This should be a banner year for Republicans. To pick up the six seats they need to take control of the Senate, Republicans need only to pocket three open seats in red-state South Dakota, West Virginia, and Montana, and knock off endangered incumbents in states Obama lost in 2012 like Louisiana, Alaska, Arkansas, and North Carolina.
This should have been a dead-pipe cinch, given an economic recovery that still hasn’t reached most families, a dysfunctional Washington, two-thirds of voters thinking the country is headed in the wrong direction, the growing disapproval of the president, the millions in “dark money” flowing into right-wing attack ads and the lousy turnout predictable in a sixth-year bi-election.
Yet with the election a week away, Republicans still haven’t been able to close the deal. Karl Rove, conservatism's twisted guru, while urging big money to dig deep, advised that “it is not enough for Republicans to remind [voters] of Mr. Obama’s many failings; voters want to know how the GOP would move the country forward.”
Republicans are relentless at pointing out the “failings.” From the start, “Not Obama” was their mantra, and fear – ISIS, Ebola, immigrants, Those People – their currency. They would handcuff Democratic incumbents to Obama and let them sink together. However, what Rove calls a “governing vision” has proved to be the problem. The Republican agenda for the economy? Republicans are glib at saying what it is not – not Obama – but get tongue-tied when trying to explain what it is.
The problem is when the conversation turns from horse race to issues, "not Obama" isn’t exactly persuasive. Obama is for health care reform, for comprehensive immigration reform, for raising the minimum wage, for equal pay for equal work, for free all-day preschool, for rebuilding our infrastructure and putting people to work, for paid family leave, for making college more affordable, for insuring that the rich and corporations pay a more fair share of our taxes to help pay for this stuff. Republicans voted virtually in lock step against all these in Congress and oppose them on the campaign trail. While Obama hasn’t exactly been a forceful advocate of these reforms, the reforms themselves are popular.
So what are Republicans for instead? They have nothing beyond pretense to replace the health care reforms they would repeal. They have learned nothing from the conservative debacle that drove the economy off the cliff. They are for lowering taxes on the rich and corporations, for deregulating Wall Street and corporations, for slashing spending on “bloated government.” Their public works agenda is to build the Keystone pipeline, and charter Big Oil even more to plunder public lands and offshore areas. They pledge to do to the U.S. what right-wing ideologues have done to Kansas – and there even Republicans are outraged. There is no there there.
The conservative mantra about the economy – lower taxes, less spending, less regulation – is political comfort food. Voters have heard it for decades: it is familiar and it offers assurance in an unsure time. Only it is way beyond its due date. Even country-club conservatives find it less than compelling. The U.S. Chamber of Commerce wants a big infrastructure project to rebuild the country. More and more insurance companies are factoring in the projected costs of climate change. Even purblind education reformers agree on the benefits of universal pre-k. Mitt Romney helped Occupy make inequality and fair taxes compelling concerns.
By all rights, this should be a big Republican year – and it still could be. Only instead of Mitch McConnell choosing the color of the drapes for the office of the Senate Majority Leader, he’s fighting a pitched battle to hold his own seat. Democratic incumbents have struggled to show their independence from the president, while focusing on various popular reforms that the president actually supports. But while they are pretzeled, Republicans haven’t sealed the deal for one simple reason. They have no plan to make this economy work for the many and not the few. They can’t govern because they have no governing vision. And increasingly, the old gospel no longer summons belief, nor covers up that glaring reality.