Bush Flickers Out, Republicans Face Mass Hibernation

021306 article lehmann Bush Flickers Out,  Republicans Face  Mass HibernationHistory and polling are two things the Bush administration professes to scorn. But as the 2006 elections speed toward us, both appear to be overtaking the Republican Party, and the Republicans are hardly in position to take on more bad news.

Just before last week’s vote designating John A. Boehner as House Majority Leader, the Club for Growth—one of the Hill’s biggest low-tax, pro-business political-action committees—released an opinion survey covering 20 key House races.

The survey supplies an advance view of what it could take for Democrats to turn around their present 30-vote deficit in the House. Fourteen of the races involve Republican incumbents facing tough re-election fights, five are open seats, and one is an open district—the one formerly belonging to the stunningly corrupt, indicted and since-departed House member Randy (Duke) Cunningham.

Now President Bush’s terse verdict on the political past—“History. We don’t know. We’ll all be dead”—is looking just a little too vivid for G.O.P. candidates and consultants trying to avoid becoming history themselves.

“If you would have said a year ago that you’d be looking at the Republican House majority being potentially in play, no one would have believed it,” said University of Texas historian Lewis Gould, author of histories of the Republican Party and the Senate. “The thing is that animus against Bush is like a beating heart. For whatever it’s worth, back in November and December, when I was doing publicity for my book on the Senate, my publisher had me doing these radio call-in shows from all over the country. And people were just throbbing with indignation at Congress. And this wasn’t about corruption, though that was part of it. There was this sense of Congress’s complete out-of-touchness. In places like Ohio and Oregon, I was getting this hysteria, this animosity about things like the Medicare-reform implementation.”

Which is where the leaden sense of historical recognition comes in. “It was amazing,” Mr. Gould said. “It took me back to the end of his father’s terms, in the fall of ’92. It was just clear that that administration had run out of gas. It was to the point where you couldn’t even imagine what a second George H.W. Bush agenda could have been.”

This was all, mind you, a good two months before Jack Abramoff’s ominous plea-bargain. Poll numbers in the wake of that fateful black-garbed performance reinforce the impressions that Mr. Gould picked up through his unscientific headphone sample. National polls show President Bush still mired in 40-percent-approval territory; “right-track/wrong-track” figures—far more telling in an off-year election—are breaking about 65 to 35 against the status quo.

And the Club poll found that in those 20 more vulnerable races, the right-track/wrong-tack tally was worse than in national polls, with a scant 29 percent of respondents giving the Republicans a warm nod of encouragement.

Republican Congress members—the incumbents in most of these contests, who are supposed to enjoy every gerrymandered advantage that Tom DeLay and company could engineer for them out of the U.S. Census—polled a dismal 35 percent in their approval rating. This is so dismal, in fact, as to place them in the company of the Democrats, at 34 percent.

A whopping 80 percent described present Congressional ethics questions as either “serious” (50 percent) or “scandalous” (30 percent).

So, in an anticipatory feint clearly intended to demonstrate their regained in-touchness, members of Congress had their own throw-the-rascal-out vote last week. They ditched acting Majority Leader Roy Blunt, a longtime DeLay crony, in favor of Mr. Boehner, the pro-business Ohio Congressman who rarely tires of describing himself as a straight shooter. But the leadership change will likely prove to be little more than cosmetic.

In reality, House Republicans were merely trading in a majority leader married to a former tobacco lobbyist for one who had once notoriously taken to the floor of the House to hand out tobacco checks to the hired Congressional help. But sometimes it’s important to create the appearance of change for its own sake.

It was a moment “to throw water in our faces,” said Representative Paul Ryan, R.-Wis., by phone on Monday. Mr. Ryan is a longtime and fairly lonely advocate of budget and lobbying reform on the Republican side of the aisle. “We have to reform or lose. We have a course correction to make,” he said.

Mr. Ryan tried to administer such a correction in last year’s legislative session, with a bundle of budget-reform proposals like cracking down on earmark items—those last-minute, usually vote-free expenditures that Jack Abramoff made his stock-in-trade. “We had our heads handed to us,” Mr. Ryan said. “All the appropriators”—the Appropriations Committee members empowered to approve earmarks—“and the people who feared the appropriators, they voted against us.

