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Rothenberg: From Coast to Coast, Republicans Pushing the Electoral Envelope

While the electorate continues to be closely divided in partisan terms, you wouldn’t know it by looking around the country. Democrats from California to Texas to the nation’s capital have to feel like punching bags these days, as Republicans ram through their legislative and political agendas. [IMGCAP(1)]

On Capitol Hill, the GOP has used its narrow 51-49 Senate majority and 229-206 House advantage to push through another round of tax cuts and is on the verge of enacting a prescription drug benefit for seniors.

Some Republican staffers are now talking about their party taking on Social Security reform between now and the 2004 election, and everyone who watches Washington seems to believe that the White House will push for another round of tax cuts next year.

Even with these successes, Republicans are working to strengthen their hand. GOP Senators, frustrated by their inability to get votes on Bush judicial nominees Miguel Estrada and Priscilla Owen, now want to take the rather drastic step of changing the rules of the game, seeking to eliminate the super-majority currently needed to confirm nominees.

In Texas, Republicans continue to press for the redrawing of the state’s Congressional districts, hoping to add five or six Republicans to the state’s U.S. House delegation. Yes, new lines were drawn after the 2000 census, but the Republicans now control the entire process and want to take the opportunity to rework a map created by a judge.

Some Republicans continue to float the idea that Lt. Gov. David Dewhurst (R) will ignore precedent and establish a procedure at the beginning of the special session requiring the Republicans to have only a majority to bring up and pass a new redistricting bill. Even if that doesn’t happen, Lone Star Republicans are doing what they can to woo a couple of Democratic state senators to support consideration of the bill.

In California, some Republicans are leading a fight to recall Gov. Gray Davis, who was re-elected in 2002 in spite of voters’ doubts about his leadership and performance. Davis’ numbers have fallen even further recently, and GOP Rep. Darrell Issa’s financial investment in the recall effort has seriously endangered the governor’s future.

Many Republican strategists — and an overwhelming majority of those in Washington, I’m willing to bet — think the recall is a bad idea. Most would prefer having Davis trapped in his job, trying to deal with a large budget deficit and an angry public. For Republicans who are more concerned about the 2004 federal elections than who is sitting in the governorship a year from now, Davis is a useful prop.

And in the 2004 battle for the House and Senate, which is now starting to take shape, Democratic strategists privately acknowledge that they have little chance to make gains. Indeed, significant losses are possible for the party on the Senate side.

I’m not at all suggesting that all of the elements of the Republican offensive are coordinated, though Democrats and some journalists no doubt would prefer to imagine House Majority Leader Tom DeLay (Texas) or Bush strategist Karl Rove sitting in a back room plotting each and every Republican step.

But all of these developments, when taken together, reflect a Republican Party that is brimming with confidence and boldness, and pushing its interests (or what some think are its interests).

Voters like parties that know what they believe and where they want to take the country. They like a party that seems of one voice and in control. But they don’t like a party that seems arrogant and out of touch.

Because of their situation — they are not only in the minority in both chambers of Congress, but they have a presidential nominating race underway — the Democrats are unable to convey the same sense of leadership and direction as the GOP. That will change next year, when the party picks a messenger. But for now, the Democrats are on their heels.

Some Democrats around the nation are trying to fight back. In New Mexico and Oklahoma, they have threatened to begin another round redistricting if Texas Republicans succeed in re-drawing the state’s districts. And earlier this year, Lone Star State Democrats tried to make an issue of new GOP redistricting efforts by leaving the state to ensure the Republicans didn’t have the quorum they needed to proceed.

In Washington, Capitol Hill Democrats are bashing their GOP colleagues, both for their agenda and for trying to change the rules of the game. But even Democratic insiders who complain about the Republicans’ “purely political agenda” seem to doubt that the GOP will pay a price for their aggressiveness.

“They are being most aggressive in process matters,” one Democratic strategist told me recently, adding, “and the public is not engaged in process.”

So Democrats wait for the situation in Iraq to deteriorate or for a double-dip recession. And they wait.

Perhaps the most important question is whether the GOP’s success and confidence will lead them over a cliff by making them believe they can push their agenda too far, too fast and too brazenly. For while the Democrats currently aren’t proving to be a particularly effective adversary, a more dangerous opponent, hubris, could be waiting just around the corner.

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