Two long years ago, veteran political reporter Thomas Edsall published Building Red America: The New Conservative Coalition and the Drive for Permanent Power. In the course of several hundred fluidly argued, thoroughly dispiriting pages, Edsall threw a wet blanket on the hopes of Democrats who thought their party stood a fighting chance of wresting power back from Karl Rove & Co. Republicans were more ruthless, more unified and more generously bankrolled by big business, Edsall maintained, in addition to being inordinately savvier. He was, of course, hardly alone in this view. “Republican hegemony in America is now expected to last for years, maybe decades,” crooned conservative writer Fred Barnes after the 2004 election. “We are in a tremendous amount of trouble,” sighed a glum Democratic chairman in the New York Times that same fall.
Although the Democrats may still find a way to lose the election in November, no serious observer would suggest today that it would be because they succumbed to an indomitable foe. Less than a full election cycle after Rove’s “permanent majority” was said to be upon us, Bush’s approval ratings have sunk to the lowest level of any President since presidential job-approval ratings were introduced. Republicans in Congress are streaming for the exits. Surveys show young voters identifying as Democrats over Republicans by double-digit margins, and the 81 percent of Americans who believe the country is seriously “on the wrong track” have conservatives wondering aloud whether Rove’s dream has become a nightmare.
“Without change we could face a catastrophic election this fall,” warned former House Speaker Newt Gingrich in a May 6 article on the website of the journal Human Events. His prognosis is echoed in several new books written by conservatives that come wrapped in optimistic packaging about how the situation may be righted with the proper adjustments but that are full of gloomy pronouncements about the disaster to come if the same tired formula is pursued. “A generation of young Americans has been lost to our party,” worries former Bush speechwriter David Frum in Comeback: Conservatism That Can Win Again, the content of which is far less sanguine than the title suggests. “Conservatives have conspicuously failed to earn [Americans’] trust on most domestic policy questions,” write journalists Ross Douthat and Reihan Salam in Grand New Party, which argues that Bush’s plutocratic policies have begun to alienate even many on the right.
The chastened tone of these books is striking in a movement that could scarcely have sounded more sure of itself a few years ago, when the myriad factions of the Republican Party–libertarians, opponents of abortion, champions of big business, neocons–appeared to be marching in lockstep to Karl Rove’s tune. Now Republicans are hurling blame at Bush for betraying conservative principles as they search about for scapegoats. “Everyone is sniping at each other,” a member of the House Republican Conference recently told Politico shortly after the GOP lost a special election in Louisiana’s 6th District, a seat it had held since 1975. The defeat came on the heels of a similar setback in March in Illinois, in the district formerly represented by Dennis Hastert. These turnovers, and a widely anticipated special election loss on May 13 in Mississippi, cast a grim shadow over a recent meeting on Capitol Hill where Tom Cole, chair of the National Republican Congressional Committee, warned members there were no resources to “save” incumbents facing well-heeled Democratic challengers.