Stricken with anxiety as the polls continue to indicate a Democratic resurgence, certain Republicans have started spouting justifications and explanations for their party’s possible eviction from office. No matter what may happen on Election Day, they say, the results must not be taken at face value—because liberal Democrats can only prevail by pretending to be right-wing Republicans.
Among the first to test out this excuse in recent days was Laura Ingraham, the hard-line radio and TV talker who insisted that the defeat of Republican candidates would somehow represent a triumph of her ideology. What she told CNN’s Larry King on Oct. 30 is worth examining, if only because we will surely hear more of the same in the days to come from other sources—and because those same claims are already surfacing in the political coverage of The New York Times.
In other words, the reactionary spin is once more set up to turn into the conventional wisdom.
To prove her point, Ms. Ingraham cited three highly competitive Senate races: Pennsylvania, where Democratic nominee Bob Casey Jr. is expected to defeat Republican incumbent Rick Santorum; Tennessee, where Democratic Representative Harold Ford Jr. was in a dead heat with Republican Bob Corker, the former Mayor of Chattanooga, until the Republicans aired a racially polarizing TV commercial; and Virginia, where the underfunded Democratic challenger, James Webb, is bidding to upset Republican incumbent George Allen.
According to Ms. Ingraham, “Whether it’s [Bob] Casey in Pennsylvania or Harold Ford Jr. in Tennessee, or even James Webb in Virginia, all these Democrats are running fairly conservative campaigns.” That’s because Mr. Ford says he loves Jesus, and Mr. Casey says he opposes abortion, and Mr. Webb worked for President Reagan two decades ago.
Such simplistic notions are perfect for cable TV, but why would the Times political desk propagate them? In a feature blazoned across the front page that same day, the newspaper of record offered a strikingly similar analysis, which was based chiefly on a few relatively conservative Democrats running for Congress in what the headline described as “Key House Races.” Heath Shuler, a former football player, is the Democratic challenger in a North Carolina district where he surprised nobody by confiding that he likes hunting and dislikes abortion. Brad Ellsworth, the Democratic nominee in an Indiana district represented by a Republican, likewise disdains abortion and boasts about his “A” rating from the National Rifle Association. And Democratic candidate Mike Weaver presents himself the same way in rural Kentucky, of all places.
Supposedly, these candidates prove that the Democratic Party has repented its liberalism and recognized conservatism as the only route to restored influence. The appeal of this argument to conservatives is obvious, for it allows them to claim a specious victory even when their party loses.
It has only one defect, which is that it evaporates instantly upon closer inspection.
In Pennsylvania, Mr. Casey’s conservatism on abortion is offset by his strong liberalism on economic issues, and by the evident public revulsion against his far more conservative opponent. In Virginia, Mr. Webb’s switch to the Democratic Party has been emphasized by his social and economic populism, and by his courageous refusal to endorse a state ballot initiative banning gay marriage. He’s a libertarian progressive, not a conservative. As for Tennessee, Kentucky, North Carolina and Indiana, what is new about conservative Democrats seeking office in those deep-red states?
Choosing other states as bellwethers provides even more evidence of conservative decline and progressive revival. In Montana, long a bastion of political conservatism in the West, veteran Republican Senator Conrad Burns may well lose his seat to an organic farmer named Jon Tester. Nobody should be misled by Mr. Tester’s flattop hairstyle: He’s a tough progressive who defeated a more centrist, establishment Democrat in the primary. In Missouri, another solid red state, Democrat Claire McCaskill is running a progressive campaign emphasizing her commitment to stem-cell research. In Ohio, where Republicans won the last two Presidential elections, the outspoken progressive Democrat, Representative Sherrod Brown, is considered likely to oust the incumbent Republican Senator, Mike DeWine. In Kansas, Republican officeholders are deserting their party to run as Democrats because they’re appalled by the right-wing radicalism dominating the G.O.P.
Who wins and who loses, where and why, may tell us whether voters are moving leftward and away from the rightist hegemony of the past six years. What a Democratic midterm victory in either house will surely mean, however, is that Americans are appalled by the manifest failures of President Bush and his one-party conservative government, both at home and abroad.
Only a torrent of popular anger can overcome the inherent advantages of incumbency, money, organization and gerrymandering. But if such a tide engulfs the Republicans, their rickety ideology will sink with them.