Wednesday, August 03, 2005

The decline and fall of the GOP has begun

It's not often that you'll see Democrats celebrating an electoral defeat, but the champagne must be flowing at DNC headquarters tonight as the results in Ohio's 2nd US House District come in.

The 2nd has historically been a solidly Republican district. Former US Representative Rob Portman, who left Congress to become the Bush administration's trade representative, polled 72% or more in each of his six races to represent the 2nd. In last year's presidential election, George W. Bush carried the district over John Kerry with 64% of the vote. And last night, in a special election to replace Portman, Democrat Paul Hackett came within 3% of winning -- despite his Republican opponent's 3-to-1 fundraising advantage and despite the Republican National Committee's desperate last-minute media buys. He carried four of the district's seven counties. The only thing that saved his opponent's derriere was overwhelming victory in her home county.

So, how did Hackett come within 3% of turning a solidly red district blue?

Well, as a major in the Marine Corps Reserve and a veteran of the war on Iraq, he was on solid ground in calling out the Bush administration for its incompetence in prosecuting the war. Sound familiar? It should. Granted, I'd have preferred a solid anti-war line to Hackett's "I didn't approve of going in, but now that we're there we have to do the job right" approach, but at least he is hitting the GOP where it's weak: National security.

Hackett appears to be a fairly pedestrian tax-and-spend Democrat in a lot of areas, but the GOP helped him out by nominating an opponent who is a tax-and-spend Republican in the mold we've become all too familiar with over the last five years. Jean Schmidt squeaked through the primary against the recommendations of the Club for Growth and in spite of taxpayer outrage at her support as a state legislator for governor Bob Taft's massive state tax increase package. The GOP gave up its (usually undeserved) "fiscal responsibility" edge versus Hackett by nominating Schmidt.

And what about other issues? Well, here's what Hackett had to say during the Democratic primary debate:

"I don't need Washington to tell me how to live my personal life, or how to pray to my God. And I don't need Washington to dictate to my wife the decisions that she makes with her doctor, any more than I need Washington to tell me which guns I can keep in my gun safe."

Hackett struck some solidly libertarian themes in his campaign versus his big-government Republican opponent. Unlike the Republican Liberty Caucus, neither I nor the Democratic Freedom Caucus go around pasting a "libertarian" label on any politician who stands still long enough to be lassoed (the RLC calls John friggin' McCain a "libertarian"), but Hackett definitely took a libertarian tone on several issues, and it damn near got him sent to Washington.

A template is emerging, folks, and it's one the GOP isn't liking, not one little bit.

First of all, DNC chair Howard Dean (you know, the guy the Republicans have had such fun laughing at for the last five months) has articulated a "50-state" strategy, not just for presidential elections but for Congress. Instead of letting "safe" Republican districts slide, Democrats are going to force the GOP to defend those districts -- and they're going to win some of those districts, too. No more free passes. Democrats have proven over and over that they can win with less money than Republicans. What's saved the GOP's bacon for years is that Democrats have failed to field serious candidates in GOP "safe" districts, freeing up GOP money to migrate to tighter races. That money ain't going nowhere next year, because we're coming for them where they live.

Secondly, Paul Hackett may have been the first Iraq veteran to run for Congress, but he won't be the last. There'll be a bumper crop of them next year. Some of them will run on an actual anti-war line; others will simply target the amazing, recurrent ability of the Busheviks to snatch defeat from the jaws of victory in Afghanistan and Iraq, and suggest that it's time for the grownups to get behind the wheel where defense is concerned. The key thing is that nobody but nobody is going to be able to play the "unpatriotic" card on these candidates. They went, they saw, and now they're coming back to conquer.

Third, many of next year's Democratic candidates -- especially, but not only, the ones with military backgrounds -- aren't going to be vulnerable to the usual stereotyping. Now that the GOP has firmly established a record of drunken sailor spending policies, it will be Democrats hammering to good effect on "fiscal responsibility." The veterans (and a lot of the non-veterans popping up in those "safe" GOP districts) who are running are likely to be mostly pro-gun and generally libertarian on social issues ... but in a way that immunizes them against the "family values" shills (I want to see the poor schmuck who goes after one of these veterans on "family values" while his spouse, who sat at home hoping he'd make it back alive from "over there," is standing next to him).

I don't expect the Democrats to take back both houses of Congress next year, but I do expect them to make solid gains. And in 2008, they can run the table, especially if they nominate a relatively pro-freedom candidate -- probably a western governor like New Mexico's Bill Richardson, Arizona's Janet Napolitano or even Brian Schweitzer of Montana -- for the presidency.

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