WASHINGTON – Months before the first votes are cast in the campaign of 2008, some in the media are conducting last rites for the Republicans. The rush to bury the GOP is as hasty as it is premature.
The headline atop Page 1 of Tuesday’s New York Times read, “GOP Voters Voice Anxieties On Party’s Fate.” It sounded like the death knell for the party that has held the White House for 26 of the past 38 years. But the evidence was thin.
A New York Times/CBS News poll that included 698 self-identified Republicans found that 40 percent of them thought the Democrats were likely to win the presidency in 2008, while only 12 percent of the Democrats polled were ready to concede the next election to the opposition. That finding is hardly a surprise. A great many Democrats I know still have trouble admitting that their candidates lost to George W. Bush in 2000 and 2004. They are still mentally counting votes in Florida and Ohio that they are convinced were overlooked.
The Times, which is not normally solicitous of Republicans’ feelings, also reported widespread concern among those it interviewed “that their party had drifted from the principles of Ronald Reagan, its most popular figure of the past 50 years.”
The fine print of the survey, though, told a somewhat different story. Support for President Bush and his policies remains high among Republicans. His overall job rating among GOP voters is 75 percent, “and by overwhelming numbers they approve of his handling of foreign policy, the war in Iraq and the management of the economy.”
That does not suggest a party wracked by anxiety or guilt, but the Times is taking no chances. Its survey finds that Republicans are less satisfied with their current field of presidential candidates than Democrats are with theirs – and that the three presumed Republican front-runners have larger numbers of undecided voters among their fellow partisans than do the three leading Democrats.
Three out of four Republicans haven’t heard enough about Mitt Romney to venture an opinion or are undecided on the former Massachusetts governor’s qualifications. Half say the same thing about John McCain. Only three of five can rate Rudolph Giuliani.
But the Times finds no doubt about the qualities Republicans want in a candidate – someone who will restrict abortions, oppose same-sex marriage and support tax cuts.
There are, by my count, at least nine such candidates running, and more seem to be joining the race every day. Ron Paul, the libertarian congressman from Texas, says he’s in. Sen. Chuck Hagel of Nebraska and former House Speaker Newt Gingrich are waiting in the wings. Former Sen. Fred Thompson of Tennessee says he is considering the race – which would double the size of the Thompson caucus, since Tommy Thompson, the former Wisconsin governor and health and human services secretary, is already camped in Iowa – aiming to upset the apple cart in the Aug. 11 Ames straw poll.
Given the rich variety of choices available, you might ask, what’s the problem? It’s not as if nobody thinks the Republican nomination is worth seeking.
I would say that the problem seems to lie in the eyes of those political observers who are impatient to judge an election that is many months, not weeks, away. Of course, Republican partisans have every reason to be uneasy today. Their party has lost control of both houses of Congress. The president’s overall ratings are in the cellar; the Iraq War continues with mounting casualties; and aggressive investigations are uncovering fresh scandals in the administration almost every day.
You would have to be a clueless Republican not to be worried.
But the only thing we know for certain about the 2008 election is that we know none of the vital facts today that will determine its outcome. We don’t know the identity of the candidates, or their strengths and weaknesses. We don’t know where the war will be or what new challenges terrorism and other international forces may present. We don’t know what condition the economy will be in, and we don’t know what fears or hopes will animate the voters.
What we do know – or should know – is that campaigns make a difference. Those who can’t wait will get egg on their face.
David Broder is a Washington Post columnist. Contact him by writing to email@example.com.