WHEN Republicans explain their strategy for the upcoming election, the two phrases they always use are "referendum election" and "choice election" -- and the latter is how they want to frame this year's vote.
A referendum election is one in which voters make their decision on the basis of whether the party in power deserves to stay there. From the Republicans' point of view, that's very bad because almost everybody believes they have failed miserably.
A choice election, on the other hand, is one in which voters weigh the two parties against each other. That kind of election gives the Republicans a fighting chance. The subtext of a choice election is: We may have screwed everything up, but the other party is worse. That's how President Bush won reelection.
In principle, the Republicans are right about this. Democracy is a process of compromises and imperfect choices. Asking the voters to compare the two sides is the right thing to do. The trouble is, that isn't really what the Republicans want to do at all.
How do I know this? Because the Democrats running for the House of Representatives actually have an agenda. Republicans aren't saying why the Democratic agenda is wrong, or why their own is better. They're just ignoring it.
If you're like most people, you probably have no idea what that agenda is. Let me list it:
* Put new rules in place to break the link between lobbyists and legislation.
* Enact all the recommendations made by the 9/11 commission.
* Raise the federal minimum wage to $7.25 an hour.
* Cut the interest rate on federally supported student loans in half.
* Allow the government to negotiate directly with pharmaceutical companies for lower drug prices for Medicare patients.
* Broaden the types of stem cell research allowed with federal funds.
* Impose pay-as-you-go budget rules, requiring that new entitlement spending or tax cuts be offset with entitlement spending cuts or tax hikes.
Republicans disagree with all these items. Indeed, the reason these items are on the Democratic agenda is that Republicans in Congress have blocked them from coming up for a vote. So where's the Republican rebuttal?
Now, I'm not saying that the GOP needs to hold some Oxford-style intellectual debate. But shouldn't the party offer \o7some \f7rebuttal?
You know, "Raising the minimum wage would kill millions of jobs," or, "Pay-as-you-go budget rules will require tax hikes or cuts in your Medicare benefits," or, "Why should we waste billions of dollars preventing terrorist attacks that haven't even happened yet?" These are just some off-the-cuff suggestions. I'm sure Republican political consultants could do better.
My point is, we're not even getting a debate about a caricature of the Democratic position, let alone the actual one. Instead, we're getting things like this: GOP Rep. John Hostettler of Indiana is running an ad warning that if Democrats take power and California Democrat Nancy Pelosi becomes House speaker, she "will then put in motion her radical plan to advance the homosexual agenda, led by Barney Frank, reprimanded by the House after paying for sex with a man who ran a gay brothel out of Congressman Frank's home."
What is the homosexual agenda? The ad does not say. (Apparently it involves raising the minimum wage and cutting the interest rate on government-backed student loans. I can just see it if the Democrats win -- all those gay Wal-Mart employees, cackling with glee as they use their fat $7.25-an-hour salaries to pay off their suddenly puny college debts.)
Which is my point. Republicans don't want an actual choice election, they want to run against a mythological Democratic Party so frightening that the voters overlook all the GOP's failures.
Not all the Republican campaigns are as vicious and mindless as Hostettler's. But nearly all of those campaigns are trying to run against a boogeyman. They raise the specter of a radical Democratic agenda, but they refuse to say what they don't like about that agenda. And there's a good reason for that: It's popular.