Political Pulse January 2006

Rove's Anti-Itch Prescription

Republicans have a 2006 game plan, the same one they used in 2002 and 2004.
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The "six-year itch" is the affliction that tends to hit presidents in the middle of their second terms: A restless electorate deals a major setback to the president's party in the midterm election.

The itch hurt Democrats in 1938, after six years of Franklin D. Roosevelt's presidency, and again in 1966, the sixth year of the Kennedy-Johnson administrations. Likewise, Republicans suffered from it in 1958 (Eisenhower), 1974 (Nixon-Ford), and 1986 (Reagan). On average in those midterm elections, the president's party suffered a net loss of 44 House seats and seven Senate seats.

Heading toward November's election, Democrats need to gain only 15 seats to take control of the House. A net gain of seven seats would give them control of the Senate.

The problem for Democrats is that, like most historical trends, the six-year itch materializes except when it doesn't. During President Clinton's sixth year, 1998, Democrats defied expectations and picked up House seats. That surprise led House Speaker Newt Gingrich, R-Ga., to resign from Congress. Of course, there were special circumstances in 1998. Voters wanted to show their displeasure with the Republican-controlled Congress for the impending impeachment of Clinton.

But, arguably, special circumstances also reigned when the itch played a significant role on Election Day. Six-year itches usually result from severe political trauma—deep recessions in 1938 and 1958; racial violence and the Vietnam War in 1966; the Watergate scandal and Gerald Ford's pardon of Nixon in 1974.

Congressional Republicans are worried about this year's special circumstances—the Iraq war; the Gulf Coast devastation; the unpopular Medicare prescription drug program; and the clouds hanging over former House Majority Leader Tom DeLay, R-Texas, former vice presidential aide I. Lewis (Scooter) Libby, and lobbyist Jack Abramoff.

Democrats are likely to make gains this year. But it would take a political earthquake for Democrats to win control of the House or Senate. Few House seats are truly up for grabs. And only three Republican senators running for re-election this year are from so-called blue states: Lincoln Chafee of Rhode Island, Rick Santorum of Pennsylvania, and Olympia Snowe of Maine. Five Democratic senators up for re-election are from red states: Jeff Bingaman of New Mexico, Robert Byrd of West Virginia, Kent Conrad of North Dakota, Ben Nelson of Nebraska, and Bill Nelson of Florida.

Moreover, a six-year itch usually surfaces after the president's party has enjoyed landslide gains in Congress. But George W. Bush did not have long coattails in 2000 or 2004. In 2000, Republicans suffered a net loss of four Senate seats. In 2004, the GOP gained a mere three seats in the House.

Nevertheless, earthquakes do happen. So Republicans have a 2006 game plan, the same one they used successfully in 2002 and 2004. White House Deputy Chief of Staff Karl Rove announced it at the winter meeting of the Republican National Committee last week when he said, "At the core, we are dealing with two parties that have fundamentally different views on national security. Republicans have a post-9/11 worldview, and many Democrats have a pre-9/11 worldview."

Rove delivered the same message in January 2002, telling the RNC, "We can go to the country on this issue"—the war on terror—because voters "trust the Republican Party to do a better job of protecting and strengthening America's military might and, thereby, protecting America." He shocked Democrats by ending the political truce that had prevailed since 9/11.

Democrats got another shock when Rove's strategy worked in the 2002 midterm election. In December 2002, Clinton explained what had happened to his party this way: "Strong and wrong beats weak and right." Democrats were taught the same lesson in 2004.

Now Rove is accusing Democrats of embracing a "cut-and-run" policy on Iraq. On the domestic-wiretapping controversy, he says, "President Bush believes if Al Qaeda is calling somebody in America, it is in our national security interest to know who they're calling and why." Republicans are counting on their national security strategy to work again this November.

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William Schneider is the Cable News Network's senior political analyst. He is also a resident fellow at the American Enterprise Institute in Washington, D.C., and a contributing editor for the Los Angeles Times, National Journal, and The Atlantic Monthly. His column appears every week in National Journal, a weekly magazine covering politics and government published in Washington, D.C.

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