That was the question that began a week-long cruise of the Pacific with an all-star lineup of conservative thinkers and writers gathered to discuss politics, culture, the status of conservatism, radical Islam and the war in Iraq.
The White House claims that, historically, the sixth year of a two-term presidency results in significant losses to the party in power. But that is really not the case. The sixth years of the Reagan and Clinton presidencies saw few or no losses to the party in control of the White House. So the fact that voters turned against the Republicans in 2006 is a major setback for the GOP. There is no other way around it.
Rich Lowry, the editor of National Review, which organized the cruise, said the lessons are to not be corrupt, incompetent and don’t lose a war, or be perceived as losing a war.
In regard to the latter, the national exit poll found that 68 percent of voters considered the war in Iraq to be extremely or very important to their vote. A total of 59 percent thought the war had not improved the security of the United States, and 56 percent disapproved of it. Fifty-five percent wanted a withdrawal of some or all of our troops.
In addition to the impact of the war, Washington editor Kate O’Beirne said that the Republican brand name is out of favor, suffering from scandal and corruption fatigue.
Columnist and author Mark Steyn, whose new book America Alone, was the most ubiquitous of any on the cruise, said that rather than being the doctrinaire conservative that many in the media try to portray Bush, he in fact has turned out to be the “third way” president that Bill Clinton had only tried to be. Pointing to such issues as immigration, where Bush favors a form of amnesty, and prescription-drug benefits, an expensive and complicated program pushed by the President, Steyn called Bush Tony Blair with a ranch.
Ramesh Ponnuru said that there had been a massive swing by independent voters, sensing that Republicans had become interested primarily in remaining in power, rather than advancing a positive, conservative agenda. That also explains why Republicans lost millions of conservative votes.
Pat Toomey, who came close to defeating Sen. Arlen Specter in the Pennsylvania Republican primary two years ago, now heads up the conservative Club for Growth. He believes the Republicans can win back the House in 2008, but not the Senate, where Republicans have significantly more incumbents up for re-election than do the Democrats. He said that a poll taken by Club for Growth showed that a majority answered that the Republicans had become the party of big government. He said the Club had endorsed 11 candidates, eight of whom won their primary race, and seven of whom won a seat in Congress.
Stephen Spruiell, who writes for National Review Online (NRO) on media issues, pointed to several examples of liberal media bias and double standard. He talked about the glowing coverage that Nancy Pelosi received in the weeks leading up to the November elections and believes the liberal media overplayed the Mark Foley/congressional page scandal. Spruiell pointed to the “exquisite timing” of the release of Bob Woodward’s most critical book of the Bush administration and the war in Iraq, State of Denial, coming just weeks before the election. Ultimately, the independents sent a message about corruption, and the youth vote, he believes, came out to largely vote against the war.
Jay Nordlinger, managing editor of NR, wondered why there was no one calling the outcome of this election a “temper tantrum” by the electorate, which is what Peter Jennings called it one year when the Republicans won a convincing victory. He said that the media treat Republican election victories as surprises but the natural order of things when the Democrats win.
Ramesh Ponnuru added that Republicans have to take into account the unfavorable treatment they are sure to receive, and must strategize around it. He wondered how a winning issue for the Republicans, like foreign policy, became a losing issue. He fears the war is being lost at home, a point we have made repeatedly. To many on the left, Bush is viewed as a greater evil than radical Islam.
Ward Connerly, the black conservative who has battled government-imposed racial preferences for many years, was largely responsible for one of the few bright spots in the elections for the overwhelmingly conservative audience. He is a strong advocate of individual rights, as opposed to group rights, and had pushed the Michigan Civil Rights Initiative, which passed by a 58-42 margin. It simply said that race, ethnicity, national origin and gender could not be considered in state employment practices or university admission policies. The establishment strongly opposed the initiative. Connerly is concerned that the Republicans have become so eager to get Latino and black votes that they have abandoned their principled opposition to racial preferences.
Ultimately, Connerly sees the Republican defeat as a good thing for conservatives and Republicans. It is, he said, a chance for Republicans to rediscover real conservatism. But will they do so? The New York Times is already reporting, with glee, that Bush is preparing to make a deal with the Democrats on immigration.