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OFF TO THE RACES

Playing To Win

Should Republicans want to hold onto the presidency in 2008?

It sounds like a stupid question, and maybe it is. But one thing that has been true over the last couple of decades is that both parties have enormously strong self-destructive tendencies. If left to their own devices, they will do themselves in. To give one party the White House and majorities in the House and Senate is like a ticking time bomb; it's only a matter of time before it explodes and the party loses, and loses big.

 

While conceding that the last year has supplied more unexpected twists and turns than any presidential election year since 1968, it is nearly certain Democrats will retain majorities in the Senate and House after this election. My hunch is that Democrats will pick up three to six Senate seats, bringing them from a 51-49 majority to somewherebetween 54-46 to 57-43.

In the House, the Cook Political Report is being pretty conservative, with a current forecast of a Democratic gain of five to 10 seats, but the chance of bigger gains is much greater than the chance of smaller gains.

A good case can be made that the Republican Party would be a stronger, better party five years from today if it reconstituted itself now.

 

At this point in time, Illinois Sen. Barack Obama has a 95-percent chance of winning the Democratic nomination. The window for New York Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton to win enough pledged delegates to persuade superdelegates to vote for her is pretty much closed.

She can't win the remaining contests by sufficient margins to appreciably close the gap at this point, and superdelegates are breaking more toward Obama than Clinton. Short of a Rev. Jeremiah Wright-level embarrassment visiting Obama each week for four or five consecutive weeks, this thing is over.

So what about the general election? Tracking polling by the Gallup Organization of around 4,400 registered voters conducted Tuesday through Friday, Wednesday through Saturday and Thursday through Sunday shows presumed GOP nominee John McCain and Obama tied at 45 percent. The Arizona senator had a 2-point lead over Clinton in all three sets of tracks, matching the error margin.

This race is more likely to be determined by events or circumstances that have yet to develop than anything specific we can point to today. But it is also true that a Democrat needs to be ahead in the popular vote, measured by national polls, by at least a point or two in order for that to dependably translate into an Electoral College majority.

 

Simply put, the Republican vote is much more efficiently allocated around the country. Aside from Nebraska and Maine -- states that apportion their electoral votes in part by who wins congressional districts -- once a state is won by a single vote, there is no bonus for winning big. The rest of the votes count in the national polls like all others, but have no impact on the outcome of the election.

Democrats typically "waste" a lot of votes in California, Illinois and New York, winning by wide margins and running up huge vote totals. The only state where Republicans waste a large number of votes is Texas. In the states where Republicans win higher percentages, they tend to be lesser-populated states that are overrepresented in the Electoral College.

With millions of wasted votes, Democrats have to run up the score a bit in the popular vote to be sure that they have won enough states to cover the 270 electoral votes needed to keep the election from being thrown into the House.

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But this brings us back to the original point. Should Republicans want to win? If Democrats win the presidency and hold onto the House and Senate, how long will it be before they self-destruct?

Democrats had majorities in the House and Senate when Bill Clinton was elected president in 1992, and it took the party only two years to lose majorities in both. For Republicans, they already had control of the House and Senate when George W. Bush won in 2000. It took six years before they self-destructed, losing majorities in both chambers.

Lord Acton is famous for his line that "power tends to corrupt, and absolute power corrupts absolutely." It is debatable how much is corruption, how much is arrogance and overreaching, and how much is sloth or growing out of touch, but the result is the same. Whether it is Democrats or Republicans, conservatives or liberals, too much unchecked power is an inevitable problem.

A different way of approaching it is that every decade or two, a party has to destroy itself and be reborn. Like forests need fire to begin the regeneration process, from time to time, parties need the dead wood cleared out and space made for new growth to emerge. But to rise like a phoenix, you have to get down to ashes first.

As painful as 2006 was for the GOP, the party did not appear to hit rock bottom. A good case can be made that the Republican Party would be a stronger, better party five years fromtoday if it reconstituted itself now.

An argument can be made that McCain is such a iconoclastic, nontraditional Republican that he could represent and bring change to the party. He could perhaps decrease its emphasis on cultural and religious issues, a move many see as important. Whether he could lead that rebirth without the GOP actuallylosing the White House is an interesting question.

All of this is fine to say from the cheap seats. But in the real world, competitors always play to win. Republicans and Democrats should fight this election as if there were no tomorrow. That's the way it should be.

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