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.

Ed Rendell then opened fire on Obama, according to this report:

"They have never been in an executive position before," Rendell said on MSNBC's Morning Joe. "The rule of thumb is whatever you did, say it and get it over with and make it a one-day story as opposed to a three-day story. Politicians are always misjudging the intelligence of the American people."

Known for his blunt critiques of fellow Democrats, Rendell did not hold back during the interview.

The public, said Rendell, understands Obama and his aides would have an interest in who fills the Senate seat, and some contact with the governor's office -- and that Obama should have said as much at the outset.

"Did Rahm Emanuel who took Rod Blagojevich's seat in Congress have contact with Rod Blagojevich? Of course he did," Rendell said. "They may have thought he was the craziest S.O.B. in the world. But you still have to have contact with him."

Meanwhile, the Republicans pressed the Obama team to be more forthcoming and to reveal its connections not just to Blago, but the SEIU, which, according to the criminal complaint, was sought out by Blagojevich as an intermediary in his quest to get something valuable in exchange for Obama's open Senate seat. And that was all before it came to light that the next chief of staff, Rahm Emanuel, had discussions with Blago and provided him with a handy list of Obama-approved Senate candidates.

We saw over the last week that it is often easier to go on the attack from the vantage point of the opposition. Republicans are now freed from the burden of defending President Bush and their own bad actors (e.g., Sen. Ted Stevens). Instead, they can go on offense. Even the New York Times recognized the change of fortunes:

Congressional Republicans learned the hard way in 2006 that ethics transgressions and outright corruption could be molded into a potent campaign message. Now they are trying to turn the tables on Democrats who pressed a good-government theme in their successful drive to recapture Congress.

Spurred by a surprise election victory against an indicted House Democrat, the expanding ethics inquiry involving a powerful Democratic chairman, and now the scandal over the Illinois Senate seat, Republicans are emphasizing that the majority party should be held to its pledge to clean up Washington.

Similarly, Gerald Seib noted the sticky problem with Rangel:

For Mr. Obama, the Blagojevich investigation and prosecution soon will be something going on back home. The Rangel drama will play out right in the president-elect's new front yard. And while Gov. Blagojevich has little to say about the fate of the Obama legislative agenda, Rep. Rangel has a lot to say about that as long as he runs the Ways and Means Committee, wellspring of both tax and health legislation.

"A huge amount of the high-priority agenda of the Obama administration will work its way through the Ways and Means Committee," says Thomas Mann, a congressional scholar at the Brookings Institution. "Not having a strong chairman is clearly a liability."

So before the Republicans engage in more intra-party squabbling and reinvent the party, they might recall that much of politics is capitalizing on the other guy's errors, finding decent candidates, and just saying "no" when the other side comes up with bad legislation. In the last couple of weeks Republicans have made the most of their openings. And the conservative base once again has a spring in their collective step.

Who knew the Republicans' mood and fortunes would rebound this quickly? That's politics -- nothing lasts.