The Washington Times

A scant six months ago, things were looking pretty gloomy to Republicans on Capitol Hill worried about the prospect of retaining their narrow House majority. Now, however, their prospects are brighter. There are two main reasons for this, and though it’s a bit of an oversimplification, they are John McCain and John McCain.

Adrift and unpopular following the unsuccessful effort to remove Bill Clinton from office, and frustrated as well in many policy areas, House Republicans were among the most eager to embrace Texas Gov. George W. Bush’s candidacy for the Republican presidential nomination. It was not just the governor’s personal charm, nor his message of “compassionate conservatism.”

It was also the beguilingly massive lead Mr. Bush commanded over Vice President Al Gore in every head-to-head poll throughout 1999. Here was an agent of possible salvation for the Republican position. Although Democrats were clearly fired up following the stunning losses they inflicted on Republicans in 1998, mid-impeachment, and although Republicans were going to have to defend a larger number of open seats than Democrats – the House Democratic leadership having worked successfully to persuade members to stay on in hopes of regaining power in 2000 – many Republicans were pinning their hopes on the coattails of Mr. Bush.

Among Republicans, a widespread interpretation of the early polls was that a rather politically disengaged American electorate had made up its mind that it didn’t much care for Mr. Gore (Clinton fatigue, et al.) and liked what it saw in Mr. Bush, the cumulative impression hardening into a lead Mr. Bush would command through November. Other Republicans could simply hop on the bandwagon.

One should always be wary when one’s analysis conforms so closely to one’s fondest hopes as to predict effortless victory. The first assumption here was that Democrats, rather sportingly, wouldn’t run a campaign against George W. Bush, or anyway, that it would be entirely ineffectual. That’s quite an assumption, even if you’re just trying to cheer yourself up. Worse, the polling data even at the time did not suggest that George W. Bush’s lead would translate into gains for Republicans on the Hill. Simply put, he had things going for him in the public mind last year that congressional Republicans didn’t. On issues, he was more popular than they were.

Then, immediately after a rather awkward Mr. Bush debuted publicly late last fall, instantly pricking his own bubble of invincibility, John McCain’s standing began to improve in polls in key states, leading to his big win in New Hampshire. In addition to his draw among independents and Democrats, Mr. McCain only narrowly lost to Mr. Bush among Republican voters, 41-38. If ever a New Hampshire result threatened to upset the status quo, this was it. For House Republicans, George W. Bush was no longer a sure ticket to salvation. This fact brought home the need, long advanced by some within the party, to take charge of their own fate.

It is an article of faith among Democrats that House Republicans have been historically discredited in the public mind. They are too extreme for Americans, too partisan and too right-wing. The reacquisition of a Democratic majority is, in this reading, almost a mop-up effort. But that’s not exactly what the polls say, either. While no one would deny that House Republicans had done some seriously unpopular things since gaining their majority in 1995, the question of whether the cumulative impression they had thereby created was permanently negative remained open. Indeed, in their effort to wall off the Social Security surplus from spending last fall, Republicans had waged their most popularly successful budget battle ever.

This was, at least in principle, something to build on. Mr. McCain’s first role was to transform an opportunity for House Republicans to make the case for themselves into a necessity for House Republicans to make the case for themselves. And indeed, for whatever reason, Republicans have been doing better against Democrats in polls asking about a generic congressional ballot (i.e., will you vote for a Democrat or Republican for the House?).

The second McCain effect was on display in a memo circulated last week by Rep. Tom Davis, who heads the National Republican Congressional Committee, the House organization for electing Republicans to the House. Pointing to some of the signs of Republican strength, Mr. Davis urges Republicans to try to hook McCain voters – Democrats, independents, and first-time and young voters – into the Republican camp by broadening the party’s appeal. In voting in a Republican primary, “These voters have made the first move toward our party. Now we must make the next move to keep them in our fold.”

This message is in rather sharp contrast to the recent inward focus almost exclusively on the Republican base – often accompanied by the dismal hope that voter turnout not be too high. It almost seems like the first time since the government shutdown in 1995-96 in which Republicans have stepped out of a defensive crouch. The thought has occurred to them that they, too, may have something to offer independents, new voters, moderates, etc.

This is hardly a guarantee for continuation of the Republican majority. In certain respects, Democrats have not yet begun to fight, and Al Gore has emerged as a formidable campaigner and has drawn even with George W. Bush in polls. But it’s hard to imagine how Republicans succeed if the party itself doesn’t believe it can be successful.