American Way: why Republican smiles are not as broad as they might be

These should be happy days for the Republican Party. The Democrats are in charge and the country is going to rot. Jobless numbers refuse to move down, while the oil slick off the south coast refuses to stop spreading.

By Alex Spillius
Published: 4:40PM BST 12 Jun 2010

Female boardroom billionaires win Republican primaries in  California: Meg Whitman (left) and Carly Fiorina

Meg Whitman (left) and Carly Fiorina Photo: AP

The public is equally sickened by record levels of debt as the brown goo washing up on its southern beaches courtesy of BP. Many voters are unconvinced that President Obama’s health reform will be good for theirs.

For an opposition party hoping to regain control of Congress in November’s midterm elections, this is all welcome news. But primary elections last week demonstrated why Republican smiles are not as broad as they might be.

In California, party members selected Carly Fiorina, the former chief executive of Hewlett Packard, to be their senate candidate, and Meg Whitman, the former head of eBay, to run for governor after Arnold Schwarzenegger steps down.

This was on the face of it a positive story. As an American observer once noted, the Republican membership in Congress resembles a urologist’s waiting room. But here were two women with Silicon Valley savvy vying to turn around a state and a country on the verge of bankruptcy.

Winning a primary can come at great cost later on in a general election when floating voters join the fray, however, especially in a Left-leaning state such as California.

Under pressure from the activist Right-wing of the party, Fiorina endorsed the right of anyone on no-fly lists, even terror suspects, to buy firearms – a standard position for staunch supporters of gun rights.

Both she and Whitman supported Arizona’s new immigration law that makes detaining illegal immigrant suspects much easier for police. The statute has enraged Hispanics, who now make up 22 per cent of California’s electorate and are highly unlikely to vote for any pro-Arizona candidate.

Next door in Nevada, Republican primary voters chose a local politician called Sharron Angle over the party establishment’s choice to run against Sen Harry Reid, the majority leader in the Senate.

There is no bigger Democrat scalp to be taken in November than Reid’s. The recession has hit Nevada especially hard (a decent house in Las Vegas now costs £20,000) and Reid is taking the rap. As a prime symbol of Washington in a year of anti-government fever, he is even more vulnerable than most incumbents.

Angle, 60, a tea party favourite, has irked even some Republican officials by calling for the privatisation of the free health care system for retirees and the state pension. She has a reputation as a loose cannon.

Until Tuesday, Reid had already been written off by many pundits, but he can now see a path to victory by focusing on Mrs Angle’s warped perspectives.

The Democrats have suffered a couple of local rebellions, but activist insurgencies have been much more common within the Republican Party, whose weak and short-sighted leadership has been unable to provide the ideological guidance needed to contain the energy and anger of its grassroots supporters.

With no initiatives of its own, the default position of the party in Congress has been to oppose Obama on everything, a stance first recommended by Rush Limbaugh, the leading conservative talk radio host who has moved his portly frame and national megaphone into the vacuum left by the hesitant party bosses in Washington.

Saying no may be good daily politics, but it means the president will be able to claim the credit for health care reform when its benefits become clearer. The same applies to the Democratic bill to clean up Wall Street, which only a few Republican senators supported.

The Democrats’ high-spending approach to the recession may or may not be fast-tracking the country to oblivion, but they at least have a plan, albeit a fairly predictable Left-of-centre agenda for reforming health care (already done), financial oversight (almost done), education (ditto), energy and immigration (both difficult).

The Republicans on the other hand are bereft of inspiration, indeed of a guiding philosophy beyond the anti-regulation, pro-low tax mantra that saw its heyday under Ronald Reagan. To many in the electorate, that now sounds tired and lacking in the sophistication needed for the complex challenges of the early 21st century.

So poor is their performance that it is almost an injustice that Republicans are likely to nonetheless make some gains in Congress in November. For in midterm elections, the pendulum nearly always swings back towards the party out of power.

But with some good ideas and strong leaders they could overcome large Democratic majorities to recapture the House and the Senate. Their prospects could be so much better.



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