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Campaigner-in-Chief

Republicans like to crank up the Washington-is-the-problem rhetoric for midterm elections. Remember the Contract With America? What'll they do now that government is the solution?

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The average Republican views the average libertarian as a crackpot with a weird personal life. The average Republican is onto something. Libertarians tend to be odd. By definition, they're cranky and nonconformist. They like theories. They dress poorly. They don't follow instructions well. The first libertarian meeting I ever went to devolved into a heated argument over -- no joke -- who should run the meeting. ("Don't tell me what to do!" "Since when did you become God?" And so on.) You wouldn't want libertarians in charge of a government.

On the other hand, politics informed by libertarian instincts -- the libertarian spirit rather than actual libertarianism -- is a good thing. It has been a winner for Republicans. The party took control of Congress in 1994 on a crypto-libertarian platform. Less regulation, more power to state and local government, fewer services more efficiently provided -- those were the selling points of the Contract With America. It was the TV Guide version of a Cato Institute position paper.

Republicans have been using the same lines ever since. At the heart of almost every GOP campaign is a libertarian theme, usually expressed in anti-Washington terms: "The professional politicians back in Washington want to tell you how to live your life. Elect me to stop them." It's a message that people who wouldn't consider supporting a bona fide pro-heroin, pro-prostitution libertarian can embrace. It works.

Or has. But what happens when, all of a sudden, the entire country likes, needs, and admires Washington? When the heroes of the moment are all civil servants? Have you seen the commercials for the Post Office?

That's about where Republicans find themselves going into this year's midterm elections. A year and a half ago, according to Kennedy School of Government polling, only 18 percent of Republicans said they trusted government all or most of the time. Shortly after Bush's election, that number rose (predictably) to a third. Last month it reached 75 percent.

Meanwhile, there's evidence that voters not only trust government more than they did but are increasingly happy with it. Every quarter, the University of Michigan Business School releases something called the American Customer Satisfaction Index. Using data from 50,000 interviews, the study measures consumers' satisfaction with government and private industry. The government's ratings are up 3.5 percent this quarter. More striking, even widely hated branches of the federal government now seem relatively popular. In the latest index, the Internal Revenue Service tied US Airways for customer satisfaction. It beat McDonald's.

Very little about government riles the population these days. Eavesdropping on calls between suspects and their lawyers? Civil libertarians are furious about the proposal. No one else cares. The Washington Post found that nearly three quarters of Americans thought it was a great idea. National ID cards? You'd think (hope) the very suggestion would be greeted with widespread suspicion, and not just by Kennedy-assassination buffs and people who live in Idaho. But no. A Pew poll found that 70 percent of those asked "favor a system that would require people to show a card to authorities who request it."

For Republicans, these are bad numbers. Contented voters don't vote, particularly in midterms. The twin keys to turnout, any political consultant will tell you after a few drinks, are hatred and fear. Quell their anger and calm their fears, and people will stay home. The GOP needs to find a new way to enrage its supporters.

No respectable Republican will admit this, of course. When the subject of the midterms arises, party strategists and functionaries talk instead about George W. Bush. "Leadership" was the one-word answer I got from a well-placed Republican when I asked what GOP candidates were planning to run on this fall.

The theory is simple: Bush's approval ratings are astronomical and holding. Bush is a Republican. Other Republicans will benefit from his popularity.This theory certainly works in reverse. An unpopular president can be deadly for his party during midterms. But can Bush, even at 80 percent approval, keep his party from being blamed for the economy?

We'll see. Publicly, many Republicans contend that the traditional midterm realignment -- a product of the public's instinctive desire to counterbalance presidential power -- doesn't hold in wartime. In private, many admit that the election will be a stunning success if nothing changes at all. In the meantime, here's how the campaigns are likely to break down:

Democrats will run on the recession. Polls show that rising medical costs worry voters more than any other single economic issue, so expect to hear a lot about health insurance and HMOs. You'll hear a lot about tax cuts, too, about how Bush's handouts to corporations caused the deficit and, by (unexplained) implication, the recession. Tom Daschle will lead this charge. (Though he will not, tellingly, suggest repealing the tax cuts, immoral as they are.) Daschle is an uninspiring presence and a mediocre speaker, but his pleasant demeanor makes him hard to demonize. Plus, he's famous. Thanks to coverage of the anthrax attack on his office, Daschle has far higher name recognition than the typical Senate majority leader. Expect to see him on television constantly as fall approaches.

The Republicans will respond to attacks on their fiscal management by talking about . . . war. National security is one of the few issues on which Republicans maintain a distinct advantage. People trust the GOP to keep the country safe. You won't hear a word about "drilling for oil in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge," a phrase that doesn't test well in focus groups. Instead, you'll hear Republicans talk about "energy security" and "energy independence," both euphemisms for drilling for oil in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge.

Finally, you'll hear about tax increases. In politics, a successful message always reinforces the preexisting suspicions of the audience. Voters suspect (correctly, as it turns out) that Democrats would like to raise their taxes. So that's what Republicans will accuse them of. The reasoning goes like this: While top Democrats have not actually called for repealing the president's tax cuts, they'd like to. And since repealing a tax cut that has not yet taken effect is the same as raising taxes, the Democrats want to raise your taxes.

It's not a perfect argument, but it's about as close as Republicans are likely to get this fall to a libertarian message. (They can't use their best slogan: "Now that we've restored your faith in government, we have nothing left to run on.") Real libertarian messages just aren't selling. Less than two weeks after September 11, libertarian intellectual Ted Carpenter wrote a piece deriding the idea that the military needs more money. Given the timing, it was a bold article. It was not printed in major newspapers. "Rhetoric against the federal government is going to be difficult for a while," says David Boaz of the Cato Institute. "It'll be harder to rail against the bureaucrats in Washington. I'm pessimistic."


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