A truism of election strategy for the past 25 or so years has been that the smartest thing Republicans do is run against Democrats.
Much of the brilliance attributed to wizards with names like Atwater, Gingrich and Rove may be more properly accrued to the shortcomings of just about every Democrat not named William Jefferson Clinton. It don't take no geniuses to whup Democrats.
In 2006, Democrats are hoping that running against a sitting Republican president named George Walker Bush in every single race will be enough to take over the House and maybe the Senate. They are counting on something Republicans used to count on: a divided, disoriented and unattractive enemy.
Many polls point in that direction now. I'm skeptical. And I'm skeptical that even a change of control on one or both chambers of Congress would change control of the nation's direction.
It this moment, Democratic optimism is understandable. In the past two presidential elections, the Democrats seemed to believe that their populist masses would somehow recognize the fine nobility of the limousine liberals they nominated and the crassness of George Bush the Younger. It didn't work out that way.
But 2006 is a midterm election, and the Democrats aren't encumbered by a national punching bag. The Republicans are, though — they're shackled to an unpopular president, one who many candidates don't even care to be photographed with.
This year, the Democrats have no illusions that voters will affirmatively embrace their chosen national leaders — Nancy Pelosi, Harry Reid and Howard Dean. This is a sign of reality-based strategy, something the Republicans haven't had to contend with in a while. They don't seem to have any illusions that they have a message or a platform or a "vision thing" that people affirmatively vote for. That is realistic, though pathetic.
The Democratic architecture this year appears to be built on three pragmatic pillars: Democrats hate President Bush and are highly motivated to vote against any Republican they can get their chads on; a lot of conservatives are disenchanted with the administration, for varied reasons, and won't bother to get to the polls; independents will primarily cast votes against, not for, and George Bush is the guy to vote against.
So why aren't the political meteorologists confidently predicting that Hurricane Democrat will pick up the House and Senate?
Three reasons: Joe Lieberman, Lincoln Chafee and tactics. I'd add one more: the bankruptcy of the two-party system.
Many believe that Joe Lieberman's primary loss demonstrates that even in times of plenty, Democrats are apt to resort to cannibalism. If the great invisible hand guiding Democratic voters was the desire to oust Bush, the most prudent action for Connecticut Democrats would have been to nominate Lieberman, a moderate who would have clobbered the scrawny GOP unknown.
Instead, the voters rejected Lieberman for fine but impractical reasons, knowing full well that their choice, Ned Lamont, could easily go on to lose against Joe Lieberman, Independent. This is the type of fratricide Republicans count on. It has happened in other Democratic House primaries.