift

Friday 08 September 2006

What the Democrats should do to win the midterms - and the '08 race for the White House.

Let the talking heads and the lawyers debate the new U.S. Army field-manual rules about interrogation. Democrats should play rope-a-dope, absorb the blows and put the spotlight on President Bush's empty rhetoric about winning the war against terrorism. Five years after 9/11, Osama bin Laden is still on the loose and Americans don't think the Iraq war is making them safer.

What Bush did in his speeches this week is the national-security version of the perp walk. By rolling out a rogue's gallery of scary-looking Middle Eastern men, Bush transformed a debate about a ruinous war in Iraq into hand-to-hand political combat over which party has captured more bad guys.

Given Bush's sorry record and all the other conversations the media could be having, the renewed emphasis on terrorism is good news for Republicans. Democrats can't change the channel. They've got to win on the ground that Bush has established. That means thinking like Karl Rove and going after the opposition's strength until it becomes a vulnerability. Iraq is a quagmire. Whether U.S. troops withdraw next year or in 10 years, they will leave behind a country fractured by civil war and an oil-rich theocratic government dominated by Iran - hardly the democratic beacon to transform the region.

Democrats have no power. It's not up to them to draft the exit strategy. But if they're going to win back at least one house of Congress in November, they need to raise the comfort level among the American people with their party. Republican pollster Bill McInturff says it doesn't take long in focus groups to get people talking about whether Democrats are resolved and tough enough. Republicans are trying to "seduce Democrats into a debate about the future as opposed to a judgment on the past," says Thomas Mann, a congressional scholar at the Brookings Institution. Democrats should keep from "getting snookered" into offering a detailed plan of their own. "There's no good alternative in Iraq," he says. "We've going to have to settle for the least-worst option as we extricate ourselves."

Just as the November election will be a referendum on the war, the '08 presidential race will turn on national security. A Fox News poll last month found former New York mayor Rudy Giuliani and Sen. John McCain the top choices on the Republican side among registered voters nationwide, with Giuliani holding a slight edge on McCain, and both men beating Hillary Clinton and every other likely Democratic nominee. Not everybody is convinced Giuliani will run. He's not working at it like McCain, who is in a fever to lock up traditional support and run like Bush did in 2000. Maybe Giuliani is keeping hope alive to build his speaking fees. But if '06 is a heavy Democratic year, Republicans will be hungry in '08, and ideological conservatives have no one candidate to rally around. They're all flawed on the right, Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney less so because he's really smart and mediawise, but a Mormon from Massachusetts may be a bridge too far for party activists.

A Republican insider talking off the record sketched a scenario that might get Giuliani the nomination. First, conservatives don't trust McCain. They think he's a snake because he voted against tax cuts, promotes global warming and hangs around with Hillary and Ted Kennedy. He's to conservatives what Joe Lieberman is to liberals, finger nails on a blackboard, an irritant. Second, Giuliani's heroism on 9/11 shows no sign of fading. He's got charisma and presence that is unmatched. He's pro-choice and pro gay rights, but that can be finessed if the Republicans want to win bad enough. Giuliani can placate the right by making a deal on judges, promising to name judges in the Scalia-Thomas-Roberts-Alito mold. It was the dilemma faced by Alan Alda's character, a pro-choice Republican presidential candidate, Sen. Arnold Vinick, in the final season of "The West Wing." Senator Vinick refused to sell out; he also lost the election. Giuliani would have to reassure the right that as president he wouldn't make a major sift on social issues. And he'd have to name a strong conservative as his running mate and political heir to seal the deal with the right.

For all the problems with his "New York lifestyle," buzzwords for his multiple marriages, Republicans can't dismiss a candidate like Giuliani. Very few people can say they transformed a major city and that they led the nation when the president was absent from the airwaves in the aftermath of a terrorist attack. There's a reason why Giuliani has appeal right now. He reacted instinctively and well on 9/11, and he governed a city that works - and right now even Republicans are talking about competence. Giuliani and McCain too look like they are people who get things done. In the end, primary elections among Republicans come back to abortion, the gun issue and gay marriage. Ideology matters, but if Bush's legacy is a failed war in Iraq and a lot of empty rhetoric, ideology might not matter so much in '08.

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