Just How Embarrassed Are We?

The Republicans call it the “embarrassed” voter—a conservative who is so appalled that he doesn’t vote or even shifts to the Democratic column.

A veteran evangelical, John Kuo, formerly deputy director of the White House Office of Faith-Based and Community Initiatives—an office that President George W. Bush created to implement his compassionate conservative program—grabbed headlines with his remark that staffers in the White House would “roll their eyes” when talking about the religious right, saying they were “goofy” and that Pat Robertson was “insane.” Kuo questioned whether Bush ever really intended to spend any of the $8 billion he promised to provide when he pledged to be a lobbyist for the poor in the 2000 campaign. In any event, the president never followed through.

But that wasn’t Kuo’s main point.

He raised a more compelling question—whether the religious right has any interest in the poor. They prefer to wage the culture war for partisan purposes. They talk about partial birth abortion, cloning, homosexuality, and stem cell research, but ignore poverty. Their message, said Kuo, is that Jesus had a “political agenda. A right-wing agenda as if this culture war is a war for God and it’s not a war for God, it’s a war for politics.” Kuo is asking whether true evangelicals are getting real value from their alliance with conservatives.

Kuo’s analysis is another sign that Republican unity is fraying.

No sooner did Kuo’s questions surface than we learned that the Bush administration searched the papers of a daughter of a senior Republican on the House Armed Services Committee. Curt Weldon, who represents wealthy Philadelphia suburbs, had suggested that the government knew before 9/11 that at least some of the men who were in America and would later strike at the World Trade Center and elsewhere had ties to Al Qaeda. While Weldon cried politics, the timing of the raids was in fact dictated by leaks that an investigation was underway. The FBI often moves quickly in these circumstances to protect evidence. In this case, they are investigating whether the congressman illegally helped his daughter’s lobbying business.

And of course the war continues to embarrass. Choose your measure of success—U.S. soldiers killed, Iraqis killed, providing basic services: the news is all bad. And Jim Baker, a former secretary of state and top aide to the elder President Bush now charged with reviewing Iraq policy, declared that staying the course wouldn’t work. He promised to announce a set of recommendations charting a new direction after the election. Baker is spurring sudden bipartisan unity in Congress, but he is embarrassing the president.

Mention embarrassment and our thoughts naturally turn to Mark Foley—the man the Republicans picked to curb stalking on the Internet and who used his position in the House to proposition congressional pages on the Internet. Almost immediately, many Republicans suggested that Dennis Hastert, the Republican House speaker, should resign. The party is spinning quite nearly out of control, with various factions breaking apart from each other.

The Democrats know how the Republicans feel. By the time Jimmy Carter was running for re-election, with sky-high gasoline prices (for the first time in history), the ongoing crisis dragging on over the seizure of hostages in the American Embassy in Tehran, and Soviet advances into Afghanistan to which he responded with a peaceful (too peaceful for the American public) boycott of the 1980 Moscow Olympics, the president had become an embarrassment.

In 2004, embarrassment was again visited on the Democrats. John Kerry’s insipid comments about Iraq that fueled the famous flip-flop label. Did he vote to continue funding for the war or didn’t he? In his convention speech, he said he had learned the lessons of the Vietnam War but never mentioned what they were.

Embarrassment works both ways in politics and the Democrats in the last 40 years have suffered more than their share.

The current President Bush became a joke last year, but this year the ratings of Congress crumbled just as his had. The media will not give House and Senate Republicans a break, and public disapproval is growing. The Democrats have changed tactics. After six years of heading for the foxholes in the hopes the president would bury himself, they have skillfully found Republican weak spots.

What all of this has created among American voters is an overwhelming sense that it is time for a change. Right now everyone is looking at Midwestern and Western states like Wisconsin, South Dakota, and Colorado to see if the Republicans will be ousted. Pitched battles are being waged in Southern states including Tennessee and Virginia, where the suddenly hapless Senator George Allen struggles to survive. Ohio, the historic bellwether, seems to have definitively gone Democratic, with Republicans having given up on incumbent Senator Mike DeWine.

But will there be a landslide that realigns the nation and makes it Democratic?

Republican pundit Michael Barone has some wise words of caution. The public’s concern so far has been about competence not ideology.

“Political realignments occur because of events that have deep demographic impact and when one party stands for new ideas that command majority support,” he wrote. “The Iraq war (2,500 deaths) and our current economy (4.6 percent unemployment) are not events of the magnitude of the Civil War (600,000 dead) or the Great Depression (25 percent unemployment).”

Of course his reasoning can be questioned. The most recent Republican realignment started with Republican Barry Goldwater carrying the South in 1964 and culminated with Ronald Reagan’s landslide victories in the ‘80s. It was a product of disenchantment with Vietnam and integration combined with the terrible economic problems of the ‘70s. These stemmed from the cost of the Vietnam War. The Iraq War could do the same to this economy.

The advantage is to the Democrats, but the full scope of the outcome remains uncertain.