Professional football is in its pre-season and so is politics. Coaches are trying out plays and players to see what might bring them victory when the season starts next month. Politicians are experimenting with themes they think will bring them victory in the November election.
The political playbook of the Democrats is familiar: class warfare in which the poor and middle class think "the rich" are stealing from them and blaming Republicans for the few CEOs who are crooks. Republicans seem mostly content playing defense. They must learn to score or risk losing the House and allowing Democrats to pad their one-vote lead in the Senate.
A large turnout of angry Republicans elected the GOP class of 1994, the one that put the party in control of the House for the first time in 40 years. After cutting taxes and reforming welfare, Republicans mistakenly slipped back into trying to prove they were not "mean-spirited" or anti-elderly. When Republicans lack a message and fight on Democratic turf, they lose.
Who is angrier in 2002? Clearly it's the Democrats. They're angry over the presidential loss of 2000. They're angry that they've been stripped of what they regard as their entitlement to run the House. And they're at least feigning anger over the few corporate scandals that have caused thousands of layoffs and threatened the retirement nest eggs of former employees.
I asked Paul Weyrich about Republican prospects in the coming election. Weyrich, president of the Free Congress Foundation, has one of the best political minds in Washington. He was an architect of the 1980 Republican blowout that put Ronald Reagan in the White House and Republicans in control of the Senate.
Weyrich believes Republicans are doomed if they don't motivate their base, and that they could easily lose their House majority and fail to win back the Senate. To avoid such a catastrophe, he says President Bush and every Republican must start raising red meat issues that will get the conservative base to the polls.
Immigration is first on Weyrich's list. "Republicans have not been tackling the immigration issue," says Weyrich, "because President Bush is in favor of amnesty for illegal aliens and wants to let even more of them into the country. Yet, there is no evidence he is getting any of their votes."
Issue two, he says, is the Boy Scouts. "Republican emotions are weak on the gay issue," says Weyrich, referring to the continuing controversy over whether homosexual men should be allowed to be scoutmasters. The Supreme Court ruled that the Boy Scouts do not have to admit homosexual scoutmasters, but pressure on local scout chapters and the school districts that allow them to use their facilities has caused many chapters to revise how they interpret the part of the scout oath about keeping "morally straight."
Issue three for Weyrich is the San Francisco Appeals Court ruling which said the phrase "under God" in the Pledge of Allegiance is unconstitutional. Though the decision was written by an appointee of Richard Nixon, Weyrich says the political issue should be activist judges and what they've done to hurt our country. "President Bush mentions judges on occasion, but the grassroots don't hear about it unless they are physically present during the speech," he says.
Assuming the president and his party won't suddenly reverse course and start angering Republican voters, motivating them to go to the polls in November, how does the GOP make political gains this fall? Weyrich says that in such a case, only a war of liberation in Iraq can reverse Republican fortunes.
"An 'October surprise' will completely change the dynamic of the election," he says. "The public will rally around the president and Republicans if it is well thought out and, in fact, Saddam Hussein is ousted."
Weyrich is right. President Bush has been playing Mr. Nice Guy, which he is. But there is a time for anger, as he knows from his reading of Ecclesiastes, and that time is now. If he wants a governing majority that he can use to advance his beliefs and policies, it's better to motivate his base and get them angry than to be angry after Democrats win a congressional majority. In control of Congress, Democrats will obstruct Bush's agenda at least as well as they did his father's and blame a second President Bush for being a "do-nothing president."
Cal Thomas is a columnist for Tribune Media Services.