Political Hay

Gilligan’s Old Party

Why the Republicans might not be stranded for as long as it once seemed.

By 8.20.09

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On television's Gilligan's Island, the ill-fated passengers of the S.S. Minnow headed out for a three-hour tour and ended up stranded for years on a deserted island. Might the Republicans be Gilligan's Island in reverse? Destined to spend years in the wilderness after the last two elections ended in disaster, their trip is starting to look more like a three-hour tour.

Consider a poll released last week by Rasmussen Reports. Not only did the survey show the American people trusted Republicans more than Democrats on health care for the first time in more than two years of polling on the question. Republicans were more trusted than Democrats on eight of ten issues. That includes the economy (by 46 percent to 40 percent), education (41 percent to 38 percent), Social Security (43 percent to 39 percent), and abortion (46 percent to 36 percent).

The only issue where Democrats still cling to a narrow, three-point lead over Republicans is ethics in government, an advantage likely to erode in a political climate where most incumbents -- and thus more politicians involved in scandals -- belong to the Democratic Party. Even on the war in Iraq, Democrats and Republicans are tied at 42 percent each.

Don't believe it? Well, even if you discount the Rasmussen poll as an outlier there are other indicators that don't look good for the Democrats. According to the polling average at Real Clear Politics, Democrats led Republicans on the generic congressional ballot by just 0.8 percent. Several polls -- including one conducted for National Public Radio -- show the GOP ahead.

Republicans lead in this year's gubernatorial races in blue New Jersey and increasingly purple Virginia. The latter state just voted for its first Democratic presidential candidate since going all the way with LBJ in 1964, sent two Democrats to the U.S. Senate in as many election cycles, and has sent two consecutive Democratic governors to Richmond. Republicans currently lead in both the Senate and governor's race in Florida and are competitive in both contests in Ohio.

In 2010, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid looks like he is in trouble. Sen. Chris Dodd, the Teddy Kennedy of Connecticut, has been trailing his strongest Republican challenger for months. New York Gov. David Paterson looks like a goner even if Democratic primary voters don't get him first. Massachusetts Gov. Deval Patrick has been reduced to hoping for a three-way race in the home state of Kennedy, John Kerry, and Michael Dukakis.

Won't the right-wing kooks, armed with inflammatory signs and insurance industry talking points, alienate Middle America with their disruptive behavior at town hall meetings? Not yet: a Pew poll found that Americans more or less sided with the protesters, 61 percent to 34 percent. Gallup found that 64 percent of moderates and even 40 percent of Democrats thought they were behaving appropriately while 34 percent identified with them (just 21 percent didn't).

The Great Rebranding that was supposed to happen after the 2006 and 2008 debacles hasn't. Republicans pretty much hold the same positions on the issues that they did when the polls showed Americans didn't trust them and weren't going to vote for them. They haven't noticeably sharpened their message, despite showing some signs of life on health care and energy policy. Republicans don't have a clear national leader and it isn't even certain they've seen the error of their ways on government spending.

How can this be? Ask yourself where the Democrats' Great Rebranding has been. They did run a triangulating Southerner in 1992 and 1996, but with mixed success as the party lost control of Congress during that decade. Barack Obama, the one we have been waiting for, is rhetorically different from other Democrats. But much of his substantive policy agenda is scarcely newer than those Gilligan's Island re-runs.

Democrats won the 2006 and 2008 elections not because the country had embraced them but because George W. Bush and congressional Republicans did not seem to have answers for what ailed the country. When the promised weapons of mass destruction did not materialize, Republicans did not have a satisfactory answer for what we were doing in Iraq. When the economy began to sputter, Republicans did not offer solutions that inspired confidence. When the levees broke in New Orleans, Bush thought Brownie was doing a heckuva job.

Now it is the Democrats who are passing stimulus plans that have yet to stimulate, who are proposing health care bills they can't explain how they are going to pay for, who are getting caught up in Washington's "culture of corruption," and who are presiding over a country that Americans still generally think is on the wrong track.

Republicans are benefiting not because the American people have suddenly rediscovered the greatness of George W. Bush's party. They are gaining because in a two-party system, they are the only alternative. The danger for Republicans, who are being rewarded for not rebranding, is that they are totally at the mercy of events. Events might not always make the party in power look so bad. Remember that both Presidents Bush once had approval ratings in excess of 90 percent.

More remotely, Republicans could be in trouble if there emerges a Ross Perot-like figure. The Texas billionaire lured away a third of the GOP base in 1992, along with many independents. A thinking man's Perot, who does not talk about conspiracies to disrupt his daughter's wedding, could do even better. The hypothetical Michael Bloomberg presidential campaign that sounded so ridiculous when floated by bored reporters in 2007 might not seem so farfetched come 2012.

It always looks like a three-hour tour until the weather starts getting rough.

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About the Author

W. James Antle III, author of the new book Devouring Freedom: Can Big Government Ever Be Stopped?, is editor of the Daily Caller News Foundation and a senior editor of The American Spectator. You can follow him on Twitter @jimantle.