That sound you heard all over Washington, D.C., last Wednesday morning was Republicans breathing a huge collective sigh of relief that Republican Brian Bilbray had defeated Democrat Francine Busby in the special election to fill California’s 50th district House seat. That GOP victory, however, was just the first in a series of political and policy events that challenged the prevailing conventional wisdom and sent Democrats scurrying to their spin doctors for something — anything — positive to say about what quickly turned into a 72-hour political nightmare.
It began with Busby’s loss. For weeks, Democrats had been positioning for a win in this GOP-leaning seat, asserting that the “culture of corruption” would claim its first of many GOP victims thanks to the bribery conviction of ex-Rep. Duke Cunningham (R-Calif.).
Instead, Bilbray won the special election against Busby, who, despite the national hype, eked out only 45 percent of the vote — roughly the same percentage that the past two Democratic presidential candidates managed in the district. Clearly, predictions that voters would be outraged over Republican “corruption” and were ready to flock to the Democratic fold were wildly overblown.
Voters were indeed unhappy, but the target of their ire was another national issue: immigration. And on this topic, Busby was on the wrong side of the majority, particularly when she dropped her bombshell comment that illegal immigrants “don’t need papers to vote.” This from a candidate offering herself up as an ethical alternative to corrupt Republicans.
It was Bilbray who reflected the immigration views of the majority of voters — a focus on securing the border first, a view that separated him publicly from Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) and his “comprehensive” position. On Wednesday, Democrats woke up to find that a seat they thought was in their grasp had slipped through their fingers.
If Democrats are to have any hope of winning back the House in November, California’s 50th district is exactly the kind of seat they have to win. Yet they failed to do so, despite pouring millions into a district that had been represented by the House’s poster boy for political corruption. What Democrats forgot is that when you try to nationalize an election, as they did using the “culture of corruption” mantra, winning candidates must offer voters more than an attack strategy. They also must have a platform of ideas that voters care about — a fact that Republicans understood in 1994.
But the loss of the special election was only the beginning of a bad week for Democrats. By Thursday, they once again found themselves on the defensive when good news arrived from Iraq — news too big to be ignored. Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, the most wanted terrorist in Iraq, had been killed by U.S. military air strikes on the same day that the new Iraqi government had filled its last and most important cabinet posts, Defense and Interior.
While many Democrats praised the military for their success, it was the outspoken and harsh comments of some in the party that put the media spotlight on the Democrats’ schizophrenic view of the war. Rep. John Murtha (D-Pa.) said, “I don’t think we can win this,” while Sen. Joseph Biden (D-Del.) predicted, “Two weeks from now you’re going to be showing people ripped off buses and beheaded.”
Rep. Pete Stark (D-Calif.) won the prize, however, with his over-the-top comment that “this is just to cover Bush’s [rear] so he doesn’t have to answer” for the deaths of Iraqi civilians killed by the U.S. military. Other Bush critics such as The Nation’s David Corn tried desperately to downplay the significance of Zarqawi’s death by describing this most powerful of terrorists as “something of a sideshow.” Rep. Dennis Kucinich (D-Ohio) called Zarqawi a minor part in a “growing anti-American insurgency” and called for the U.S. to get out. This kind of naysaying about an undeniably important military victory won’t sit well with most Americans.
But if Thursday was bad for Democrats, by Friday, things had gotten even worse. Rumors of serious rifts in the House Democratic leadership burst into the open Friday as an apparently clairvoyant Murtha announced his intention to seek the Majority Leader’s job if Democrats win the House in November. Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) did nothing to stop what was sure to be seen by Minority Whip Steny Hoyer (D-Md.) and his supporters as a leadership “coup.”
Pelosi, still clinging to her “culture of corruption” strategy despite the Busby loss, had on Thursday evening tried and failed, at least temporarily, to oust the ethically challenged William Jefferson (D-La.) from his Ways and Means Committee post. In reality, she did little more than remind Americans about Democratic corruption while in the process angering the Congressional Black Caucus.
Murtha’s announcement only added to the perception that the Democratic House leadership is in disarray — hardly unified behind a national strategy or agenda to win in November. For Murtha to fire a shot over Hoyer’s bow almost five months before an election is a gift that Republicans hadn’t counted on.
Hoyer — who, unlike Pelosi, seems to have a better grasp of electoral reality — probably hadn’t counted on it either. Interestingly, Rep. Rahm Emanuel (Ill.), chairman of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, took great pains Sunday on ABC’s “This Week” to avoid taking a position on the Murtha bid — a bit of a surprise from the Democrats’ usually pragmatic “Enforcer.”
In 1997, as a member of the leadership senior staff, I saw the impact of an attempted leadership “coup” on the morale and management of a House majority. It wasn’t pretty, and it certainly didn’t produce positive election results. The 1998 elections, in which the GOP lost seats counter to historical trends, offered proof that dissension can trigger negative outcomes.
Whether Pelosi was behind Murtha’s move or simply let it happen, the prospect of one of the House’s most hard-core liberals teaming with one of its most strident anti-war Democrats as the “face” of the Democratic Party this fall has Republicans smiling for a change.
One good week, however, doesn’t mean the GOP won’t face a big challenge in November. It will, and most GOP leaders understand that. But for Republicans who have suffered through a long spell of bad news, they were grateful that Democrats reminded the country last week why it remains a minority party.