Why it is a terrible time to be a Republican

It's a good time to be a Republican, MinnPost's Steve Berg asserted on Friday. Sure, he allows, the economy's in the toilet and George W. Bush's approval ratings are below 20 in some polls. Indeed, conventional wisdom holds that the Democratic candidate will win in November.

"So why all the smiles," Berg asks rhetorically, "on the Republican side?"

This is a wonderful place to start a piece if the writer is prepared to produce any evidence that there are, in fact, smiles on the Republican side. Of course, Berg is not so prepared. And as a new piece from the center-right Washington Post makes clear, that's because most Republicans think they're on a stomach-churning doom ride.

Don't take my word for it. Ask one of the Republican legislators who have said that the "thought of [McCain] being president sends a cold chill" down their spines. Or just check out a few of the quotes from the story:

"It's no mystery," said Rep. Thomas M. Davis III (R-Va.). "You have a very unhappy electorate, which is no surprise, with oil at $108 a barrel, stocks down a few thousand points, a war in Iraq with no end in sight and a president who is still very, very unpopular. He's just killed the Republican brand."

Note that this man is not even smiling in his campaign photo. Keep on not smiling, Rep. Davis! The nonpartisan types are with you:

Stuart Rothenberg, a nonpartisan analyst of congressional politics, said: "The math is against [Republicans]. The environment is against them. The money is against them. This is one of those cycles that if you're a Republican strategist, you just want to go into the bomb shelter."

Let's recap what's been happening to the GOP in recent weeks. The party has:

* Lost former House speaker Dennis Hastert's seat in a special election, despite the Republican National Campaign Committee's pumping $1.2 million into the race (in a district once thought a GOP stronghold);

* Discovered that the former RNCC treasurer may have embezzled as much as $1 million from the group's campaign war chest;

* Seen approval ratings for their party's standard-bearer sink to 19 percent. Among registered voters, that number is a staggering 18 percent, among the lowest levels in U.S. history;

* Failed to field a candidate to oppose a Democratic senator in swing state Arkansas;

* Saw potential Republican candidates evaporate in New Jersey and South Dakota as well.

This is all horrifying news for Republicans -- and that's without considering that the GOP presidential candidate wants to ramp up a dreadfully unpopular war and go against the country's wishes on critical issues like reproductive rights and health care. Or that he's chosen to hitch his wagon in the public eye to a guy (Bush) that most Americans dislike and mistrust.

But none of that probably matters, writes Berg, because Barack Obama is a black guy, and Hillary Clinton is a woman, and they're campaigning against each other, and sometimes that campaigning involves discussing race and gender. Also, he notes, one poll shows that -- eight months before the election -- a to-be-determined Dem may be running behind an already-chosen GOP candidate in Pennsylvania. Pennsylvania!

Yes, the preceding paragraph really sums up the support for Berg's argument. Maybe he's just frustrated by the candidates bickering. But that's no justification for a story with no "there" there.

Maybe, argues Berg, "the more people get to know the Democratic candidates the less they like them," even though that is nearly certain to be false for both candidates. Hillary Clinton has been a national figure for two decades, and for better or for worse, people know how they feel about her. Also, it is positively dumbfounding that one could make that charge about Obama, given that his campaign has taken precisely the opposite trajectory Berg suggests.

As for McCain, his biggest problem doesn't show up in the polls. It's that the hard-right Republican base so critical to beating John Kerry likely won't turn out for him.

His biggest asset? That McCain's own base -- the media -- will treat the longtime Arizona senator with kid gloves not extended to his eventual opponent.

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