The U.S. military has a term of art for what the rest of us call a reality check — “situation awareness.” It’s an analysis of a current environment examining both the challenges and opportunities facing a unit and its opponents. As the 2004 election year finally (and mercifully) ends, here’s a brief situation awareness analysis of where the two parties will stand when they return in January and the battle resumes once again. [IMGCAP(1)]
President Bush and the Republican Congress will get back to work with the strong wind of a popular majority at their back. Mandate may be too strong a word, but the American public clearly gave Republicans a solid vote of confidence for their past leadership, achievements and their proposals for the future. That can’t be denied, although some are certainly trying to do so.
Bush was re-elected with the first majority coalition since his father’s victory in 1988, making major gains among several key groups of swing voters that inhabit the “Big Middle.” The size and depth of his win have given him the political clout to avoid the “lame duck” moniker and move his aggressive reform agenda forward.
The Republicans’ gains in the Senate were equally impressive, beyond even the most optimistic Republican expectations. While Republicans’ progress in the chamber still can be threatened by filibuster, the Democratic parliamentary advantage clearly has been weakened. Republican numbers went up in the House too, solidifying the party’s majority status.
Republicans will start the new legislative session in their best political position in half a century. That reality has led some Democrats and pundits to gleefully predict that Republicans, as they did after the 1994 elections, will “overreach” and try to do too much too fast. What they fail to remember (beyond all that was accomplished in the 104th Congress), is the reason Congressional Republicans tried to do so much. After 40 years in the political wilderness, they had a lot of ideas but little experience in majority leadership.
In fact, no House Republican in the 104th Congress had served when Republicans last controlled the House. That was then. With a decade of experience under their belts, Republican leadership today is seasoned and experienced. Take just one example. In 1994, Speaker Newt Gingrich appointed Rep. Pete Hoekstra (R-Mich.) to oversee planning for the new majority, a tough assignment for a young Member.
Last week, Hoekstra, as head of the House Intelligence Committee, helped pass the most important intelligence reform legislation since the CIA was created, even though he’d been on the job only a few months. The difference was 10 years of leadership experience.
Hoekstra is part of a leadership team that is likely to focus, in a realistic way, on setting achievable objectives and getting results. Intelligence reform is a good example of their strategic approach. Social Security reform, an energy policy, tax reform and health care reform are big-ticket items in both political capital and price tags, but certainly within reach.
The Democrats, on the other hand, are still desperately seeking a strategy, if the conflicting statements over the past couple of weeks from House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (Calif.) and Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid (Nev.) are any indication. We know that obstructionism didn’t work for them over the past four years, but Democrats’ leaders face a tough problem.
Their base, far more liberal and angry than most Americans, actually likes the idea of obstructionism and rejects bipartisan cooperation as nothing more than “Republican lite.” That approach, they argue, was tried by both the Gore and Kerry campaigns.
The sharp controversy and lack of consensus on a new chairman for the Democratic National Committee is prima facie evidence that this is a political party in search of not only a national political strategy and a legislative strategy, but also an identity that resonates with the American public. Yet, in a caustic and accusatory e-mail last week, the head of MoveOn.org made the divisions within the party clear: “Now, it’s our party: we bought it, we own it, and we’re going to take it back.” Most Republicans would be happy to give it to them gift wrapped.
While Democratic leaders fiddle and fight, Republicans are free to not only focus on legislative results but also on expanding their majority coalition. Achieving full parity with the Hispanic vote is not an unreasonable goal for the 2006 elections. Given the demographic realities of the next decade, winning 50 percent of the Hispanic vote would represent a significant achievement for Republicans and a major setback for a floundering Democratic Party.
In 2008, Republicans should aim even higher, striving for 55 percent of the national vote (up from the 51 percent it won in 2004). Bringing more Hispanics into the party will help them get there.
Finally, all of the strategic maneuverings taking place on both sides will now happen in what amounts to a significantly altered political state, thanks to the “new media.” Voters’ decision to switch, by the tens of millions in the past few years, from network television to cable for their political news represents a huge structural shift with immense political implications.
Add the impact of the Internet to the force of cable and talk radio, and it’s clear that the traditional news paradigm is dying. The days of network anchors serving as national “gatekeepers” of political news are over. Issues like CBS News’ documents story and the Swift Boat Veterans impact prove the point.
The explosion of news sources from cable television to political Web sites and bloggers to individual e-mail made the 2004 political campaign the most accessible in history and changed the political environment. That interactivity, in turn, helped push voter turnout to the highest we’ve seen in many years.
The “new media effect” isn’t going to go away in the off year. Anyone who doubts its power to continue to stir up controversy outside the fever pitch of an election environment need look no further than the furor surrounding Sen. Arlen Specter (R-Pa.) last month or Secretary Donald Rumsfeld last week.
The bottom line is this: 2005 is shaping up as a year of big battles fought in a new political and media environment that clearly favors Republicans.
David Winston is president of The Winston Group, a Republican polling firm.