Foley: The Final Straw

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Had enough?

America has. Anyone who reads the polls accurately and honestly will acknowledge that the Republican Party is likely to lose control of the House of Representatives, the so-called "People's House." The Democrats maintained control for 40 years. The Republicans, just 12.

What went wrong? Why do Democrats finally appear to be heading toward electoral success and Republicans back into the political wilderness? In a word, fatigue. Americans are tired of the war, tired of watching illegal aliens race across our unguarded borders, tired of high energy costs, tired of wasteful Washington spending, and tired of story after story of political corruption and misbehavior.

As a pollster, my job is to tap the public mood. As a linguist, my efforts are focused on the words of the electorate and how best to communicate a set of priorities and principles. For the past three months, in focus groups literally from coast to coast — and a dozen states in between — I have heard the constant grumblings of Republicans that their party didn't do enough to follow through on their promises and the anger of Democrats who felt the G.O.P. went too far. Damned if you do. Damned if you don't.

And the language voters now use to describe Congress can only be heard after nasty divorce settlements and in the subways of New York. I've had voters spit on me as they emphasize the "d" in "do nothing" and the "c" in "corrupt."

Who can blame them? The Republican Party of 2006 is a tired, cranky shell of the aggressive, reformist movement that was swept into office in 1994 on a wave of positive change. I knew those Republicans. I worked for them. They were friends of mine. These Republicans are not those Republicans.

The leaders of the Republican Party in 1994 were bold, passionate visionaries with the courage to go to the people with a clearly defined agenda. Issues and principles drove them. Today, their agenda stretches no further than the next election. The same people who were elected on a platform of change have become the establishment bulls who fight change today. The 1994 Republicans advocated balanced budgets. Today, they defend deficits. The 1994 Republicans wanted to eliminate government programs. Today, they propose and create them. The 1994 Republicans held themselves and Congress to a higher ethical standard. Today, they seem more interested in protecting their jobs than protecting the people they serve. They came to change Washington. Washington won.

A staffer from the Commerce Committee told me that in 1995 and 1996 he fought to repeal regulations. Now he spends all his time writing them. Another staffer told me how he spent years fighting pork barrel spending on behalf of his boss. Now he spends all his time submitting earmarks for more special interest spending — on behalf of his boss.

It is therefore not surprising that in a recent national poll we conducted, 10% of the electorate that traditionally votes Republican, won't. This time, these Republican leaners (disproportionately older women) will split their tickets. For while Republicans are frustrated with their party, they're not happy with the Democratic alternative, either.

And make no mistake — the Democrats are no better. They routinely dismiss or minimize the indiscretions of their own members. Rep. Bill Jefferson (D-LA) recently led a delegation to Louisiana — after the FBI found $100,000 in cash in his freezer. They have launched a hundred criticisms but offer no meaningful solutions. They rebuffed efforts to introduce a party platform because they felt they could gain more seats by attacking Republicans rather than explaining what they believe.

And their leader, Rep. Nancy Pelosi, is among the most partisan and negative politicians on the national stage. Not once in the past 12 months has she reached across the aisle or offered any sort of bipartisan cooperation. In fact, one Member of Congress told me House Democrats have strict orders not to cooperate or even talk to their Republican counterparts until Election Day. At the very moment when the public most craves serious solutions to serious problems, the Democrats' "together, we can do better" message responds with the worst form of sloganeering. As was once said about the Palestinians, the Democrats never miss an opportunity... to miss an opportunity.

To Americans, Washington is a giant cesspool. It's no wonder almost half of Americans (47%) now agree with the statement "I'm mad as hell and I'm not going to take it anymore." It's us (the people) versus them (the politicians), and it doesn't matter what primary color you wear. Just as in the closing scene of George Orwell's Animal Farm, even when you look closely, you can't tell the difference between the animals and the people anymore.

But since the Republicans are in charge, it will be the Republicans who will be punished. The scandal involving Mark Foley is, for some voters, the final straw — not as much because of what Foley did but because of how the congressional Republican leadership handled it, or, shall I say, mishandled it. For a party that built so much support from its principle of accountability in government, the utter lack of accountability and the constant blame shifting is stunning. Meet the new boss; same as the old boss.

For Republicans to snatch victory from the jaws of defeat, they need to acknowledge in the waning days of the election what the Democrats refused to accept in 1994: it's time for a change. I was involved in the 1994 elections, and I will never forget the arrogance of the Democrats back then, and how they refused to accept the electoral reality facing them.

It is no different today. It's time to admit mistakes, to acknowledge voter frustration, and to once again reaffirm the principles that kept them in the majority for more than a decade. This is not giving up — it is the only way to give themselves the slimmest of chances. They must return to being the Republican Party of new ideas, not a party whose only idea is to do what it takes to survive.

Frank Luntz was the pollster of record for the Contract With America in 1994. He is the author of the forthcoming book Words That Work.