Skip to content

Can GOP Reform to Avoid ‘Kennedy Scenario’ for 2008?

Everyone in and around American politics is pulling for Sen. Edward Kennedy (D-Mass.) on a personal level. But Republicans have to work very hard to avoid the fulfillment of his political dream.

[IMGCAP(1)]In an interview in March, Kennedy talked about the difference that the 1964 Democratic landslide meant for the passage of liberal legislation, specifically Medicare. He clearly was hoping for a similar triumph this year.

Kennedy recalled to me how, two years after his arrival in the Senate back in 1962, “we failed with Medicare. But it passed in 1965. The principal difference was the election of 1964. … We failed in the spring, but it passed in the late winter. Fifteen Senators just absolutely changed their votes on the basis of the election of ’64.”

Actually, Democrats picked up just one Senate seat in that election, but it gave them a total of 68 votes. And Democrats picked up 37 House seats as President Lyndon Johnson scored a victory over Sen. Barry Goldwater (R-Ariz.), 61 percent to 39 percent.

When I asked him whether it would take a 1964-style landslide to pass his long-sought goal of universal health care, he said, “No, I just think we need additional Democratic votes in the Senate and a Democratic president to lead them.”

There is little chance that Kennedy’s choice for president, Sen. Barack Obama (D-Ill.), will pull an LBJ-sized victory this year, but Kennedy clearly is hoping that Obama’s ability to attract new voters to the polls will expand their party’s majorities in the House and Senate and make it possible to pass liberal legislation.

And Republicans have every reason to fear that this Kennedy dream might be fulfilled. In the Senate, Democrats can’t gain the nine seats they need for a 60-vote, filibuster-proof majority, but they can gain as many as seven, and possibly pull moderate Republicans across the line to support Democratic initiatives, much as LBJ pulled conservative Southern Democrats.

In the House, as Rep. Tom Davis (R-Va.) warned last week, “the political atmosphere facing House Republicans this November is the worst since Watergate,” which cost the GOP 49 seats in 1974. Having lost 30 seats in 2006, the GOP could lose 20 more this year.

So, what are Republicans doing to avoid the Kennedy scenario? The presidential standard-bearer, Sen. John McCain (Ariz.), has the potential to offer a Theodore Roosevelt-style reformer’s agenda to counter Obama’s appeal for change — and some supporters think that the entire GOP should follow that lead.

“Democrats own ‘change,’” said Rep. Mark Kirk (R-Ill.), an original McCain backer in a targeted seat. “We can — and we ought — to own the ‘R’ word. I think we should campaign on the theme ‘Reform for Results.’”

Ever since Republicans lost their Congressional majorities in the 2006 election, they’ve been talking about “rebranding” the party — with little to show for it.

There certainly was a need for retooling. The party bore the stain of DeLayism — the placing of power over principle that characterized the heavy-handed hyperpartisanship of former House Majority Leader Tom DeLay (R-Texas) and led to multiple scandals over lobbying and earmarks.

However, the new House GOP leader, Rep. John Boehner (Ohio), while a foe of earmarks, has been slow in developing a new image for the party and has largely concentrated on legislative tactics such as motions to recommit and mass walkouts to embarrass Democrats.

After three straight drubbings in special elections, the GOP seems to be scrambling to invent a new image. It looks like panic — and it is. But late is better than never.

So, what’s to be done? McCain has yet to consolidate his message — as writer Yuval Levin recounts in this week’s Weekly Standard — but he has proposed reformist policies on health care, earmarks, education, subsidies, corporate welfare, energy, climate change, education and training, securities regulation and defense policy.

One could argue that McCain’s stand against “unconditional” presidential talks with foreign enemies — as advocated by Obama — is a tough, TR-style assertion of national security machismo that will appeal to white working-class voters whom Obama can’t seem to attract.

At the same time, though, McCain seemed to align himself with President Bush’s low-blow assertion that any negotiation with Iran constitutes Hitler-era “appeasement.” That was a new link to Bush — along with his tax and Iraq policies — that will drive away independent voters.

Senate Republicans, like their House counterparts, have concentrated since 2006 on tactical maneuvers — filibusters, mainly — but there are signs they are developing a new approach pegged to 2008 requirements.

Senate Republican Conference Chairman Lamar Alexander (Tenn.), who’s up for re- election this year, said he thinks he and his colleagues can retain their seats — “tough year” though it is — by “throwing out the 25-year-old playbook” of calling Democrats “bad liberals” and identifying themselves as “true conservatives.”

In an echo of Davis’ House advice, Alexander said: “I don’t think independent voters are going to buy that this year. We have to remind voters of who we are, what we’re going to do about real problems like high gas prices and health care and why what our opponents want to do is wrong. We stay on offense.”

“Branding is an awful word,” Alexander told me. “It sounds like a trick on the voters. We have to talk about values and beliefs. We can’t force 49 Senators and what they stand for into three words. What we stand for as a Conference is the sum total of what each of us stands for.”

For himself, Alexander has proposed a five-year “new Manhattan Project for clean energy independence” that includes a bipartisan push for plug-in cars, economically competitive solar power, carbon recapture, building conservation, nuclear waste storage and fusion energy.

He also supports the mandatory, universal health care proposal advanced by Sens. Ron Wyden (D-Ore.) and Bob Bennett (R-Utah) that would replace employer-based insurance with individually purchased “choice” plans financed by tax credits.

House Minority Whip Roy Blunt (R-Mo.) said that his colleagues, too, would emphasize “the gas cost issue,” “competition and choice in health care” and Democratic attempts to simultaneously raise taxes and give breaks to special interests such as trial lawyers.

Republicans clearly have been awakened to the perils facing them in November. They still have five months to avert Ted Kennedy’s fond hope — but, in reality, that’s precious little time.

Recent Stories

Lawmakers question FAA’s resolve amid Boeing investigations

Are these streaks made to be broken?

Supreme Court airs concerns over Oregon city’s homelessness law

Supreme Court to decide if government can regulate ‘ghost guns’

Voters got first true 2024 week with Trump on trial, Biden on the trail

Supreme Court to hear oral arguments on abortion and Trump