As the fall elections approach, the Republicans have a date with destiny.
Only twice in modern American history—during the reigns of Republican Teddy Roosevelt and his Democratic cousin, Franklin—has a president’s party avoided losing seats in the House or Senate in the off-year election of his first term. Since 1900, the average off-year loss for the incumbent party has been 30 seats in the House and 4 in the Senate.
As a wartime president, the stakes are even higher for George W. Bush. Consider these results from past U.S. elections held during times of international strife: Democrats dropped 19 House seats in 1916, 45 House seats in 1942, and 47 House seats in 1966; Republicans, with Richard Nixon in the White House and Vietnam on the nightly news, lost 12 House seats in 1970.
But Bush may be able to defy history for three reasons:
• Redistricting works to his advantage, as Republicans will pick up more seats across the GOP-friendly Sun Belt. That alone may keep the House of Representatives under GOP control.
• Of the 20 Senate seats Republicans must defend this year, 17 are in states Bush carried and 2 in states he narrowly lost (Oregon and New Mexico). Democrats are defending 14 Senate seats—half are in states Bush carried.
• Bush’s opponents lack a banner to carry into battle. So far this year Democrats have road-tested the economy, Enron, Social Security, prescription drugs—even the president’s knowledge of the circumstances leading up to September 11—as potential election themes. All flopped, leaving the Democrats without a prevailing argument—no “Contract with America”—for sweeping Republicans out of office.
That’s not to say that Republicans are without a challenge in this election. Ironically, the GOP’s toughest opponent isn’t a politician named Daschle or Gephardt. It’s the GOP itself. The party has to find a way to build beyond its safe base of “red states” into Democratic “blue states.” At the same time, the GOP must figure how best to adapt its traditional themes of anticommunism, individual responsibility, and healthy suspicion of government—Ronald Reagan’s core issues—to a new political era in which the enemy isn’t a rival superpower but Third World terrorists; wars are hot, not cold; and leaders are expected to be hawkish abroad yet compassionate at home.
Where best to see this challenge on display? Try the California governor’s race, where conservative businessman William E. Simon Jr. seeks to become the first challenger since Mr. Reagan, back in 1966, to oust an incumbent California governor—and the first challenger in 60 years to knock off a first-term California governor.
The Power of Empowerment
What makes this contest intriguing is that Simon belongs to a faction of the GOP often described as “empowerment” conservatives. These are Republicans who espouse lower taxes and deregulation as economic stimuli, school choice as a competitive boost to public education, and urban “enterprise zones” to bring jobs and hope to inner cities. Abraham Lincoln is their inspiration, as a Republican who reached out to minorities; the National Review, their Bible. Jack Kemp, Bill Bennett, and William F. Buckley Jr. are godfathers; Steve Forbes (presidential candidate in 1996 and 2000) and Bret Schundler (candidate in 2001 New Jersey governor’s race), their best-known foot soldiers.
The empowerment agenda represents intellectual thought and an intelligent means of appealing to non-Republican voters, especially African Americans facing an inner-city lifestyle of poor schools and weak job prospects and Hispanic Americans vying to climb the economic ladder. Yet, in political terms, empowerment conservatism is to the GOP what the Metroliner is to Amtrak; for the most part, it’s limited to the New York–Washington corridor. It is ironic that such a cerebral movement would arrive in California, of all places, where politics can be as shallow and cosmetic as the state’s more famed citizenry.
As November nears, it remains to be seen whether Simon can stylize the “empowerment” message to West Coast voters. So how does he go about doing this?
