Early Stirrings of a Republican Revival

A few strange things have been happening — voters now believe that energy policy is more important than Iraq Sununu is catching up with Shaheen in New Hampshire; Norm Coleman has a solid lead over his Democratic challenger in Minnesota, though that race is likely to change shape; and, most significantly, John McCain has been gaining in Colorado, Michigan, and Minnesota, despite his extreme crankiness and not-always-effective messaging.

This looks like the beginning of the two-party system righting itself — in the Feiler Faster spirit, we’re slowly getting back to 50-50. The mix of issues that are keeping Republican heads above water is different from what we’ve seen during the Bush era, and more attractive in some respects: spending restraint is making a rhetorical comeback, and pushback against environmentalists is taking the place of pushback against social liberals. Given mre straitened economic circumstances, this makes sense. Social issues — for liberals and conservatives — tend to be voting issues for the relatively affluent. If the goal is to move blue collar voters, job impact is what counts.*

Then there is this result from a recent Rasmussen poll, as described by Michael Barone:

He now shows that voters believe the United States is winning rather than losing the war on terrorism by a 51 percent-to-16 percent margin. A year ago, in July 2007, the numbers were 36 percent to 36 percent.

So the Republican position on national security, which briefly looked as though it would become toxic to non-conservatives, is making steady gains. The McCain campaign needs to draw these strands together and help Republican congressional candidates get within fighting distance of their Democratic opponents, to lay the groundwork for wins in 2010 and 2012. Because of the uneven impact of the economic downturn so far, Republicans need to pay particular attention to … Sam’s Club voters.

This reminds me of Patrick Ruffini’s characteristically insightful remarks concerning a McCain Michigan-Ohio strategy:

To some extent, McCain should not get too distracted with defending his home turf. If this election becomes about Florida, we lose. The same is also true of swing states du jour Virginia and Colorado, which are still slightly to the right of the country, though they used to be 3-5 points moreso. If the narrative is about those states exclusively, the media will force McCain to play defense the next four months. McCain can’t let this happen.

This is one reason, incidentally, why I find the Cantor for VP rumors unpersuasive, though I certainly think the rumors raise Cantor’s stature, which is a good thing: he is a conservative who can speak suburbese, which is increasingly rare. Back to Ruffini:

In a state-by-state situation, it’s hopeless to try and compete as though you’re 5 to 10 points behind, trying to rebuild strength in states you’d easily win in a close race. Instead, you compete as though you’re 1-3 points behind, and seek to throw the opponent off balance in some big states he needs to win. The logical conclusion here is a maniacal focus on Ohichigan, heart of Bitter America.

And that could be what’s going on in the McCain campaign now. What looks like a somewhat shambolic campaign has actually been tightly disciplined about pursuing an Ohichigan strategy.

A brief note re: foreign policy: As Barone argues, it could be that the widening gap on winning the war on terror means the issue is moving off the table, but I doubt it. One very good thing is that the Gates defense policy, chastened yet forthright about the central importance of American power, is far more attractive (and sound) than the Rumsfeld defense policy. My hope is that the post-Bush Republicans will remain very tough on national security — that is, that they will reject the new Bush-Obama “carrots-and-carrots” consensus on Iran — but that they’ll also continue in the Gatesian direction, emphasizing that resources need to match commitments. The rhetorical multilateralism of the national security left has been allowed to obscure its substantive unilateralism. There’s no political percentage in correcting this misperception, really, but I often wonder why conservatives don’t press this point harder in elite discussion.

  • This is why I’m planning on changing my name from Reihan Morshed Salam to Reihan Jobs Salam. It is not, rumors notwithstanding, that I’m trying to get my hands on Steve Jobs fortune by claiming to be his long-lost Bengali half-brother.