“But I think things could break differently this year,” he said, “now that voters actually know what an earmark is.”

Other longtime Republican watchers aren’t so sure. There may be no great need for an ethics overhaul—or the appearance of an ethics overhaul—claimed Jim Pinkerton, who is a former advisor to George H. W. Bush and a self-described “renegade Republican” fiercely critical of the Iraq war.

“The main thing that suggests Republicans have a shot at keeping the House,” Mr. Pinkerton said, “is that you’re in a world where the Democrats are off the table. Who cares whether the Republicans have Boehner? It might not matter. The basic red-state demographic tide has been building for 40 years.”

Of course, Mr. Pinkerton said, the Democrats have done much to advance the G.O.P. electoral cause simply by grinding their own wheels and miring themselves in the perception of a still greater out-of-touchness.

“There’s this lawyerly proceduralism mania” in the Democratic world, Mr. Pinkerton said. “What the Democrats haven’t figured out is that people think that the New York Times editorial page, Larry Tribe and the Harvard Law School, the ACLU all speak for, are the face of, the Democratic Party. The fact that [Senate Minority Leader] Harry Reid doesn’t say that he’d support all those things—that doesn’t mean that the Democrats aren’t still perceived this way.”

Democrats supplied a dramatic illustration of this defeatist dynamic, Mr. Pinkerton said, in their efforts to hold Attorney General Alberto Gonzales’ feet to the fire in Monday’s hearings on the National Security Agency.

Mr. Gonzales defended the warrantless wiretapping being performed these past five years by the N.S.A. at the extralegal behest of the Bush administration. “Our enemy is listening,” he testified. “And I cannot help but wonder if they aren’t shaking their heads in amazement at the thought that anyone would imperil such a sensitive program by leaking its existence in the first place, and smiling at the prospect that we might now disclose even more, or perhaps even unilaterally disarm ourselves of a key tool in the war on terror.”

After this rap on the Democrats, Senators Pat Leahy and Russ Feingold railed righteously and got that coveted New York Times coverage. But they found it hard to recover, according to Mr. Pinkerton.

“I think that the Republicans—Cheney, Gonzales, [former N.S.A. director Gen. Michael V.] Hayden—are coming close to accusing Democrats of being treacherous,” he added. “In a time of war, it’s much better to be saying that than to have it said about you.”

Perhaps so. But if the playing field is tilting against tried-and-true G.O.P. security-mongering this November, that will make it harder to say, as Mr. Gonzales does, in essence: “Get thee behind me, terror-enabling pansies.” Indeed, with so many likely conservative voters so disenchanted with G.O.P.-dominated Washington, the more immediate challenge for Republicans will be to galvanize the party’s movement base, which is addicted to the mythology of its own permanent outsider status.

“When you’ve been in power five to six years, it tends to take longer for your base to get energized,” said Senator Tom Coburn, R.-Okla., who is running to chair the National Republican Congressional Committee. “So I look at leader [Nancy] Pelosi’s statements on Iraq, and I think they’re godsends. I go back to 1998 as an example of the same thing. Then, we were so busy ginning up our base against Clinton that we ginned up theirs as well. We were hell-bent on impeaching a President that, it turned out, had a lot more popular support than we did at the time.”

Still, such tactical reckonings may pale next to the more basic dilemma of getting sympathetic hearings from voters of any stripe this far into the Bush Presidency.

“If Bush were wielding power like F.D.R., L.B.J. or Reagan, people would probably be comfortable” with Mr. Gonzales’ catechism of the “unitary Presidency,” Mr. Gould said. “But he’s not shown the competence to get things done. And his big problem is that at some point—and it may have already passed—people just stop listening to a President. I’m old enough that I remember when the country stopped listening to L.B.J. on Vietnam. That’s deadly. When a President gets that, he can go out and rend his garments, and no one will pay any attention.”

Which may be why so many House members are starting to have at their own garments in the meantime: They want to give at least symbolic atonement before something other than an empty theater.