First, he begins by avoiding the mistakes committed by Schundler in his gubernatorial bid in New Jersey. A candidate with a terrific résumé (Wall Street bond trader and Jersey City mayor who attracted jobs across the Hudson from Manhattan), Schundler was, at times, too intellectually clever for his own political good. For example, in trying to neutralize the abortion issue, Schundler cleverly noted that if his opponent believed “I am an extremist and unfit for office because of my pro-life position, then he believes that any Catholic who adheres to the teachings of the Church is also an extremist and unfit for office.” But, unfortunately for Schundler, he then went a step too far, saying that “only in places like the Ayatollah’s Iran are there religious tests where adhering to a certain belief can disqualify you from serving in government.” What began as a smart defense ended up as a lot of bad press about his inference that his opponent was a religious zealot. Schundler also wasted precious time in a gubernatorial debate discussing the merits of cowpox vaccine in case of a terrorist attack. Again, it was forward thinking but not exactly an idea that resonates with voters focused on education and the economy.
Simon can ill afford similar miscues in his run. It’s already an uphill climb; in California, registered Democrats outnumber registered Republicans by 10 percent, or roughly 1.7 million voters (nearly three times the population of San Francisco). And, like Schundler, Simon has to figure a way to advance in a Democratic “blue state” where President Bush could not: Schundler received 42 percent of the New Jersey vote in November 2001, the same percentage as the president a year earlier. In November 2000, Bush lost California by some 1.3 million votes.
A sensible strategy for Simon would be to follow the best instincts of the empowerment movement—talk about economic opportunity and reach beyond traditional Republican voting blocs—while adapting to California’s challenging terrain for conservatives, one in which Republicans have lost every presidential and U.S. Senate race since 1988. It will require the kind of discipline one doesn’t always find in academic circles—sticking to the issues, as prioritized by voters. Empowerment conservatives love ideas—witness Jack Kemp’s embrace of the gold standard and Steve Forbes’s love affair with the flat tax. But in a bare-knuckled brawl like California’s governor’s race, ideas are all about supply and demand—a candidate must talk about the issues the voters supply.
There’s one other trick for Simon, which is to campaign like a Republican without coming across in a Democratic-leaning state as, well, too Republican. In this respect, Simon might have a valuable resource in President Bush. Although the president’s popularity soared in early 2002 thanks to his handling of the war on terrorism, rank-and-file conservatives took umbrage with some of the White House’s actions on the domestic front. These included imposing import tariffs on foreign steel, signing a new campaign finance reform law, pushing for amnesty for illegal immigrants, and asking for more money for foreign aid. It’s reminiscent of the rift between conservatives and the Nixon White House in the early 1970s over matters such as wage-and-price freezes and the presidential visit to China.
Here are two suggestions for Simon to get the empowerment cause moving in California. First, he should consider doing something that defies media stereotyping. In California, the popular press lump conservative Republicans into one category: anti-immigrant (for supporting border control), hostile to women (for being pro-life), and too disciplinarian on crime and spending. Simon needs to break the mold, perhaps with his own “Nixon goes to China” move, such as siding with Bush on amnesty for illegal immigrants. Some conservatives will hate it, but it will cast Simon as unorthodox in the media’s eyes, which is a start to reversing the tide. Besides, Simon has the luxury of prefacing his remarks with the words: “I support the president’s view. . . .” And, at times, Simon may find it necessary to distance himself from the White House, as he did earlier this summer in disagreeing with the Bush administration on California offshore oil drilling.
Second, if Simon is going to pin his hopes in part on the president’s popularity, he might as well start talking like him. That’s what is happening in Minnesota, where former St. Paul mayor Norm Coleman hopes to defeat Democratic senator Paul Wellstone. In one of his early television ads, Coleman described his approach to public office as “putting differences aside, people working together. In the U.S. Senate I will fight against divisive partisanship and bring folks together.” Yes, it’s a variation on Bush’s “uniter, not a divider” mantra from the 2000 campaign, but the Coleman campaign has decided it’s the most effective way to show that their man is not a candidate of the rich and privileged.
Granted, that may not come across as terribly Reaganesque or Lincoln-esque. But it might be what it takes in this election, especially in Democratic territory, for a good Republican to get into office.