GOP on the Comeback Trail

The Republicans are on a winning streak. They captured Georgia's U.S. Senate seat, pulled off an upset in Louisiana by defeating  William (Frozen Cash) Jefferson, and are enjoying the sight of the Democrats caught in the "culture of corruption" -- with embattled House Ways and Means Chairman Charlie Rangel and Illinois Governor Rod Blagojevich as featured players. Then they stopped (at least in the short run) the Democrats' car bailout bill in its tracks, exposing the UAW as intransigent by refusing to immediately modify wages in order to save the Big Three, which employs its members.

All in all not bad for a political party which only a few weeks ago was supposed to be dead and irrelevant. What happened?

Pundits and prognosticators forget that politics isn't played in the abstract. Columnists can debate the future of conservatism all they like but back in the real world actual bills (e.g., the car bailout) and real politicians (e.g.,  Blago) test how skilled and effective each side is in getting its narrative before the public.

In the car bailout Sen. Bob Corker did a masterful job in hearings exposing the huge gap between the UAW and wages being paid to non-union auto workers elsewhere in the U.S. while pressing his colleagues to force meaningful reform of the Big Three. He didn't say simply "no bailout." Instead, he explained that taxpayers should not be forced to subsidize losing propositions that will continue to lose money without real restructuring. He offered his alternative, which would demand that the Big Three match its competitors' wage structure. When the Democrats' bailout went down to defeat, the New York Times explained: "The collapse came after bipartisan talks on the auto rescue broke down over GOP demands that the United Auto Workers union agree to steep wage cuts by 2009 to bring their pay into line with Japanese carmakers." Round #1 to the Republicans. (President Bush seems intent on handing back the hard-earned victory, but Republicans nevertheless should be pleased by their effort, which is the first step toward proving they aren't Bush Republicans.)

In the Blago affair, once again, the Democrats fumbled the ball. First, the president-elect gave parsed responses, denying flatly that he hadn't spoken to Blago about his Senate seat. Then, as the media vultures swarmed, he offered to collect information on his transition team's contacts. But not even liberal columnists were satisfied. As the Washington Post's Eugene Robinson put it:

In handling questions about the arrest of Illinois Gov. Rod Blagojevich -- for allegedly trying to sell President-elect Barack Obama's former Senate seat to the highest bidder -- Obama has gone strictly by the book. His statements have been cautious and precise, careful not to get ahead of the facts or make declarations that might later have to be retracted.

For most politicians, that would be good enough. For Obama, who inspired the nation with a promise of "change we can believe in," it's not.