Old Jewish joke, if I may. The aged rabbi is breathing his last in the hospital bed. On his tray a cup of milk sits neglected, brought earlier by some solicitous nurse. In comes the synagogue janitor to pay his respects to the man who always treated him with dignity. He figures the rabbi needs a boost, so he pulls out his flask and spikes the milk with whiskey. Then he wakes the patient and all but forces him to down the drink.
Now it is time to take leave of the dying man. "Rabbi, do you have any words of wisdom before we say goodbye?"
"Don't sell that cow!"
The Republicans are more or less in the same situation. They are leading by large margins in the polls but not through their intrinsic virtue or their irresistible charm or their overwhelming intellect. Nor are they wielding a résumé of tangible achievements on behalf of the American public. They are simply the beneficiaries of having the milk of their banality pepped by the whiskey of disgust for the Democrats' statism.
Anytime one party has this much of an edge – 8 or 9 points in some polls – we are treated to a host of if-the-election-were-held-today commentaries, the mood varying based on the preferences of the commentators. The dangers are manifold and manifest. The first is overconfidence. That is always a problem when ahead, more so when one has done nothing to get ahead.
The second problem is that polls showing a lead are less meaningful when the opponent has the benefit of incumbency. There are an awful lot more of Democrats than Republicans in the Houses of Congress, in its belfries and chambers and cellars, and each one of them has to lose in order for the Republican to win. I have been in basketball games where we were down 60-40 and we went on a 15-0 run to cut the lead to 60-55. You feel invincible, like a winner, like you will never stop scoring, like a juggernaut that is unstoppable. These feelings may be good motivators, but a quick look at the scoreboard reminds us that you are still losing.
The third issue is that failure is not an option. The Republicans cannot afford to lose both houses again, even by a nose. If Obama has Pelosi and Reid (or Schumer) as partners for 2011 and 2012, he can bury this country under layers of leftist legislation which no subsequent President could unravel. Anytime you must win at all costs, you are not likely to coast. We all need some margin for error.
But problem #4 is the most treacherous of all. This is the urgency of maintaining trajectory, the noetic arc if you will, the line of reasoning, the continuity of narrative. Right now the story remains clear: Obama exploited the financial crisis to expend ridiculous sums on ineffective or self-serving things, then he signed the country on to an insane open-ended commitment in health care that will sicken our wealth without improving our health, so the solution is to take Congress from the Democrats in 2010, repeal this monstrosity, stop the spending and then send Obama back to Illinois in 2012.
If the Republicans allow the financial reform package to pass before November, they lose this trend line. Suddenly Obama is an effective leader with bipartisan support accomplishing big things, even historic ones. The question of whether the law is good or bad is too murky to follow without the green eyeshade. As a result, what people will take away is mainly the vibe: success, victory, achievement, history. It paints the President as a larger-than-life figure, something he has not been for many months. The devastation to Republican election hopes would be immense.
The noises we hear from the Capitol cloakroom on this score are not reassuring. The impression is the Democrats have swayed enough Republicans to sign on to this bill. If so, I take the liberty of predicting that both Houses of Congress will remain in Democrat hands after November. It is that straightforward.
If you still have the stomach for another joke, I got this one from an Italian friend. A fellow calls information and asks for the phone number of John Gotti in Queens. "I'm sorry," the operator replies. "I have eight such listings. Could you give me a street name, please?"
"Yes, Dapper Don."
No street names for these Republicans if they are not tough enough. And come November there will be nobody home.
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