There's been an awful lot of talk lately about how Barack Obama's Democratic Party is increasingly on shaky political ground and how Republicans are set to take great advantage of that setback this fall in gubernatorial elections in Virginia and New Jersey—not to mention the 2010 congressional midterm elections.
Democrats, as usual, are conflicted about how to proceed, and they have the added burden of trying to govern at the same time.
But Republicans are upbeat and making plans. After delivering a few body blows to the administration on health care over the summer, they are in a much better spirits than just a few months ago. Nowhere was that more evident than at last weekend’s Mackinac Republican Leadership Conference in Mackinac Island, Mich., where many of the nation's most prominent Republicans showed up for the biennual event that has become a required stop for any Republican with serious presidential aspirations. (Sarah Palin, who was in Hong Kong last week, did not attend.)
There was a little foreshadowing for what a Republican campaign against Obama and the Democrats will look like in 2010 and 2012. Things could change, obviously, but there were and are two simple, recurring themes: 1) Health care reform is bad. 2) When it comes to world affairs, Obama is woefully naïve.
Mitt Romney, the former governor of Massachusetts and 2012 presidential candidate, struck hard at Obama, telling the crowd on Sunday that the president was removing the United States from its traditional role as a crusader for freedom:
“America has always been an ardent supporter of democratic efforts and protecting and defending American values and Western values,” Romney said, “but this president seems intent to step back to—if you will—lift himself above the world stage and say we’re not a player down there with everybody else between the democracies and the autocracies.”
The counter-argument to that, of course, is Iraq. Republicans who supported that war just don't have the credibility to talk about how we should behave in the world at this point. But in general, what the gathering in Michigan showed was how much difficulty the GOP will have coming up with a message that they can sell to voters. They are counting on the fact that the president is less popular than he used to be because of the confusion over health care and that the economic recovery has been slow. Unemployment numbers keep rising, and in Michigan is running at more than 15 percent.
Also drumming home that message was Minnesota Gov. Tim Pawlenty, who is running hard for president. Last week, he announced the formation of Freedom First Political Action Committee, a national fundraising committee that would allow him to develop a national money-raising network. Pawlenty said that his PAC is not a declaration of intent for a 2012 run. Instead, the governor said, the PAC’s efforts will go toward helping Republican candidates in 2010 midterms. But who believes that?
On Saturday, Pawlenty warned that President Obama’s health care proposal was dangerous for the country. The future of the GOP rested, he said, with blue-collar voters who might warm up to the GOP's message of personal initiative and fiscal responsibility. And in a more daring proposal, he suggested that Republicans should begin recruiting voters in “urban” areas—which may or may not still be a euphemism for black voters.
"The cornerstone of quality of life … is whether they have a job. The demand for more government is in part a function of people not being able to do it themselves,” Pawlenty said. "We should be storming into areas of economic disadvantage and saying 'Enough!' This is about inviting people in to become Republicans and join our cause."
To which I say: Good luck with that.
There is little question the Democrats will not enjoy the same kind of success at the polls as they saw in 2008 and 2006, but that does not guarantee a huge GOP advantage. It took a former Bush aide to remind his colleagues just how difficult that will be.
"The power that will drive us in 2010 is the power of opposition," said former White House spokesman Ari Fleischer, who was also in attendance. "Then comes the hardest part of all … (telling voters) who we are and what we stand for."
And, whatever problem Democrats have now or next year, Republicans are nowhere close to figuring out who they are or what they stand for.
Terence Samuel is The Root’s deputy editor.