People spent yesterday's off-season election day -- really off-season in California's case -- going to the polls. As day turned to night and election results came in, things began looking bleak for the Right. It was a bad night for Republicans.
Two high profile, hotly contested, closely watched Governor's races went to Democrats. In California, Republican super-star Arnold Schwarzenegger saw his political capital and mandate crumble into nothingness as all four of his "reform" initiatives were defeated at the polls under blistering union and Democratic attacks.
What happened? How could a party widely seen by JUsers as being in total disarray, on the way out, and characterized as "demoncraps" have pulled off such high-profile defeats? Is this really the portentous tide turning Democrats see it as, or no big deal as many Republicans would have you believe?
Personally, I think it is a little of both.
First, the Democrats aren't as dead as Republicans would like to hope. People do like a counterbalance, and voters do like to go back and forth. While the time is ripe for a new third party to step up and take the Democrat's place, that isn't happening any time soon. Voters have nowhere else to turn for the balance they crave. Voters have short memories and even shorter attention spans. It's easy for them to forget the Democratic Follies of years past, when Republicans have just taken their Follies on the road and the curtain is going up.
Also, despite Republican assertions to the contrary, thanks to heavy media rotation and spotlighting the public is paying attention to their scandals and doesn't like what it is seeing. In a recent poll nearly 80% of respondents said that "Scooter" Libby's indictment was important to the country. In a similar poll 7 years earlier, only 65 percent said President Clinton's lies under oath, which led to impeachment, were important. 6 in 10 don't believe the Libby case is getting too much coverage.
Frankly, that surprises me. As far as I could tell few people not into politics cared about Libby, Miers, DeLay or any other political wrangling currently going on.
Second, the Republicans are over confident and full of themselves. As I wrote previously, Bush's popularity shows no signs of recovering soon. To many people, Bush and his cronies are the face of the Republican party. Republicans need to take the high-profile losses and growing voter discontent to heart and make some changes.
However, as bad as last night looks for Republican chances in '06 and '08 there are a couple of things to remember. Republicans didn't actually lose any states. The governorships of Virginia and New Jersey were already in Democratic hands. Despite the touting of Virginia being a "red state that went blue" they had already done so with their governorship four years ago when Bush's popularity was much higher.
If anybody thinks California wasn't already pervasively Democratic, they don't know how to read elections results. Schwarzenegger's slide began when he ceased his bi-partisan efforts and shifted solidly GOP in a solidly blue state. His problems probably really began even before that when he front loaded his advisors with hacks from previous Republican governor Pete Wilson's staff. They started handing him bad advice from the get go which simply took a while to catch up to him. I see Schwarzenegger's stunning losses as much as a repudiation of Pete Wilson politics as of the current Governor.
So, as damning as last night's losses look they aren't necessarily as major as they seem. It should be noted that there were also Republican victories. Republican Mayor Michael Bloomberg won re-election in heavily Democratic New York City. And in Texas, voters approved a ban on gay marriage. As with the Democratic victories, no real ground was won or lost by either side there.
After last nights victories, Democratic Party Chairman Howard Dean said, "I believe national Republican politics really had an effect in Virginia and California." He cited "the abuse of power" and "the culture of corruption" as turning voters off. "They want the nation to go in a different way."
At this point it's futile arguing about Dean's personality or whether or not there really is a culture of corruption and abuse of power. That's what the public is buying into. That's why, despite the elections being a virtual stalemate and affirmation of the status quo -- in itself a repudiation of both Republican dominance and Democratic incompetence -- Republicans do need to make changes.
Perception is reality and it's swaying anti-Republican. Real or not, the perception has to be addressed. This administration -- both in the White House and leading the Republican Party -- must give up their "right make might" delusions and start addressing the perceptions. They need to make some decisive, highly visible moves to stem the tide. They need to quash the negative perceptions, find a way to build positive perceptions, and do whatever it takes to get the scandals off the public radar as quickly as possible.
Right now, the scandals look to drag on and on in the public forum. That can only play into Democratic hands. The Republican mania for "staying the course" and "fighting the charges" can only harm the entire party.
Till Alito is confirmed next year, the Miers fiasco sticks around. Trials for Libby and DeLay mean continuing bad news that tarnishes the entire party. The continuance of Fitzgerald's investigations means people will keep questioning Rove, Cheney, and the West Wing's integrity. At this point, I think just about anything that can get these off the public agenda and out from before voters' eyes, no matter how politically disastrous short-term, will work for the longer-term good. Fire people, pardon people, it doesn't matter. Take action, make it a fait accompli, and get the spotlight off these events and onto other, more positive matters.
If the increasingly negative tide of public perception isn't turned, next year's election won't remain so status quo. That's bad news for the GOP.
It's not too late for the Republicans to turn things around, even for next year. The fate of the '06 and '08 elections are still in Republican hands. What happens will depend on what they decide to do or don't do. If they stay the course with politics as usual, expect the Democrats to surge back. If they takes steps to address voter concerns and right their listing ship, expect ongoing Republican dominance.