Doom and gloom sweeps over the GOP but Dems aren’t home free

Doom and gloom washes over the Republican Party these days like a storm surge from Hurricane Katrina, drowning partisan political operatives in a rising sea of scandal.

California Republican Representative Randy “Duke” Cunningham’s admission that he took $2.4 million in bribes and his immediate resignation from Congress is just another layer of scandal that sweeps over the GOP like a toxic cloud.

Former House Majority Leader Tom DeLay is headed for trial on campaign finance violations and remains a central figure in the widening scandal surrounding corrupt lobbyist Jack Abramoff. Besides DeLay, at least a half-dozen Republicans face charges in the Abramoff conspiracy and briary probe, including Oho Rep. Bob Ney, Montana Sen. Conrad Burns and California Rep. John T. Doolittle. However, the expanding Abramoff scandal may also snare some Democrats too. North Dakota Democratic Senator Bryon Dorgan also received some of Abramoff’s tainted campaign money.

“Duke Cunningham may be the latest senior Republican member of Congress to lose his way, but sadly he won’t be the last one to fall from grace, and his behavior is a symptom of a greater problem: the culture of corruption that the GOP has made its trademark in Washington and throughout the country,” says Democratic National Committee Communications Director Karen Finney. “Cunningham is just one more example of a Party that has lost its moral compass and replaced it with a treasure map of personal and special interest gain.”

And while Republicans try to paint as positive picture as possible in these hard times, they have trouble sounding optimistic.

“Power in Washington is a matter of perception.  For the past four years, the Bush Administration and the Congressional leadership has been able to use their power to push an aggressive agenda and win victories by keeping their majorities largely intact and attracting just enough Congressional Democrats to maintain a public perception of bipartisanship,” says longtime GOP consultant Eddie Mahe. “Now, there is a real lack of power among the GOP Congressional leadership which has damaged their ability to replicate the earlier successes on tax cuts, regulatory reform and tackling the issues of reforming Social Security and the tax code.  Combined with continuing troubles with Iraq, energy prices and emerging scandals, this power to control the agenda may not return soon.”

I’ve known Eddie Mahe for more than 20 years and once worked for him. He’s always had a knack for finding positives in times of crisis for his party but, in his latest newsletter to clients, admits the GOP is facing major problems.

“President Bush’s low approval rating has begun to harm both his value to Republican candidates and his ability to push his agenda through the Congress,” Mahe says..  “Already this year, we have seen the President’s proposal on Social Security reform rejected without a vote and the withdrawal of Supreme Court candidate Harriet Miers after criticism by conservative leaders and some members of his own party.”

Still, Mahe says a lot can change between now and the midterm elections next year and he’s right. A year is a lifetime in politics and the Democrats are so busy rubbing their hands with glee that they have yet to develop a unified policy for the midterms.

“The Democratic leadership is having its own problems in developing an agenda that will unite its diverse coalition of stakeholders,” he adds.

We don’t’ find much unity on either side of the political aisles nowadays. While Republicans self-destruct in an ever-growing fight between conservatives and moderates, the Democrats also have problems developing a message that sticks to voters’ ribs. Polls that show voters would return power to Democrats if Congressional elections were held today run hot and cold and that fluid nature shows support for either party is soft.

The same polls also show a rising anger aimed at both parties as Americans tire of the divisive nature of the modern political system.

While the public expresses anger at the war in Iraq and other pratfalls of Republicans, a Washington Post-ABC News poll shows voters also see Democrats as disorganized and lacking as a positive alternative to the GOP. Both parties, those polled say, lack leadership and voters gave Washington low grades on both sides of the political fence, with just 35 percent approving of the job Republicans do in Congress and only 41 percent giving a positive rating to Democrats.

Fabrizio, McLaughlin & Associates, in a recent survey of American voters, found that just 21 percent of American voters actually believe their member of Congress will do what they promised to do while a whopping 63 percent say they have “very little trust” or “no trust at all” in “political candidates keeping their promises.”

“People are cynical about government,” says Jeff Aldrich, president of Aldrich Partners, which paid for the survey.

Others, however, believe anger at the GOP or President Bush will not be the determining factor in next year’s elections.

“The election results don’t appear to be a bellwether of an emerging Democrat majority or a culmination of voter anger against our president,” says Annette Meeks, CEO of the Center of the American Experiment in Minneapolis. “When you look beyond the spin, last week’s elections were mainly about local issues and candidates who put forward solutions to those problems.”

Perhaps, but Republicans seized control of Congress in the 1994 midterm elections by ignoring former House Speaker Tip O’Neill’s bromide that “all politics is local” and creating a national agenda with Newt Gingrich’s “Contract With America.”

The key, says Eddie Mahe, will be to find issues – whether national or local – that hit voters in the gut.

“We will likely see the lessons of 2005 taken to heart by wise candidates in both parties as they seek to find issues that will resonate with voters who appear to want workable solutions to real problems, not simply debates over issues that do not have impacts on their daily lives,” Mahe says.  “Thus, advocating tax increases or increased regulations may find receptive audiences among voters as long as these proposals can be sold as common sense solutions with the promise of real benefits for citizens.  The times are changing but it remains to be seen how much and how far these changes will go.”