Land of the second chance, the Hail Mary pass and redemption

By Ken Feltman

Will hubris spoil the Republicans’ party?

“I can’t believe that I’m losing to that idiot.” With those words late on election night, John Kerry summed up his frustration as he realized that his dream was ending. He was not alone in expressing disbelief. Most Democrats and, indeed, many Republicans found it hard to understand.

To quote a few pundits, George W. Bush was “so smug,” and “inarticulate” that he was surely “not up to the job” and had the country “mired in a war we cannot win.” Bush had “caused us to lose credibility with our allies” and the missing weapons of mass destruction meant that “we [had] become an international laughing-stock.” How could such a candidate win?

The Kerry campaign was confident that its huge voter registration and get-out-the-vote efforts would prevail. But Bush won and despairing Democrats blamed all sorts of causes: the religious right, Kerry-the-poor-candidate, “dumb” voters, plots by Republican operatives, unfair anti-Kerry ads and cable TV.

The real reasons Kerry lost are less interesting. The Bush campaign understood the mood of the voters better and developed a better plan. (Kerry and his team developed a series of plans and, forever second-guessing, never fully implemented one.) Most importantly, the Bush team executed their plan with overwhelming precision.

Miss Mattie knows

Beside that, people liked President Bush. They felt they knew him and that he was doing his best. They were willing to look beyond his mistakes to something shared -something that they believed, something that he believed – something not expressed, trust, something just felt. They did not need others to tell them about Bush’s shortcomings. They already knew. They made allowances.

We are the land of the second chance, the Hail Mary pass and redemption. Either you understand that or you don’t. Kerry didn’t – and people knew he didn’t.

An old tale illustrates Kerry’s dilemma. Fresh out of seminary school, the earnest young man preached his first sermon to his first flock. It was all about sin and redemption and would have done a prairie evangelist proud. As he greeted the congregation afterward, he asked them one-by-one how they liked his sermon. All said they liked it, that he showed great promise, that they looked forward to next Sunday. Finally, Miss Mattie, the oldest member of the congregation, stood before him. He asked, “How did I do?”

Miss Mattie took his hand and gave it a warm squeeze, then looked him squarely in the eyes. “Son, I know you mean well,” she said, “but you ain’t lived long enough to have sinned enough to have repented enough to tell me anything about it.”

John Kerry’s campaign never could establish the credibility required to attack Bush successfully. Kerry did understand Bush’s connection with voters. But because he did not understand the basis for the connection, Kerry could not secure an equal measure of trust. His emphasis on his Vietnam War heroism was an attempt to break through.

When will these Democrats ever learn?

The result? Another – yes, another – Northeastern liberal lost. He was so uncompetitive in the South and the mountain states that many Democrats in those red states disowned him. When will Democrats learn from their own experience?

But wait, maybe they don’t need to learn. Maybe all they need to do is watch the Republicans self-destruct. Could it be a short wait? Let’s try to figure it out.

Bush’s win means many things but it does not signal a political realignment; this was a get-out-the-vote victory. Bush received the smallest margin ever for a re-elected president. The Bush team did a brilliant job but did not create millions of new Republican voters; instead, the Bush campaign consolidated support by turning out millions of occasional Republican voters in key states.

Question: will these occasional Republicans vote in similar numbers again in 2008?

Be skeptical when some Republicans crow that the party is on the verge of domination similar to the period that began with Lincoln and ended with Franklin Roosevelt’s victory in 1932. The claim that Bush’s narrow victory is a mandate that foretells years of growing Republican success ignores a basic rule: Political parties tend to sow the seeds of their own destruction very soon after achieving dominance.

Death by Hubris

Hubris is the leading cause of death in politics. Even now, some Republicans are intent upon drinking hubris-laced Kool-Aid. Who can stop them? They are emboldened because they are partly correct: the victories in the House and Senate could mean long-term GOP control of Congress – unless the GOP majority overreaches and gives the Democrats an issue or two.

After all, the Democrats are hard pressed to compete on the issues. They rattled on for two years about how wrong the Republicans were on the issues and lost ground in Congress. The Democrats will need to look elsewhere to make gains – perhaps to ethical lapses or corruption. Of course, such lapses should not happen because the GOP leadership should understand that only Republican mistakes will let the Democrats back in the game. Forewarned is forearmed. A forewarned Republican party will make prudent choices, right?

When will these Republicans ever learn?

Say, isn’t that House Majority Leader Tom DeLay over there? Doesn’t that kind of look like a possible ethical crisis he’s heading toward? Isn’t this the Tom DeLay who is called “the Hammer” because of his take-no-prisoners approach to running the House? Democrats certainly have ample reason to loath him. And won’t the media just love to splash DeLay’s follies and foibles all over the place? How many Greek tragedies do we need to read to understand that destruction starts with a little deceit, a minor flaw?

The Chaos Theory applies to political organizations. Bad choices, however few and minor, can be distracting, possibly debilitating. Will the DeLay distraction be followed by similar instances of questionable judgment? Will this affect the 2008 election?

Near-term conditions will remain essentially the same. With population trends and all other things being equal, the Republican candidate should win. A popular Republican should beat a popular Democrat. A popular but flawed Republican may well win. Even an unpopular and flawed Republican might beat a Democrat who lacks likeability or has flaws that can be exploited. Bush was popular but flawed. Kerry was never popular and became more flawed as the campaign progressed.

Without a candidate who can connect with voters as Bush did, and without the disciplined campaign management of the Bush team, Republicans may not be able to bring those occasional voters to the polls. That could make for another close election. Then, too, if Congressional Republicans fail to keep their House in order, 2008 could be a tough year for the Republican presidential nominee.

The Republicans will have only themselves to blame if they lose the 2008 election. Unlike the heroes of Greek mythology, Republicans control their own fate.


A personal note about a classmate: The willing and capable few

Over a half century ago, Dr. Peter Marshall, chaplain of the U.S. Senate, talked about the people who are at the heart of our society, essential to the daily functioning of every organization, everywhere. Saints of the Rank and File, he called them. Communities are built on the cheerful, necessary and underappreciated work of such people.

Email and the telephone carried the bad news quickly: Gloria was dead after a freak accident. She was not the first of my high school classmates to die but Gloria’s death touches us all. Gloria was a salt-of-the-earth woman who worked quietly, unconcerned about formal recognition. She was the glue holding things together, the one who did the little but important tasks that made everything run smoothly. She was everyone’s good friend and saw to it that things got done. As Peter Marshall recognized, community groups, clubs, schools, the whole fabric of society depend on these willing and capable few. Gloria’s husband, Art, also a classmate, is as rock-solid as a person can be. They were a perfect team. Everything they touched is better for it.

These saints of the rank and file are in short supply – perhaps just enough to go around – so when we lose one, the rest of us need to fill in. That won’t be easy. People like Gloria just make it seem easy.

About Radnor Reports

Ken Feltman is past-president of the International Association of Political Consultants and the American League of Lobbyists. He is retired chairman of Radnor Inc., an international political consulting and government relations firm in Washington, D.C. Know as a coalition builder, he has participated in election campaigns and legislative efforts in the United States and several other countries.
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