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Jewish World Review April 10, 2006 / 12 Nissan 5766

John H. Fund

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Flirting With Disaster: Will 2006 be for Republicans what 1994 was for Democrats? | Democrats must be pinching themselves about their good fortune. Last week, the Republican Congress saw deals on budget reform, immigration reform and extending the Bush tax cuts all collapse within 24 hours.

House and Senate members went home empty-handed to face an increasingly surly electorate, nearly 70% of which now thinks the country is heading in the wrong direction. Both parties are viewed negatively by voters, but it's Republicans who are in charge and stand to lose the most in November elections. Some GOP strategists are making comparisons to how the Democrats appeared to come unglued just prior to their losing Congress in 1994.

Take the budget. The conservative base is furious over the complete failure of both President Bush and the GOP Congress to exercise spending restraint in areas that have nothing to do with defense of homeland security. On Friday Mr. Bush took the unusual step of challenging his party's congressional leaders. "If necessary, I will enforce spending restraint through the exercise of the veto," he told reporters. Sounds good, but in over five years Mr. Bush has never vetoed a bill. Few take his threats finally to do so now all that seriously.

Certainly Republican Arlen Specter doesn't. A famous advocate of pork-barrel spending, Sen. Specter is pushing a plan to spend $7 billion above and beyond Mr. Bush's spending requests for health and education. "The Republican Party is now principally moderate, if not liberal" on spending, Mr. Specter told reporters after a majority of GOP senators voted for his proposals last month.

Republicans should have learned from the reaction of their core voters to last fall's pork-stuffed transportation bill and the bloated Hurricane Katrina relief measure that excess spending was driving their base crazy. Earmarks — home-state projects slipped into budget bills without adequate review or transparency — became a dirty political word, led by the infamous $220 million Bridge to Nowhere in Alaska.

Even President Bush recognized the dangers of untrammeled earmarks. In January he used his State of the Union Address to warn Congress that "the federal budget has too many special-interest projects" and to issue a call for earmark reform. Conservative House members, led by Mike Pence of Indiana, Jeff Flake of Arizona and Jeb Hensarling of Texas, pressed the leadership to include reform in the budget resolution that was scheduled for a vote last week.

After tough negotiations, a deal was finally struck between GOP leaders and the reformers. First, members would have to have their names attached to individual earmarks. Second, projects that had not been included in either House or Senate bills but were created out of conference reports negotiated between the two parties would be subject to a debate and vote on the House floor. Simple transparency and accountability, you would think.

But not to House Appropriations Committee chairman Jerry Lewis. "The appropriators deep-sixed it," Rep. Paul Ryan of Wisconsin told National Journal. "They're taking their toys and going home." Last Thursday at 6:20 p.m., Mr. Lewis's staff sent out an e-mail declaring that the reforms were unacceptable and trod on the prerogatives of the powerful committee, which is known as "Congress' favor factory."

In his email, Dave Gibbons, an Appropriations Committee staffer, told fellow committee staffers that Mr. Lewis "will NOT SUPPORT passage of the RULE and/or the BUDGET RESOLUTION tomorrow. He also requested that you inform your members of his position in this regard and asks that they likewise support the Committee." Mr. Lewis followed up with his own statement saying it was "unfortunate that the whims of a few would prevent the overwhelming majority of our members" from passing a budget.

"Lewis's move is political suicide for the party," one top GOP official told me. "He is putting his self-interest ahead of the GOP caucus, the party and the country. If the president and Speaker [Dennis] Hastert don't shut him down, then any pretense we are a reform party goes out the window."

It is becoming increasingly clear that the GOP majority is losing its team spirit, and many in Congress are going their own way as they eye a tough re-election climate. Back in 1994, that kind of behavior over a crime bill that failed to garner enough Democratic votes to pass on the floor was an early indicator that Democrats were in serious political trouble. They wound up losing control of both houses of Congress that year.

No one quite expects a tsunami of those proportions this year. Incumbent-protection devices and gerrymandered districts are likely to minimize GOP losses. But Republican strategists are now openly talking about the parallels between 1994 and 2006. "Democrats had the health-care debacle; we have our base demoralized on spending," says a top GOP strategist who was intimately involved in promoting the Contract with America. "Democrats had corruption issues. Both parties now have them, but it's the GOP that's getting the headlines. And finally, hatred of Bush on the left is at least as intense as hatred of Clinton was on the right in 1994." In both years, the economy was in decent shape, but that didn't prevent many disillusioned voters of the party in power from staying home. "My firm conviction is that Republicans are going to show up at a lower rate" this November, Larry Sabato, a political scientist at the University of Virginia, told Investor's Business Daily.

We'll know soon enough if GOP voter turnout is likely to be a huge problem in November. GOP volunteers in California's San Diego County report that absentee ballots from the party faithful are being turned in at disturbingly low rates for a special House election that will take place tomorrow. The race will fill the seat of the disgraced Randy "Duke" Cunningham, the GOP member of the Appropriations Committee who took more than $2.1 million in bribes to steer pork-barrel projects to favored defense contractors.

Under the rules of the contest, any candidate in the crowded field who gets more than 50% will win the seat outright. If no candidate breaks the 50% threshold, the top Democrat and top Republican will square off in a June runoff. Democrats clearly believe they have a chance to win the race in a surprise knockout blow tomorrow.

Francine Busby, the only major Democrat in the race, is being aided by a massive Democratic get-out-the-vote effort. Ms. Busby, who ran as a conventional liberal against Mr. Cunningham in 2004, has reinvented herself for the special election as a soothing moderate without party ties. "This isn't about Democrats or Republicans," she says. "It's about changing the way Washington works." Her new ads feature her endorsing John McCain-style ethics reform ("no secret pork-barrel spending") and a crackdown on illegal immigration.

Republicans claim to be confident that Ms. Busby won't reach the 50% barrier and eventually will lose a runoff to the top GOP vote-getter. But they said the same thing just before Democrat almost won a special House election for what should have been a safe seat in Ohio. Should Ms. Busby win in a district where only 30% of registered voters are Democrats, it "would set off political shock waves," says GOP pollster Bill McInturff.

Indeed, even a Busby showing in the 45% range could touch off panicked responses from Republicans — similar to those from Democrats when they lost a series of key special elections in the spring on 1994. "Panicked politicians are not a pretty sight," says GOP pollster Whit Ayres. "They usually run in the wrong direction "

So far that's exactly the direction that Republican have chosen to run in the last year as their national numbers and President Bush's approval ratings have softened. From their scramble to ram through a national legislative solution to Terri Schiavo's plight, to their overreaction to Hurricane Katrina, to their failure to recognize the public's disgust with pork-barrel projects, to the Dubai Ports deal, Republicans have appeared to the world to be as unprincipled and rudderless as the politicians they campaigned against back in 1994. Unless they change course dramatically in the seven months between now and Election Day, they may well find themselves facing the same fate as the Democratic political dinosaurs of that year that they replaced.

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JWR contributor John H. Fund is author, most recently, of "Stealing Elections: How Voter Fraud Threatens Our Democracy". (Click HERE to purchase. Sales help fund JWR.)

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©2001, John H. Fund