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It's a long road to November

Opinion

The GOP is optimistic about the midterm election, and even the 2012 presidential race, but political conditions are unpredictable and subject to change.

March 03, 2010|By Matthew Continetti

As you read this, conservatives, "tea partyers" and Republicans are wildly confident and enthusiastic. They feel the wind at their backs. At the recent Conservative Political Action Conference, the guest speakers all foretold major Republican gains, with Dick Cheney confidently asserting that "Barack Obama is going to be a one-term president" and Newt Gingrich telling attendees the GOP would capture Congress in November.

It's understandable that politicians would want to rally the base with bold predictions of future success. But it is dangerous for Republicans to assume that current political conditions will prevail indefinitely. The midterm elections are months away, and forecasts about the 2012 presidential election are about as useful as reading pig entrails. The wheel may have turned against President Obama in 2009. But that does not mean it won't turn again.

Consider our most recent elections. Almost none of them turned out as predicted. Unforeseen events always intervened. At the beginning of 1998, conservatives and Republicans assumed that President Clinton's scandals would result in major GOP gains. Not so. The Democrats gained five House seats. In 2000, George W. Bush's solid lead evaporated the weekend before the presidential election when he admitted to his 1976 DUI charge. He barely eked out a win.

In 2002, the chattering class believed Enron would hurt the GOP. But the election ended up turning on issues of national security, and Republicans gained in the House and Senate. By the same token, Sen. John Kerry credits his 2004 presidential defeat to a late-October message from Osama bin Laden.

In September 2006, President Bush tried to prevent Democrats from capturing Congress by making terrorist interrogation and detention a campaign issue. Then came news of Rep. Mark Foley's Internet chats with House pages. Voters saw corruption as the central issue -- and the Republican revolution came to an end. Recall too that the 2008 election was all about Iraq. Until it was all about experience. Right up to the moment when it became all about Lehman Bros. and the financial crisis.

In other words, there is no way of knowing which issue will prove most important to voters in November. So Republicans should ignore the boosterism. Dismiss the presumption. Focus instead on the issues that could influence the course of politics for the rest of 2010 -- and complicate things for the GOP. Here are two:

Healthcare

Republicans have benefited enormously from public opposition to the Democratic healthcare proposal. The liberal Democratic agenda gave rise to the tea party movement, which has infused the GOP with grass-roots energy and a renewed enthusiasm for small government. Republicans point with glee to how Scott Brown turned the special election to replace the late Sen. Edward M. Kennedy into a referendum on the healthcare bill -- and Republicans won in Massachusetts for the first time since 1972. They continue to believe that healthcare will be a major issue in November.

But what if it isn't? What if the Democrats pass healthcare reform, putting the issue to rest? Or, perhaps more likely, what if it is defeated, which would also end the debate? In either case, the GOP's best issue would be off the table. Yes, the public probably will be furious if the Democrats pass a healthcare bill despite widespread disapproval. But it is hard to sustain such anger for half a year. Politics moves on. The people move on.

Obama's job approval

When you look at midterm results over the years, you find that presidential job approval matters more than the unemployment rate. Unemployment was low in both 1994 and 2006, but Congress changed hands because at those times Clinton and Bush were unpopular. At the moment, Obama's job approval is about 48%. That's not bad, and as long as Obama retains the assent of a supermajority of Democrats, his approval rating won't drop much lower.

Granted, Obama's job approval wasn't low in Virginia, New Jersey or Massachusetts, and Republicans won anyway. And among the demographic that is most likely to turn out this fall -- older, whiter and more conservative -- Obama's numbers are in the dustbin.

But a major unexpected event that shifts opinion decisively in Obama's favor -- and recasts the turnout picture in November -- is not out of the question. Why? Because in a world in which Scott Brown can replace Ted Kennedy, nothing is out of the question.

Matthew Continetti is associate editor of the Weekly Standard and the author of "The Persecution of Sarah Palin."

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