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Democrats Spring Forward, While the GOP Falls Back

Less than six months after President Bush’s solid re-election victory, Republicans find themselves in an increasingly difficult spot. [IMGCAP(1)]

Party leaders, from Bush to Speaker Dennis Hastert (R-Ill.) and Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist (R-Tenn.), have key decisions to make. If they fail to make the right ones, and if current trends continue, they will hand Democrats a golden opportunity to ride a wave in the 2006 midterm elections.

After weeks of Bush trying to “educate” the public on Social Security, the top issue of his second term, the president’s proposed Social Security overhaul shows no signs of being embraced by either the public or those on Capitol Hill.

One of the party’s leading strategists, House Majority Leader Tom DeLay (R-Texas), is embattled on at least three different fronts — the activities of his Texas political action committee, his overseas trips and his wife’s compensation.

Gasoline prices remain up, while the stock market is down. Not surprisingly, consumer confidence is down, as Americans worry about inflation, interest rates and their overall economic well-being.

On Capitol Hill, the nomination of John Bolton to be ambassador to the United Nations is in trouble. Even more troublesome, Republicans have spent so much time on Terri Schiavo and the confirmation of a handful of appellate judges nominated by Bush that they risk being defined primarily by social issues.

And the latest polling suggests a public that is increasingly dissatisfied with the direction of the nation and with the president’s performance in office. (I’m not even counting the impact of the budget, which still hasn’t been passed by both houses of Congress, or the continued fighting in Iraq.)

Maybe even more important, the Republicans have put themselves in an awkward position, raising expectations among conservatives and base Republican voters even as they require cooperation from Democrats if they are to accomplish any of their legislative goals.

The Republicans already have legislative accomplishments, of course, including bankruptcy reform and class-action reform. But their attempts to outmaneuver Senate Democrats on judges could well mean gridlock on Capitol Hill from now until the midterm elections.

For White House adviser Karl Rove and the GOP legislative leadership, this is decision time.

While the Republicans’ business base would prefer to avoid a confrontation on judges, the party’s social conservatives seem unlikely to accept anything other than a complete rout of Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.).

For conservatives who want to eliminate possible Democratic filibusters on judges this Congress, a compromise with Democrats that would result in anything less than a total victory would be a “sellout.”

Does the Senate Majority Leader satisfy social conservatives by holding out for a whole loaf rather than a slice — that is, Democrats agreeing to allow votes on two or three nominees that they had been blocking? Or does he risk a backlash from moderates and economic conservatives who believe that the Republican Party unfairly changed the rules of the game and risked important legislative accomplishments?

On Social Security, the White House must finally decide whether to change its strategy and seek an accommodation with Democrats. Doing so would almost certainly entail dropping its talk of personal accounts. Of course, that would anger some conservatives who have invested months in the president’s initial Social Security agenda, thus risking a fracture to the party coalition.

Is the president ready to accept that voters have looked at his Social Security plan and rejected it? Or does he continue to believe that they have not yet been “educated” about the merits of his ideas?

DeLay and his House Republican colleagues also have a decision to make, on how to handle the House Majority Leader’s problems. Do they assume that the worst is over and ignore Democratic attacks on DeLay? Or do they attempt to turn the Democratic attacks against the opposition, ratcheting up the rhetoric and attacking the Democrats in return?

Republicans need to find an issue that will unite their coalition, will resonate with swing voters and will put the Democrats in a bind. Some party strategists have hoped that judges would be that issue, but at this point, the signs are far less promising.

Democratic strategists must surely have noted the most recent poll numbers, and the fact that Republicans increasingly are fighting with themselves. That means that Reid and House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) aren’t likely to help the Republicans out of their hole.

According to the old saying, “It’s always darkest before the dawn.” Given the challenges facing the president and his party, Republican leaders better hope that the political version of sunrise begins any minute now.

Stuart Rothenberg is editor of the Rothenberg Political Report.

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